Tips to Avoid Altitude Sickness: Not the Same Old Advice
Recently I crossed something big off my must-see-before-I-die list: Machu Picchu. I took a day-trip to the stunning UNESCO World Heritage Site during my volunteer vacation to Cuzco, Peru. Machu Picchu is situated 8,000 feet above sea level and Cuzco, where I spent the majority of my time, was at 10,800 feet.
Leading up to the trip, every single pamphlet, website, and guidebook I read discussed how to avoid altitude sickness and I must confess, I skimmed it. It didn’t feel like there were any good options. For instance, the side effects of the prescription medicine for altitude sickness are often worse than the actual symptoms of it. One woman on my trip who was taking it kept saying, “My nose is tingling! I can’t feel my fingertips!” Uh…no thanks.
Plus, I was probably a little overconfident on this front. You see, I’m an avid downhill skier and thus no stranger to exerting myself at high altitudes. But the highest peaks I have skiied were at 8,000 feet and even then, I slept down the mountain at a much more reasonable 6,000 feet.
How big of a difference could 2,000 feet make? A lot.
On the first day of our volunteer vacation, we were supposed to rest to guard against altitude sickness. But the center needed some heavy granite stones moved. They said no one had to participate in the project, but we all blew off their warnings. “We’re here to work,” we told each other.
By day two, headaches had set in and people on our trip were dropping like flies. Though I didn’t feel 100% great, I never got full-blown altitude sickness. But my sister and my husband were another story. They began to vomit and were soon too weak to walk. I assigned myself the task of nursing them back to health–but how?
We had been drinking a lot of water and it hadn’t helped much, and it was too late to get my hands on the prescription medicine. The locals prescribed coca tea, but we found that it wasn’t helping very much. (Well, my sister never even tried it. She hates tea.) The director of the program offered to try another local cure for upset stomachs, which she simply called “ruta.” Ruta, or rue in English, is a fragrant herb that is burned (kind of like incense) to calm nausea.
While my patients thought the ruta smelled very nice (“It’s like a spa in here!”), I’m afraid it didn’t do much to stop the nausea long term. At this point, they had both been vomiting non-stop for two days and I was worried about dehydration so, in desperation, I went to the local corner store and stocked up on Powerade.
Lo and behold, Powerade is the miracle cure for altitude sickness. After just one bottle of the stuff, my little patients began to perk up. I was feeling a little woozy myself so I decided to try a bottle too. Almost instantly I felt better. It took less than a day for this tip to spread to our whole group and soon we were all drinking Powerade like it was nobody’s business. (Thank god a recycling program was in place.)
I think part of the reason it worked is that we needed to force liquids at that altitude and like many people, we could stand to drink only so much water in a day. Plus, it contained carbs, which are supposed to help you acclimatize. All I know is that it was a magical elixir and the only thing that worked. Before long, our whole group was as good as new. The headaches were gone. No one was vomiting and everyone felt strong enough to get back to volunteering.
Strange problem, strange cure! I hope this information helps you down the road someday. Or should I say up the road….
My name: Alison Presley
Nickname: Presbo, because I'm good police.
How I earn my keep: I'm the manager of Travelocity's Travel for Good program. Visit Travel for Good to learn more about our green travel and voluntourism initiatives!
What kind of traveler am I: I'm an intrepid food explorer. I usually starve myself on the plane (not that that's too hard to do) so that the moment my toes touch foreign soil I'm ready to sample new and exciting cuisine. I like to dine everywhere from hole-in-the-wall local secrets to Michelin Guide gems. Cannelés, poi, boiled peanuts, oxtail soup, poutine--there's no stopping this adventurous palate.
Greatest travel lesson I've learned: It doesn't cost a lot of money to do good. Offsetting your carbon impact only adds a few bucks to your trip, green hotels are very affordable, and volunteering locally during your vacation is a great way to give back and learn about the culture.