Important disclaimer: This article is non-scientific, always advise your doctor or physician before making medically-based decisions, including traveling to Bolivia, the Salt Flats and other destinations at altitude.
If you have a pre-existing health condition, or have previously had an adverse reaction to being at altitude, you should consult with your doctor before traveling to Bolivia and Uyuni.
- 1 How High is Uyuni? What is the Elevation of Uyuni?
- 2 What is Altitude Sickness? Identifying Altitude Sickness
- 3 Who is at Risk for Altitude Sickness
- 4 How to Prepare for Altitude Sickness Before Your Trip and How to Avoid Altitude Sickness
- 5 Where to Acclimate for a Trip to Bolivia?
- 6 Should I take Diamox or Other Medication?
- 7 How to Combat Altitude Sickness and Remedies on the Ground
- 8 How Long Does Altitude Sickness Last?
- 9 When to Seek Treatment for Altitude Sickness
- 10 Altitude Sickness Treatment Options–Hospitals and Health Clinics in Uyuni
How High is Uyuni? What is the Elevation of Uyuni?
The town of Uyuni itself is located at an elevation of 3700 meters above sea level (12,139 feet). The salt flats are at a similar altitude, 3656 meters above sea level (11,995 feet).
Make no mistake: this is a very high altitude.
Typical Salar de Uyuni tours reach even higher altitudes, reaching in excess of 5000 meters (16,000 feet) above sea level. That can be 50% of the air in a pressurized airplane cabin!
Tours that go to the Tunupa volcano or that climb other mountains in Southwestern Bolivia on the Uyuni tour circuit can go even higher.
What is Altitude Sickness? Identifying Altitude Sickness
Altitude sickness is a blanket term to represent a series of medical problems that can affect people traveling to places of high or extreme altitude. It is exacerbated when quickly ascending to high elevations.
Soroche, the equivalent in Spanish, is also a blanket term that doesn’t refer to a specific ailment, but rather to a collection of symptoms.
Altitude sickness can manifest in a wide variety of ways–some liken light to moderate altitude sickness as roughly equivalent to being hungover, while more serious cases bring symptoms of nausea and vomiting, migraines, dizziness and severe shortness of breath.
Other symptoms such as loss of appetite or difficulties sleeping can also accompany altitude sickness.
One thing to note, as cited in this article from the Cleveland Clinic is that altitude sickness symptoms can sometimes take some time to manifest–usually within 12 to 24 hours.
That means even if you’re fresh off of the plane in La Paz or Uyuni and feel great zipping around the city–that still doesn’t mean you’ve cleared the hurdle and can safely assume that the effects of altitude sickness have passed.
Who is at Risk for Altitude Sickness
Everybody is realistically at some risk of experiencing altitude sickness–there are definitive indicators of those who may be affected, nor is there a certain threshold of “healthiness” that one can have that would exempt them from potential altitude sickness.
- Even those who are very athletic and active physically are at risk of altitude sickness.
- Even those who have spent time at altitude before are at risk of altitude sickness.
- And even those who take every bit of advice here seriously and prepare adequately for their trip are still at a risk of altitude sickness.
How to Prepare for Altitude Sickness Before Your Trip and How to Avoid Altitude Sickness
Conscious trip planning is 100% essential to best mitigating the chance of facing altitude sickness in Uyuni.
One of the best ways to prepare for the altitude of Uyuni is to spend a few days acclimating to a high elevation before beginning your tour.
This is especially important if you are flying directly to Uyuni or Bolivia from overseas or otherwise flying from sea level.
Some choose to acclimate at somewhat lower altitudes to mitigate the effects of altitude sickness in the first place, but that depends on each individual person and itinerary.
Where to Acclimate for a Trip to Bolivia?
Many choose to acclimate in La Paz, which makes sense only if for the fact that La Paz is one of the best international airports to fly into for a trip to Uyuni.
La Paz also has a variety of altitudes, with the international airport in El Alto sitting at over 4000m, with other parts of the city lying lower around 3200m. Some will recommend that you stay in these lower-lying areas of La Paz to acclimate to the altitude.
If you’re looking to get out of La Paz entirely, you can choose to travel to Sucre or Cochabamba. Both sit around 2800 meters above sea level and have plenty to do and see in their own right.
Cochabamba is roughly the same distance away from Uyuni by bus as La Paz is. Sucre is a bit closer.
But again, make no mistake, both of those cities are also at altitude, and require some time to acclimate as well–don’t think that traveling to Cocha or Sucre means you can pack in an extra day or two of hiking or other physical activity when you should be resting.
Either way, we highly recommend that you build-in time into your trip itinerary specifically to acclimate to the altitude.
Should I take Diamox or Other Medication?
Diamox is popular in a lot of Lonely Planet or Tripadvisor-like forums as a way to prevent altitude sickness. Many swear by it as a way of preventing altitude sickness.
However, even the CDC recognizes that Diamox can have some unpleasant side effects, particularly with improper or high dosages. Tingling hands, frequent urination and blurred vision doesn’t sound fun to us!
It’s hard to tell how effective the use of Diamox really is, since we can’t take someone’s relative health into account, and nobody knows whether they would have been affected by altitude sickness if they didn’t take the medication.
For that reason, we don’t really recommend using Diamox or other medications prior to your trip–there is no substitute for taking it easy and descending if your symptoms are troubling.
How to Combat Altitude Sickness and Remedies on the Ground
The best way for most people to deal with the threat of altitude sickness is to take it easy. Call it a remedy or not, it’s the best and most effective way of feeling your best at altitude.
And if you don’t feel that you’re getting better, descend to a lower altitude. Nothing else takes the place of this.
This also underlines the importance of building in time to acclimate before your tour of the salt flats, since the tours take you to some very remote places–if you really need to descend, you could be several hours away before you really start to get to a “reasonable” altitude.
Past this, there are several remedies and suggestions that you can use to lessen the effects of altitude sickness.
Drinking lots of water is very important to mitigating the effects of the altitude. Dehydration can rapidly accelerate the symptoms of altitude sickness or trigger problematic reactions by itself, so be sure to drink up!
At the same time, avoid drinking liquids that actually dehydrate you, like alcohol or soda.
Coca Tea and Coca Leaves
Coca Tea is rather common in hotels and hostels in Bolivia–particularly those that curate to foreign tourists. You can soak leaves in hot water or use pre-fabricated tea bags, similar to any tea bags you’ve seen previously.
But does it really help to drink coca tea though?
Most Bolivians will tell you that coca tea helps to ease the effects of altitude sickness and we agree!
However, it’s probably more due to the fact that coca tea has a high amount of antioxidants in it, as opposed to any property solely unique to the coca. We think other herbal teas, like green tea or chamomile tea, also produce the same effect and can help just as well.
Coca leaves are also not difficult to find, with most outdoor markets selling all the leaves you’d need for a week at around $1 per bag.
The benefit to purchasing leaves as opposed to drinking tea is that you can easily stuff the bag of leaves into your backpack and bring it with you wherever you go.
To “chew” the coca, you actually just bunch them together into your cheek one by one and kind of suck on the ball that it forms. Many who do this regularly will use bicarbonate powder to lure the effect out of the leaves and keep your mouth from drying out.
One factor that I never remember reading about traveling at altitude is that food digestion slows noticeably.
Resist the urge to eat heavy foods early-on in your trip, as it will digest slowly and possibly give you stomach pains and other indigestion woes.
This can be very hard when flying into Bolivia–try not to eat huge meals even if you’re starving coming off of the plane!
Get Plenty of Sleep!
It can be difficult to sleep at altitude for some.
I’ve often found personally that I need to sleep a good 10-15% longer to be able to feel the same degree of rest that I normally would.
So don’t be shy about taking that afternoon siesta, even if you’re bent on beating your jetlag–it’ll pay off in the long run!
“Soroche” Pills and Medication
Many pharmacies and some hotels will carry “soroche” pills, which some may tell you will relieve symptoms and are specific to altitude sickness.
We wouldn’t recommend the use of these pills, since the composition of the pills can’t always be verified. Most contain caffeine, aspirin or other medicines that are probably better used directly by themselves if needed, rather than under the veil of a fix-all. Also don’t confuse soroche pills with Diamox!
Though Diamox is also available in parts of Bolivia and Uyuni under the name acetazolamide, we wouldn’t recommend its use either due to side effects. Plus, you have to use it prior to your arrival for correct effect.
Ibuprofen and paracetamol are widely available without a prescription, and can definitely help out if you’re having mild to moderate symptoms.
How Long Does Altitude Sickness Last?
Most people take a day or two to reasonably acclimate to altitude–at least for the purposes of jumping on a tour of the salt flats.
However, as with all things altitude sickness, this widely varies based upon the person and the symptoms that one might have.
If you’re having continued or serious reactions, they may never go away–until you descend to a lower altitude, at least.
When to Seek Treatment for Altitude Sickness
If you are unable to walk, are experiencing noticeable changes in skin color or become very confused, seek medical attention immediately.
If you are having difficulties breathing or are experiencing strong or prolonged chest pains, also seek medical attention.
Less severe symptoms also may warrant medical treatment if they carry on for several days.
Altitude Sickness Treatment Options–Hospitals and Health Clinics in Uyuni
Remember that Southwestern Bolivia is a very remote place, and a tour of the Uyuni salt flats will take you, in some places, several hours away from the nearest health clinic.
So, even though there are serviceable hospitals and clinics in Uyuni, if you run into altitude sickness or other health troubles on your tour, you may be a long way from a hospital.
Take the example of Sivan, who was 6 hours away from a hospital and had to “bribe” her driver $400 to take her there.
Though you may find some basic health outposts, centros de salud, near the tour route, your best bet for medical treatment is at one of the following locations in the town of Uyuni:
Hospital Jose Eduardo Perez
It might not be quite that impressive from the outside, but Uyuni does have a small hospital, located on Avenida Potosí.
As of 2018, the hospital wasn’t training specialists, but does have surgical capabilities, an emergency room available 24 hours, and maybe an English-speaking doctor if you’re lucky.
Keep in mind, that most Bolivian hospitals will ask you to purchase your own medicine at a hospital, rather than providing the medicine and adding it to your bill. This can complicate certain procedures in the evenings, when pharmacies may be closed.
Clinica las Carmelitas
Uyuni also has a private clinic closer to the center, on Avenida Santa Cruz.
However, it should be a second option to the main hospital, since it is smaller and may not have all of the amenities present at the hospital.
Still, if you’re not in need of serious or immediate help, this may be a quicker way to get treatment than going to the main hospital.