Saturday, March 22, 2014

Cuenca and Altitude Sickness

There was a good article in my Gringo Tree newsletter today that I thought I should share for anyone considering visiting or moving to Cuenca.
Cuenca is 8,000 or More Feet Above Sea Level

Roughly one in five people who travel to altitudes 7,000-9,000 feet, without acclimating at lower elevations, experiences some degree of high-altitude illness. How do you know if you'll be one of the five? In general, you don't. A medical history of heart or lung disease doesn't predispose you and being physically fit doesn't protect you. 

Airplane cabins are pressurized to simulate atmospheric conditions around 7,000 feet, so if you have no trouble flying, you should have little trouble in Cuenca. What if you do? Here are some suggestions from expats who've suffered from it.

Dissolve a quarter-cup of sugar in a water bottle. When you get a little dizzy, out of breath, nauseous, or headachy, drink a couple swallows and in two or three minutes the symptoms are gone.

HydroPLUS 45 (or an equivalent) is sold at farmacias and costs $3.50 per bottle, no prescription needed. A bottle a day restores electrolytes, good for dehydration from altitude.

Mate de coca (tea)is sold at any natural-food store. It's cheap, not habit-forming, and the only side effect might be a little caffeine-like buzz. It's an almost instant cure for altitude sickness.

Two prescription drugs are effective at reducing symptoms: acetazolamide (Diamox) and dexamethasone (a powerful steroid).

If all else fails, get to a lower elevation quickly. Fastest from Cuenca is the road to Machala. You ascend to around 9,000 feet, but then descend fast; by the time you reach Girón in about a half-hour, you're under 7,000 feet, where you should feel better.

If your heart is set on Ecuador and you turn out to be susceptible to altitude sickness, your chances of making it in Cuenca are slim. You could try Cotacachi north of Quito (7,800 feet), Yunguilla Valley south of Cuenca (6,000 feet), Vilcabamba (just under 5,000 feet), or the coast (sea level).
Both times we flew to Ecuador, we took Diamox two days before departure and two days after our arrival. We both felt we benefited from it and we had few, if any, side effects. Others have used the methods described above with the Mate de Coco being the most often recommended.

You also need to stay hydrated, drink a LOT of water. The good news is the water in Cuenca is very good, often called the best in the county. And lastly, rest...and that can be difficult in this beautiful city.


  1. Indeed... resting can be difficult :)

    Thanks for passing this along, Donna. Just bought some tea yesterday, just because. Think I'll go make a cup.

  2. So glad you shared that piece here, Donna. I found it interesting. I didn't have issues and neither did Sara, but lots of folks do. I hadn't heard of Diamox, so that is also great info. Thanks for another wonderful post, my friend.


  3. Your blog is worth the wait, so interesting and informative. What a beautiful and colorful area and I love all the color you've added to your condo. Have either of you gotten "hitch itch" yet? I know you've been following the very cold weather just about every corner of this country has been experiencing. We've delayed heading north (to Elkhart) to be sure we won't hit any snow. Your blog is a great read, enjoy keeping up with you two... Jan

  4. I've been here in Cuenca about 2 months now, and I feel great! (though I'm not likely going to run a marathon anytime soon, and I still get a bit winded if I take a few flights of stairs too quickly). BUT...

    Yup, I well know what it's like to gasp for breath here at 8k+ feet. Indeed, I'm told that basically we're breathing fully *25%* LESS oxygen here than at sea level!

    When I first arrived, it truly was tough, could barely walk a block w/o huffing and puffing and all I wanted to do was sleep. That said, I think my own wrestle w/ the altitude here was greatly exacerbated by 1. jet lag (I'd arrived via a 40 hr. flight marathon from Vietnam), and 2. I had a nasty head cold through it all - ugh!

    All good tips here (lots of water, even tried the cocoa leaves - first tea, which didn't help at all, then chewing/sucking on the leaves like snuff - yuk! BUT it surely helped LOTS!). Never tried drugs, but you're right - everyone has a different reaction.

    But the good news is - unless you have some permanent additional breathing problem (i.e. asthma, or other lung problems) - in time (usually no more than a month) your body will adjust to the paucity of oxygen, and you'll do just fine here in the Andes.


Please post your comments and questions and we'll reply as soon as possible.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...