How to Prepare for High Altitude in South America

Last updated on: Apr 27, 2020

(Last Updated On: April 27, 2020)

A trip to the Andean region of South America is definitely adventurous and full of epic beauty.  When taking scenic road trips, hiking picturesque mountains, or climbing ancient ruins in South America, there are some precautions you should take as you prepare for high altitude.

Machu Picchu - How to Prepare for High Altitude in South America
Machu Picchu (at 2,430 meters or 7,972 feet)

1. Structure your itinerary to gradually gain in elevation.

Altitude sickness is common for travelers to the Andean region of South America. It is caused by a drop in barometric pressure, which results in less oxygen in the air, often causing headaches, vomiting, and dizziness.

If you’re coming from a low-altitude country, you should start your trip in an area that has less altitude first and gradually gain altitude. This depends on how high you plan to go.

For example, I began a recent trip to South America in Santiago, Chile, which sits at 500 meters (1,600 feet) above sea level. The next location was San Pedro de Atacama, which sits at 2,400 meters (7,900 feet) above sea level.

After crossing from San Pedro de Atacama to Uyuni, Bolivia, I reached heights of 3,650 meters (12,000 feet) above sea level, and when I proceeded via road to similar elevations in Puno and Cusco, Peru, I was already acclimatized.

The gradual approach to gaining in elevation was helpful to avoiding altitude sickness.

Uyuni Salt Flats - How to Prepare for High Altitude in South America
Exploring the Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia

2. Try coca products to avoid altitude sickness.

Throughout my trip, I ate and drank foods with coca leaves in them. Coca tea or mate de coca, is a tea made from using raw or dried leaves of the coca plant. It’s the same plant that was originally used in Coca-Cola and is a strong stimulant that fights hunger and fatigue.

Although it contains the same alkaloid that is heavily refined to manufacture cocaine, the coca alkaloid in coca tea is negligible and can be removed in the same manner as removing caffeine from coffee.

Coca tea became my drink of choice every day, and I also loved the coca candies, which are made with coca extract and have a toffee texture and taste.

3. Take prescription medications.

While these can cause dryness, it’s good to have ibuprofen or a prescription medication for altitude sickness, just in case, as well as allergy or antihistamine medication. I brought prescription medication with me on my recent trip to South America. However, I only took one pill on my last night in Santiago.

4. Fight dryness.

While I didn’t have issues with altitude sickness, I had major issues with dryness!

So, be mindful of your skin, and be sure to bring along these items:

  • Saline spray – At high altitudes, your nasal cavity will likely dry out and using lots of tissues can make it worse. Saline spray can reduce the congestion while adding moisture.
  • Pocket facial tissues with aloe or lotion – This helps with dryness around the nose and can also be used for going to the bathroom in nature.
  • Thick moisturizer – Thin lotion just won’t do! It may sound old school, but Vaseline is multipurpose and can help moisturize hands, lips, you name it! Other great options are shea butter, borage oil, and coconut oil.
  • Sunscreen – At 10,000+ feet, you are much closer to the sun, so you should wear sunscreen like my personal favorite, Sun Bum facial sunscreen. You should try their lip balm with SPF, too.
  • Moisturizing soap or body wash – This will lessen the amount of moisture that gets stripped from your skin when showering. Apply lotion to damp skin, and for hair, use a conditioning shampoo.

Have you had to prepare for high altitude trips? What are your tips?

Author Profile

Taryn White
With 75+ countries and all 50 U.S. states crossed off her list, Taryn's wanderlust and wanderlist continue to grow! She loves historic places, off-the-beaten paths, and beautiful beaches. Follow her pursuits on Instagram and www.tripwishlist.com.

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