Saturday, January 8, 2011

How We Adjusted to Cuenca's High Altitude

We thought we'd create another blog concerning the high altitude.  We've gotten several emails asking questions, as folks gather their information.  We're definitely not experts on the topic,  but we can share our experiences and you can also check with US doctors and our excellent doctors here.  Doctors in Ecuador seem to know more about high altitude since they deal with it all the time.

(This is a picture of a llama, all decked out, to provide rides for childen during the Christmas Eve celebrations.  Isn't she cute?  Out in the country and up in the Andes here, sometimes you can see them roaming free. They are cousins of the camels.)

As we began our planning for Cuenca back in 2008, both of us were concerned with how we'd do with the altitude, as many of you are.  We both grew up at sea level and our ranch in Oregon was about 800 ft.  We've felt the altitude in Denver and even Lake Tahoe.   We never were in either place long enough to adjust and we didn't feel so hot there on vacation or business trips.  We're happy to report we feel adjusted and loving every minute in Cuenca!.  BUT, it was hard for us in the beginning. 

We arrived in Quito, totally exhausted and not in the best of health.    One of our first days in Quito, first trip, Nancy got in trouble with the altitude.  (Quito is at 9500 ft.)  We had been racing around trying to get our ATM card to work and it was hot that afternoon with extremely intense sun.  No hats or umbrellas, a big mistake.  We had run across 8 lanes of traffic.  We weren't accustomed to short traffic lights and feeling liike a target with all the vehicles, even though we were in the crosswalk. 

 When we got back to the hotel, Nancy could hardly stand, let alone walk straight, and was exhibiting stroke-like symptoms...crooked face, slurred speech, her brain was fuzzy, she couldn't see very well, bad headache, pounding heart  and more..  Rich sat her down in the lobby and ran off to find help from the hotel's staff.  One of the gals made a special tea, mate de coca, with the understanding that if Nancy didn't bounce back pretty quickly, then a call to a doctor would be in order and pronto.  You can get in major trouble with high altitude sickness.

Well, the tea was a miracle!  Worked like a charm in just a couple sips.  So, we definitely recommend the tea, but it may not work for everyone,  You probably can't buy it in the US...but you can find it in many hotels and restaurants and in the markets.  It really worked for Nancy.  Rich and some seasoned travelers and expats still drink it every now and then, too.

After that episode, and then dropping down to Cuenca's altitude of 8300 ft, we did feel a little bit better.  We were still tired, and, for us,  it still took more time to fully adjust.  Some who suffer, do adjust in a couple weeks to a month.  Took us longer, but we weren't in the best of shape when we arrived.  We'd get out of breath if we walked too fast for us (stairs, even 1 flight, were a real killer!), we'd get headaches, our digestion wasn't the best and our ears would get stuffed up, we didn't sleep well.  (All could have been other things, too...allergies, dehydration, different food, new noise at night...)

Some have a terrible time adjusting, some are just fine.  Some who have been to high altitude before without problems can still have problems here.  Just depends on your body.  Our doctor here thought our blood pressure was too high when we first arrived, another symptom of maybe the high altitude or something else.  Thankfully, all is normal now.  We still have to remember to drink more water!  It's hard to do when it's not hot outside.  People forget when the temps are cool and you're not thirsty.  You can get dehydrated without even knowing it.

As your body adjusts, our doctor says some of your blood numbers and other lab work could change, ranges for 'normal' may be different here through the adjustment phase and once you're adjusted.  You will feel the effects of booze and caffeine and sugar much faster, too.  For those watching your blood sugar, the A1C number our doctor looks for is 7.0, higher than our US doctor wanted.  Your red blood count can be higher here, too.

Friends and  family at the Coast sometimes suffer when they first arrive in Cuenca.  They drive over the Andes at much higher heights, too.  But, they seem to feel much better with a Sinutab or a Clariton, (or a local equiv.)  and a mild painkiller and a couple days of rest.  We also think a high carb diet helps...a good excuse to eat pasta!   (But, check with the doctor if high-carb is usually too much carb for you.)  When we visited the Coast for a few days one trip, we felt pretty slow when we got back to Cuenca (but could have been the Cuba Libre cocktails the night before!)  We took it easy and were fine in a day or so.  Some of our friends who have gone back to the US for a visit also have had to re-adjust, depending on the length of their trip and where they've been.  Some friends just bounce right back as if they'd never left.  Just depends. 

Some never do adjust, or don't want to wait out the adjustment period, and they have moved to lower altitudes where they feel better. 

Here's a story with a happy outcome...One of our friends, who comes into Cuenca from the US (sea level) every now and then, had a terrible time one visit.  She fainted on the street and a doctor was called.  The doctor recommended Pedialyte and a special diet, with no caffeine, and rest.  Now, on subsequent visits, she takes meds prescribed by her US doctor for adjusting to the altitude, follows her special diet, drinks lots of water and the Pedialyte, takes it slow and is much better each trip here.  (For suggested high altitude diets, you can google for several.)

Yes, you can get oxygen here.  We've done research on oxygen accumulators in the States, which takes oxygen out of the ambient air and increases the amount of oxygen available, up to about 92 per cent.  Rich used one at the ranch when he slept or on the treadmill.  You breathe the concentrated oxygen through a small plastic, lightweight tube. The machine backs down the amount of oxygen you actually get through the tube. We're not sure if the machines are available here and the costs. There are oxygen supply places here, may be no prescription needed.  Rich isn't using the machine now.

The machines seem to be getting smaller, more portable and cheaper ($3500-4500 at the time we looked).  Might not be for everyone, so check with your doctor, but could be a good topic to google just as an alternative to check out.    You need a prescription for the machine in the US.  You may need special permission to travel with one on the airlines.  They generally like advance notice.

We arrived chubby, out of shape and so tired with just getting to Ecuador.  Now, we are less chubby (between the 2 of us we've lost over 65 pounds!).  We walk all over town with no problems.  Stairs are so much easier, too.  We feel pretty good. 

Hope this helps, and be sure to talk with your doctors.


  1. Thanks for the information. Traveling to Cuenca May 18-31, 2013 and may contact the doc on Monday to see what she suggests, just to be safe.

  2. Thank you for this. Great advice. Yours is the first realistic posting I have read of the time it takes to adjust. We had read all about how, after a couple of weeks, you'll feel great. It took us a full three weeks and we were quite sick during that time. Now, even though we live at a lower elevation (6700 feet) Cuenca no longer bothers us when we go to visit. I would second the good advice on the tea. I was able to find some in the US. They called it Herba Mate. Be aware, if you take it in the US, it'll keep you awake half the night!! At least the kind I got was EXTREMELY potent! LOL

  3. Hola, thanks for the nice post.
    Herba Mate is not the same as Mate de Coca. HM is the national drink of Argentina, kind of like coffee.
    It is strong and can give us the jitters, we agree! Che used to drink it and the new Pope does, too.
    Mate de Coca is made from poppies, same as cocaine. You will read that the burning of poppy fields are part of the whole war on drugs...But, the crop is essential for those living at really high altitudes, like parts of Bolivia.
    Anyways.... it really worked for me.
    So glad you have adjusted ok.
    All the Best, N

  4. Pretty sure cocaine is not made from poppies. It is made from the coca leaf.

  5. Poppies make opiates like opium, morphine, heroin. Coca makes Cocaine,and the tea, and natives in the Andes also just chew the coca leaves which, like the tea, appear to be pretty benign

  6. Do know if canned oxygen can be bought at the airport in Guayaquil? Or can the hotels have some available?

    1. We dont know...but remember GYE is at sea level. Most hotels can call a doctor if you get into trouble.
      Happy travels.

  7. I work for American and you definatley can not carry your own oxygen.
    Its considered a dangerous good.

  8. Thanks so much for the detailed reality of living in high altitude.
    I'm seriously considering visiting Ecuador/Cuenca with intent of scoping out retirement options. I currently live in Colorado and must use a CPAP at night. (Had moved from Portland,Oregon, low altitude, no problem breathing.)
    Thanks again for this important information! Have a wonderful day!