The magical cure for altitude sickness

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes

Catching my breath in South America

My head was spinning, but I felt like I was slowly overcoming this small feat. I grabbed the railing for balance as I huffed and wheezed my way higher and higher. With my slow pace and labored breathing, one would have thought that I was attempting to summit Everest. In reality, I was simply climbing up the stairs of my hotel.

In most other countries, this would have been an easy feat, but in La Paz, Bolivia—the highest capital in the world—the reduced oxygen at the high altitude had me gasping for air.

South America is filthy rich in unique scenery and mind-blowing landscapes. From the dense Amazon jungle to the tops of the Andes mountains, the continent has a little eye candy for everyone. In my travels throughout Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador, I encountered diverse topography that both filled me with wonder and—quite literally—took my breath away. 

Being at such a high elevation, many travelers to South America encounter altitude sickness at one point or another. So whether scaling the ruins of Machu Picchu or simply climbing the stairs in your hotel, you could likely start feeling light-headed and out of breath.

Machu Picchu, Cusco – Machu Picchu
Image courtesy of Tourism Media


Symptoms typically occur upon arrival, as the body adjusts to the sudden shift in elevation. One feels the same effects as a hangover—dizziness, headaches, nausea, fatigue, and labored breathing. Luckily, there are natural and traditional remedies to help one rise above altitude sickness.

The first step is prevention. There are ways to better prepare your body for the shock of high elevation. Be sure to stay as hydrated as possible as it will help alleviate the symptoms. And as hard as it may be, shy away from any alcohol consumption for the first few days that you’re on the continent. There’s nothing worse than actually being hungover while suffering from the intense effects of altitude sickness.

Viewfinder Tip: If you prefer to chew the coca leaves, be warned that you might experience a small numbing sensation in your gums.

In terms of combating the malady, you know what they say: Do as the locals do. And in South America, the locals suggest drinking coca tea to alleviate any evidence of altitude sickness. Some of you might be asking, “Isn’t cocaine made from coca leaves?” And you would be correct. However, these leaves have been revered by indigenous Andean communities for centuries. The coca leaf acts as a mild stimulant and when chewed or imbibed in a tea, it can alleviate a number of maladies from stomachaches and altitude sickness to lethargy and hunger pangs. 

Coca tea (locally known as “mate de coca”) can be found in a number of restaurants, hotels, and local markets. It has an earthy taste and goes down smooth with a small helping of sugar. Simply buy a box of coca tea bags or a packet of dried tea leaves, let them soak in a cup of hot water, and enjoy! 

What are your go-to remedies while traveling?


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Captain And Clark

Chris Staudinger and Tawny Clark (also known as "Captain and Clark") have spent the majority of their relationship exploring this great big world. After meeting on Kilimanjaro, courting in South Korea, getting engaged at the Taj Mahal, and sealing the deal in the Cascade Mountains, the two decided it was time to add another explorer to the mix. Traveling the world with kiddo-in-tow might alter the way they navigate the globe, but they welcome the challenge with open suitcases.

Chris and Tawny have had articles and videos published on USA TODAY TRAVEL, BBC Travel, Matador Network, as well as appeared as guest stars on TLC Asia's Fun Taiwan television series. When not on the road, you can find Chris and Tawny nestled in their home in Tacoma, Washington fueling up on coffee and cat cuddles while planning their future adventures. You can follow their travels on their blog, Instagram, and YouTube

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