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Altitude in Bolivia and Northern Chile

Travel Forums Central/South America & The Caribbean Altitude in Bolivia and Northern Chile

1. Posted by bex76 (Moderator 3860 posts) 8y Star this if you like it!

I'm thinking of doing a tour which takes in Northern Chile and Bolivia and I'm a little concerned about the altitude. Among other places, I'd be visiting San Pedro de Atacama which is is around 8,000 ft above sea level and La Paz which is around 12,000 feet. I remember when I was in the Cameron highlands in Malaysia I felt quite light- headed because of the altitude, but that's only 5000ft! How long does it take to get acclimatised at these high altitudes? What's the liklihood that I'm going to feel unwell?

Any advice or personal experiences would be great - thanks!

[ Edit: Edited on 10-Jul-2009, at 16:05 by bex76 ]

2. Posted by joffre (Respected Member 157 posts) 8y Star this if you like it!

Cameron Highlands... wow! And I thought I was sensitive to altitude! I usually start to notice it from 2800m... ideally, I like to travel gradually from lower to higher altitudes over a 4-5 day period to acclimatise. And I always carry altitude sickness tablets, they seem to work wonders for me...

3. Posted by Sander (Moderator 5088 posts) 8y Star this if you like it!

The rule of thumb is to acclimatize (avoiding strenuous activity) for three days at 2000-2500 meters (6500-8000 feet), and then go up in steps of ideally no more than 1000 meters (3300 feet), spending a night each per step before exerting yourself at that altitude. Since you already felt lightheaded at 1500 meters, you're probably pretty susceptible to altitude sickness, so I wouldn't try to stretch that in any way (lightheadedness itself is no problem, but it's a sign that you shouldn't push on), and just lounge about at that 2000 meter level for a while. (In Peru, people sometimes go straight up to Cuzco (3300 meters, 11,000 feet), acclimatize there for three days (not doing anything at all), and then push on, but I wouldn't risk something like that.)

My personal experience is that I really needed those three days of acclimatization at 2500 meters. When I ignored that and instead pushed on with a daytrip which went up to 5000 meters (16,500 feet) before going straight down to 3000 meters an hour or two later, I suffered horrible headaches for 36 hours afterward. I was fine with going back over that altitude three days later, and no no problem at all with going from that 2500 meters to 4000 meters a few days later.
Once I was acclimatized, I moved up and down between 3000 and 4500 meters pretty freely without any problems, and only got problems again above 4500 meters after spending 5 nights at 2000 meters.

If you're looking for a good base at that 2000-2500 meter altitude in that region, I can highly recommend Arequipa in southern Peru. It's a wonderful city, where you can very easily lounge about for such a time, wasting your time ambling around the Santa Catalina monastery, and dining lasciviously in some of the really awesome restaurants they have there. (I can give recommendations.) Plus it has an airport to help get you to wherever your tour would start.

[ Edit: Edited on 10-Jul-2009, at 17:00 by Sander ]

4. Posted by Utrecht (Moderator 5635 posts) 8y Star this if you like it!

Well, little to add to Sander's post, apart from the fact that if you go to Northern Chile and Bolivia there are less possibilities of acclimatizing in between. From San Pedro de Atacama you can do daytrips, otherwise you will be heading directly into Bolivia if you take a multiple daytour and I don't know exactly how high you are going to spend your first night, but I wouldn't be suprised if it was close to 4000 meters or even more.
I did it in stages approaching from Salta in Northern Argentina which pas perfect. From there I travelled to Tupiza in southern Bolivia which is already at 3000 meters or so, which is not too high either but certainly not too low. This may sounds contradictive, but my first night after Tupiza during a 4 day tour was at 4200 meters and the second night even a little higher!
So maybe it's a good idea to start either in Arequipa or in Salta and gradually make your way up.

5. Posted by samsara_ (Travel Guru 5353 posts) 8y Star this if you like it!

Hi Bex,

First of all, where are you flying into? What route are you taking to take in La Paz and San Pedro. And also what timeframe are you looking at?


6. Posted by bex76 (Moderator 3860 posts) 8y Star this if you like it!

Quoting samsara2

Hi Bex,

First of all, where are you flying into? What route are you taking to take in La Paz and San Pedro. And also what timeframe are you looking at?


Hi Ev

The route is BA- Salta -San Pedro -Atacama desert/ Uyuni -Potosi - La Paz over 12 days. It's this tour: I will have done 2 weeks in Argentina with my boyfriend beforehand but he's flying back after that from BA so I'm planning to stay on for another 2-3 weeks on my own.

Thank you everyone for your detailed replies. Perhaps I'd actually feel better doing it on my own as then I could acclimatize at my own pace rather than being herded along. I'm normally against doing tours but as I'm alone and don't speak any Spanish I thought it might better.

7. Posted by samsara_ (Travel Guru 5353 posts) 8y Star this if you like it!

Hey Bex,

Well the route you're going is good because BA is at sea level and you'll be climbing slowly atitude-wise over the 12 days finishing in La Paz which is the highest. I think people find altitude affects them the worst when they fly in somewhere that's at a much greater altitude than the place they left.

Luckily, I haven't been badly affected by altitude, apart from the usual minor symptoms like shortness of breath, a little lightheadedness initially, but I put that down to the fact that I've always gained altitude at more or less a steady pace. So, I think that's the key.

Given the route you are taking and the fact you are going overland, I think you should be fine. Once you cross the border into Bolivia, I highly recommend chewing cocoa leaves or drink lots of cocoa tea. It is definitely a big help. Also, the trick to beating "soroche" is keeping your blood sugar high and your breathing even.

It is said that smokers generally feel the effects of soroche less as they are accustomed to having less oxygen in their blood anyway, but I can't say for sure if that's actually the case or not.

Anyway, best of luck. :) Oh, I'd love to be going back there! You'll have such a great time ;)

8. Posted by Ofelia (Respected Member 142 posts) 8y Star this if you like it!


I know you've had pretty much all the answers already, but I've heard that, apparently, altitude sickness gets easier to bear as you get older! This was told by a friend's boyfriend who's a doctor, so I can't guarantee it's true, but I certainly have coped better with age First time in Bolivia I went through Salta, Argentina, slowly getting used to the altitude, and felt quite dizzy and headachy for days. Four years later I flew straight into La Paz, a bit worried, but I felt fine- actually, much better than first time, so go figure

Just as a thought, it might make sense to check your insurance beforehand to see if they will cover the expense of an extra flight to a lower region, in case you do need to descend quickly.