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At 11,942 feet (3,640 meters) above sea level, La Paz’ extreme altitude affects almost all visitors to some extent. The air is much thinner at high altitude, so the body absorbs less oxygen which leads to symptoms such as breathlessness, nausea, headaches, fatigue, a lack of appetite, and insomnia. These symptoms tend to dissipate within a few days for most people. However, in rare cases, and when left untreated, altitude sickness can be deadly. Thankfully, there are some guidelines we can follow to mitigate the effects of sorache (altitude sickness).
If possible, try to plan your trip so that you ascend slowly. Those who have flown into La Paz from sea level tend to suffer the most. It really is much easier on the body to schedule in various stops at lower altitudes along the way. Sucre (9,214 feet/2,810 meters) or Cochabamba (8,392 feet/2,558 meters) are great places to acclimatize before making your way up to the dizzying heights of La Paz. For those who are particularly prone to altitude sickness, it’s worth considering staying in a hotel in La Paz’ upper-class Zona Sur (South Zone), which is approximately 985 feet (300 meters) lower than the city center.
Take it easy for the first couple of days. The fastest way to fall ill from sorache is to overexert yourself, so don’t try to squeeze in too much physical activity upon arrival. Instead, consider taking a taxi to the top of those steep hills, or going for a ride on the city’s famous teleférico (cable car).
Lay off the booze. Okay, so La Paz does have a reputation for having some of the best nightlife in the world. However, that doesn’t mean you should hit up the bars on your first night in town. Excessive consumption of alcohol is one of the worst things you can do to your body while you are still acclimatizing. Give the discoteca a miss until you start feeling yourself again.
Do as the locals do and chew coca leaves or drink coca tea. The coca plant is an age-old remedy for altitude sickness which dates back well before Spanish colonization. Most visitors don’t like the taste of chewing the leaf, so it’s worth trying a piping hot cup of coca tea instead. Almost all hotels catering to foreigners will have coca tea readily available, and it can also be found in most restaurants, cafés and supermarkets throughout the city.
Consider taking Diamox to alleviate symptoms. This prescription medicine has a good reputation for its effectiveness, but be sure to consult your doctor first as it may not be suitable in your situation. Diamox treatment generally begins 24 hours before arriving at high altitude and is particularly useful for those who are flying in from sea level. Locally sold sorache pills are just a mixture of caffeine and Tylenol and are generally considered ineffective.
Altitude sickness affects everyone differently. A world class marathon runner could fall ill while their 70-year-old overweight father might barely notice a thing. Come prepared but not afraid. If you have followed the above advice and continue to feel seriously ill after a day or so, it’s probably a good idea to descend to a lower altitude as soon as possible. For serious cases, seek medical advice from a doctor on the U.S. Embassy’s list of approved practitioners.