Ecuador boasts some of the tallest mountains in the world and its capital city Quito sits at an elevation of a little over 9,000 feet, which is mighty high for those accustomed to living at lower altitudes. This means that if you’re flying in to Quito from sea level, you’ll be ascending a distance of almost two miles within just a few hours, which will take its toll on your body. Altitude sickness can afflict anyone regardless of age, health or fitness level so don’t be surprised if you start to feel any of the following symptoms when you arrive (even if you’ve never experienced altitude sickness before):
- Loss of appetite
- Nausea or vomiting
- Shortness of breath
- Nose bleeds
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
The symptoms should subside after two to three days but here are
some tips for how to avoid or alleviate altitude sickness in Quito:
Get lots of rest and avoid intensive exercise
If you’re flying straight into Quito, keep your excitement at bay and don’t plan anything too ambitious or strenuous for your first few days. Due to the lack of oxygen up high, you’re likely to feel abnormally tired and short of breath. While the idea of trekking up Chimborazo or one of Quito’s other hiking hot spots might seem like a good idea in theory, give your body several days to acclimatize first. We suggest you avoid any form of exercise, even a bike ride. You’ll find that walking down the street will even take it out of you.
Hydrate hydrate hydrate
Dehydration makes altitude sickness a whole lot worse so drink plenty of water and other liquids at all times, starting in the days leading up to your departure date. Caffeine fiends should also cut down on their coffee intake. If you do feel dehydrated, energy drinks are a quick way of rehydrating and pumping your body full of glucose and minerals.
Steer clear of alcohol for a few days
While you’re going to be eager to check out Quito’s colorful nightlife and lively craft beer scene as soon as you arrive, resist the temptation for the first few days as alcohol is dehydrating and will make you feel even more dizzy and sick, not to mention the terrible hangovers you will experience.
Eat leafy greens and light meals loaded with carbs
Be kind to your digestive system and avoid heavy, greasy food that might upset your stomach. Instead, stick to light meals, soups and lots of leafy greens that contain high levels of salicylic acid, which is anti-inflammatory and can help thin the blood. Eating lots of carbohydrates can also help to prevent altitude sickness as they generate glycolysis when digested, which releases energy at a faster rate, giving you a much-needed energy boost.
Stock up on over-the-counter medication
Taking Ibuprofen, aspirin, or paracetamol will help with headaches and any other aches and pains. If you feel nauseous, take an anti-sickness medication such as promethazine. For more severe cases, you might want to take DIAMOX or another altitude sickness drug. You can buy it in local pharmacies in Quito or get it from your doctor at home and start taking it a couple of days prior to your arrival in Ecuador.
Chew on coca leaves
Ask any Andean local and they’ll swear by coca leaves as the best remedy for altitude sickness, either chewed or drunk in tea. You can buy bags of coca leaves in any market and you’ll find the teabags in any local supermarket. Unfortunately, they don’t taste great but they’re high in glucose and effective in alleviating symptoms of altitude sickness, making you feel less tired and more alert.
Slap on the sunblock
Don’t be fooled by the cooler air at high altitude. You’re more likely to get sunburnt at high altitude than anywhere else due to the reduction in water vapor, which makes the sky clearer and the sun’s rays stronger. Be sure to lather on the sun cream (at least SPF 15) as sunburn can also lead to dehydration and feelings of altitude sickness.
If your symptoms get worse, see a doctor
If, after several days, your symptoms persist and you’re experiencing chronic headaches or respiratory problems, go and see a local doctor.
If you have any other advice for dealing with altitude sickness, share them with us in the comments below.