This is the story of when I got altitude sickness (and salmonella) in Salar de Uyuni – at one of the most amazing places on earth.
I don’t mean to scare anyone with my story, but I feel like it’s important to share my experience of altitude sickness with those of you who is thinking about visiting Uyuni in Bolivia. Also, I didn’t have the severe case of altitude sickness – so it’s not like I was anything close to dying, I was just really sick.
On some level it’s also a rather funny story since I had a pretty hilarious visit to the hospital in Sucre.
Apart from sharing my story, I will also give some important need-to-know information about altitude sickness, so that you are better prepared for your own trip to Bolivia or wherever high you are going.
So let’s get started on the blog post!
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What is altitude sickness?
Before I tell you my story, let’s first talk about what altitude sickness really is.
Altitude sickness, or mountain sickness, can emerge at altitudes higher than 2500 meters (8000 feet) above sea level. It comes from a lower oxygen pressure at high elevations, which can cause physical distress in some people.
Most people only experience a mild case of altitude sickness, some doesn’t experience anything at all, and a small group get severe symptoms that are life-threatening if not treated.
So how do you know if you’re prone to altitude sickness? You simply don’t. You have to go up in high elevations to understand how your body will react.
Altitude Sickness Symptoms
So the higher you get, the less oxygen is left in the air. And this can cause negative health effects on the body such as headaches, tiredness, shortness of breath, vomiting and rapid heart rate.
Your body is working extra hard on obtaining oxygen and acclimatizing to the new height, and that’s why these unpleasant symptoms can occur.
Most often, the symptoms aren’t dangerous and disappear once you’ve acclimatized. However, altitude sickness can be really dangerous. So if your symptoms only get worse, then it’s time to see a doctor.
How to prevent altitude sickness naturally
The BEST way to prevent altitude sickness naturally is to slowly ascent in altitude. That way your body has the time to acclimatize to the height. If the elevation gain instead is too big and too rapid, then there is a chance that you’ll get altitude sickness.
However, gaining altitude slowly isn’t always possible when you’re traveling.
So if you go into higher elevations very quickly, the best thing you can do is to rest and give your body time to acclimatize. With other words – this is not the time to go for a run!
Make sure you drink plenty of fluids and try to just relax in your body. There is also medication you can take to help you cope with the altitudes. Talk with your own doctor about this to know more.
All right, now that we’ve briefly covered what altitude sickness is, let me tell you my story from Uyuni.
My altitude sickness story in Uyuni
In this section of the blog post, I will tell you everything about my experience with altitude sickness in Bolivia while visiting Salar de Uyuni.
Hopefully, you can learn from my story in case you get altitude sickness or simply just to prepare yourself so you can have the best trip possible to Bolivia!
1. San Pedro de Atacama (2400m) to Uyuni (3600m)
The reason we were heading to Bolivia in the first place, was to see the world’s largest salt flats, which we can totally recommend!
- Related blog post: How to visit Salar de Uyuni
So we took the bus from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile to Uyuni in Bolivia.
San Pedro lies at 2400 meters height and Uyuni at 3600 meters height. That is a 1200 meters altitude difference, which we would travel in just one day. Thus, we would enter the zone (above 2500 meters/8000 feet) where there is a higher chance of altitude sickness.
For those of you who wish to do this route, the bus leaves from San Pedro de Atacama bus station, it has one stop in Calama, and then goes straight to Uyuni. It’s a very special route, where you drive through the desert next to nothing but volcanoes!
We bought our ticket directly from the San Pedro de Atacama bus station, but if you’re in Calama, then you can also buy tickets to Uyuni from here. We used the company Cruz del Norte and I honestly don’t know if it was better or worse than the other companies. The bus was okay and the journey went smooth.
We arrived very late on our first day in Bolivia. So we went straight to bed in the cheapest, yet most decent, hotel we could find. We had booked 3 nights in Uyuni on Booking.com.
I didn’t sleep very well that first night, in fact I wasn’t feeling too well. But maybe that was just from sitting in a bus all day?
2. The altitude sickness symptoms began
The next day I woke up with a racing heart, a bad stomach and a light headache. I knew the altitude sickness was starting to kick in, so I drank loads of water to keep myself hydrated.
I even tried some Coca Leaf tea, which is tea made from the same leaves as cocaine. The locals swear to its effect on altitude sickness. I honestly don’t know if I felt any different from drinking the tea, so I can’t confirm nor deny whether it helps.
During that first day, my symptoms started to worsen. My headache became more intense, my heart kept racing, I had a shortness of breath, and diarrhea. Yes I know, traveling can be very glamorous! I will spare you no details… Sorry.
I didn’t sleep that night either. Even at resting pulse my heart was racing, and I was overall feeling very dizzy. That sleepless night is when the anxiety kicked in.
Was I was going to die?
What if I had gotten water in my lungs or worse even my brain? (Worst symptoms from altitude sickness)
You can die of altitude sickness!
I think I’ll take my pulse again.
Oh no, it’s still racing!!!!!
Should I wake Glenn?
No, I’ll try to sleep again.
But what if I never wake up?
I know… My thoughts were absolutely ridiculous. The worst thing you can do in this situation is to lose your yourself. So just try to relax, because your body needs the rest.
I’m such an anxious person and I often imagine the worst. Don’t get me wrong, I’m also a very positive person at heart, but I’m just super afraid to die. So when I feel bad physically, I often overreact.
3. My symptoms didn’t disappear
During the next couple of days, my symptoms (and anxiety) got worse. My heart was still racing, I was dizzy, I had shortness of breath, I was tired, I had diarrhea and I couldn’t eat anything.
What! Couldn’t eat?! Now that’s new. I’m a big foodie, so if I don’t eat, something is wrong.
Since my symptoms didn’t get any better, I knew it was time to do something about it. The best thing you can do to help your altitude sickness to pass is to go to a lower altitude where there is more oxygen in the air.
We went to the bus station and bought a night bus to Sucre, which lies at 2800 meters. So I would go down 800 meters in altitude. Then I called my travel insurance and they booked me into a hospital in Sucre for the following day and had me talk to a Danish doctor online (my own language). Best travel tip in the world – always get travel insurance!
Now in order to get down to Sucre, we had to go up to 4000 meters altitude through Potosi first. This scared me. I had to go to a higher elevation than Uyuni, and I already suffered from altitude sickness. We went to a pharmacy and bought some air on a can.
No, I’m not joking, I bought air in a can.
In the pharmacies in Bolivia, you can buy air in a can. Which means you basically pay €15 for a can of absolutely nothing.
It was so ridiculous, but it gave me some sort of safety feeling that I needed at this moment. I also don’t know if it really helped me breathe better or not, but it definitely relieved my anxiety knowing I could just have a fresh shot of air at 4000 meters altitude in the bus.
So we packed our bags and got ready to leave Uyuni. I was honestly feeling so weak that my lungs hurt when I was wearing the weight of my backpack and had to breathe at the same time. Scary.
4. Visiting the hospital in Sucre
Arriving in Sucre, I already started to feel better. It was like I could almost breathe normally again. But maybe it was just the anxiety lifting?
Anyways, we went to the hospital and the doctor ran some tests. He listened to my lungs, took my fever and asked me questions about my health. I didn’t really understand much of what was happening since the doctor spoke half English, and I spoke less than half Spanish. He was very friendly though.
Then he send me to a lady who took a very big blood sample from me. And then she asked me to drop my pants.
She was standing with a big syringe in her hand. Apparently I was having a shot of something in my butt cheek. And to this day, I still have no clue what that woman injected in me.
Then she handed me two small cups (what looking like dressing cups you would get to a take-away salad) and sent me to the bathroom.
I just looked confused at the cups in my hands. Was I supposed to give a stool and urine sample? How is that possible when I didn’t eat for days? You can’t force nature like that.
So Glenn and I went to a restaurant. I ate and drank as much as I could, then we went back to the hospital and I got the job done! It was my first time ever to do it in a cup and I saw it as the victory of the day.
5. Surprising results from the hospital
Later that day, I returned to get my results from the doctor.
He looked thoroughly at the file, prescribed me some Acetazolamide (Diamox) for the altitude sickness, and told me that I shouldn’t go back to Uyuni or other higher altitudes in Bolivia anytime soon.
Then he gave me antibiotics – for my salmonella.
My what? Did he just tell me that I had salmonella?!
Well that was unexpected. Or was it? I did have some very bad stomach for the last couple of days.
So while I was battling with the high altitude, my immune system was fighting salmonella. The salmonella could explain my bad stomach, my dizziness, and why I couldn’t eat anything.
I’m still wondering whether my body couldn’t acclimatize to the altitude because it was fighting a bacteria. Could it be possible that it had worsened my altitude sickness?
There is only one way to find out, and that is to go back to a high altitudes again some day (without salmonella in my system of course).
6. Visiting lower altitude cities in Bolivia
We were supposed to travel the following road: Uyuni – La Paz – Lake Titicaca and into Cusco in Peru to see Machu Picchu. Now, the problem with all these places were that their altitudes were as high or higher than Uyuni.
One thing was sure, I wasn’t going back to the same altitude as Salar de Uyuni for another round of altitude sickness, so we had to look for other places to travel in Bolivia.
This meant, we dropped all of our plans about Peru and explored Bolivia instead. We went from Sucre to Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Samaipata, and Cochabamba. I even wrote blog posts about Sucre and Cochabamba, so make sure to check them out before your trip to Bolivia:
Anyways, there are plenty of places to explore in Bolivia that doesn’t have dangerously high altitudes.
My final comments about altitude sickness in Uyuni
The last thing I want to do is to make you scared about traveling to high altitudes! Just because Bolivia is known for high altitudes and there is a possibility of getting altitude sickness, doesn’t mean that Salar de Uyuni is off the bucket list!
Nobody actually knows if they suffer from altitude sickness before they’re at high altitudes. For example, Glenn never had any problems!
The best thing you can do is to listen to your body, drink plenty of fluids, and give yourself time to rest. The worst thing you can do is to not sleep, not eat, and let anxiety win!
So basically, just don’t do like me and you’ll probably be okay. If you feel nervous about it, then I suggest that you have a talk with a doctor before your trip – and remember to get travel insurance!
Anyways, I’m definitely going back up to those high altitudes because there are just too many high places on earth that I have yet to explore. Now I’m just an experience richer.
Thanks for reading my story! Did you ever experience altitude sickness in Salar de Uyuni or anywhere else besides Bolivia? Feel free to share your story or any questions you might have in the comments.