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Battling Altitude Sickness in Bolivia: A Hiker’s Guide

bolivia hiking expedition

If you ask someone who has just been traveling in Bolivia how their trip was – it is all but guaranteed that at some point during the conversation, the topic of altitude will come up. 

Bolivia is one of the most underrated countries in the world for adventure activities like hiking and mountaineering – this is undoubtedly true. But many travelers underestimate the high elevations found across this Andean nation. From the moment you land in La Paz, you are dealing with high altitude and the associated effects. 

Our Bolivia Expedition for example take place mostly over 4,000 meters (13,123 feet). There is no avoiding the fact that altitude will just be a part of the travel experience in Bolivia. That said, there are many things you can do to feel your best during your time in the mountains here. 

Below, we break down everything you need to know in order to have an awesome trip in Bolivia without being totally overcome with severe Bolivian altitude sickness. 


La Paz Bolivia Altitude: The Highest Capital in the World

It is not every day that you step off the plane and are immediately breathing effective oxygen of 12.3% vs 20% at sea level. You feel it immediately, especially when you climb your first few flights of stairs. 

The main international airport for La Paz is located in a city above La Paz called El Alto. As its name suggests, El Alto is HIGH – with an elevation of 4200 meters / 13779 feet. Since most people stay in La Paz itself, you drop to a balmy altitude of 3700 meters within La Paz city – making for a slightly softer arrival than 4200 meters. 

Unless you had the luxury to acclimatize in some fashion before your arrival in Bolivia, there is kind of no avoiding that you will feel a little off for the first few days in La Paz. 

To combat the dreaded Bolivia altitude sickness phenomenon, we advise all travelers to try to arrive a few days early than they plan to start trekking in order to give the body some time to adjust to the new high-altitude environment. 

Altitude Sickness In Bolivia

Carefully Plan Your Bolivia Itinerary

If you are thinking you are going to rock up to the country and suddenly be standing on the peak with the highest altitude in Bolviia within a day or 2, think again. 

We now live in a time where people are busier than ever and have less and less time for expeditions. Some people opt for a “rapid” expedition plan without factoring in what the altitude will truly do to them. This is a huge mistake. Acclimatization takes time – it is that simple. 

We developed our Bolivia Expedition itinerary in a way that allows for maximum acclimatization within the trip’s time frame. The fact is, there is no avoiding high-altitude in Bolivia if you are keen to go to the mountains – but how you plan your trip will be the difference between your expedition being the trip of a lifetime or just a persistent, literal headache. 

Altitude Sickness In Bolivia

Tips for Combatting Altitude Sickness in Bolivia

So you are preparing to land in La Paz and you have a couple of days before the trip starts in earnest. Good news. 

Here are five things you can do to prepare yourself for the journey ahead. 

1. Stay hydrated: simply drinking enough fluids will go a long way in generally making you feel better at high altitude. 

2. Try to get enough sleep: Rest is another big one. It is not, however, always super easy to sleep through the night without a few wake ups if you are both jet-lagged AND trying to sleep at high altitude suddenly. We recommend taking a non-narcotic sleep aid; a mixture of Benadril (an anti-histamine) and melatonin your first few nights to achieve the “knock out” effect where you can bank a solid 8-10 hours of delicious, uninterrupted sleep. 

3. Don’t party: Sampiling the beer and whiskey at the local bars in La Paz during your first few days in the city will have the opposite effect you are trying to achieve. Stay off the booze until after your expedition is finished. It is actually pretty normal to feel a bit hungover during your first few days at altitude so don’t contribute to that feeling by attempting to sample every beer produced in South America on day 1. 

4. Go for an acclimatization excursion outside of the city. It is possible to drive 2 hours from La Paz and then walk 15 minutes to a viewpoint called Chacaltaya at 5400 meters. This go high sleep low approach is tried and true at helping the body acclimatize. 

5. Take it easy: Don’t try to do any intense hikes or exercise during your first few days in Bolivia. Having a few painkillers on hand like ibuprofen or paracetamol will also help get you through any difficult headache moments. 

Altitude Sickness In Bolivia

Highest Altitudes in Bolvia: The Mountains

Because you should know what this incredible country has to offer, here is a list of the five peaks with the highest elevation in Bolivia to light the flame of stoke:

1. Sajama
Elevation: 6,542 meters (21,463 feet)
Difficulty: Moderate to Difficult
Description: The highest peak in Bolivia, located in Sajama National Park. The climb involves glacier travel and technical ice climbing. Proper acclimatization and mountaineering skills are required.

2. Illimani

Elevation: 6,438 meters (21,122 feet)
Difficulty: Moderate
Description: This prominent peak near La Paz is a popular climbing destination. The ascent is challenging but non-technical, involving glacier travel and high altitude. Good physical condition and acclimatization are essential.

3. Ancohuma

Elevation: 6,427 meters (21,086 feet)
Difficulty: Moderate
Description: Located in the Cordillera Real, this peak requires glacier travel and can be technically demanding in parts. It is less climbed than some of the other high peaks, adding a sense of remoteness.

4. Illampu

Elevation: 6,368 meters (20,892 feet)
Difficulty: Difficult
Description: Known for its technical difficulty, Illampu offers steep ice and rock climbing routes. It requires a high level of technical skill, experience, and good acclimatization.

5. Parinacota

Elevation: 6,348 meters (20,827 feet)
Difficulty: Moderate
Description: Part of the Payachata volcanic group on the Bolivia-Chile border, Parinacota is a relatively straightforward climb, often considered easier than Sajama. It involves a long hike and glacier travel, but less technical climbing.

Altitude Sickness In Bolivia

What are the Symptoms of Altitude Sickness?

If you have never been at high altitude before, you may not even know what altitude sickness feels like or what it is exactly. 

Altitude sickness, also known as acute mountain sickness (AMS), can affect climbers who ascend to high altitudes too quickly. Understanding the different kinds and recognizing the symptoms is crucial for safety.

Types of Altitude Sickness

Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS): The most common and mildest form of altitude sickness. Symptoms: Headache, nausea, dizziness, fatigue, shortness of breath, loss of appetite, and difficulty sleeping.

The following more serious forms of altitude sickness are very rare and typically experienced by people at extreme high altitudes above 7000-8000 meters. 

High-Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE): A severe and potentially life-threatening condition where the brain swells due to the effects of high altitude. Symptoms: Severe headache, loss of coordination (ataxia), confusion, hallucinations, and unconsciousness. It can develop from AMS if not treated promptly.

High-Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE): Another severe condition where fluid accumulates in the lungs, making breathing difficult.
Symptoms: Shortness of breath even at rest, extreme fatigue, a feeling of suffocation at night, cough producing frothy or bloody sputum, and chest congestion.

Symptoms of Mild Altitude Sickness (AMS)

For new mountaineers, recognizing the early symptoms of AMS is vital for taking prompt action. 

It is very important that you are observing your body for changes, discomforts, and general well-being as you spend time at altitude. If you think you have a more serious form of altitude sickness setting in – the best choice is to always loose as much elevation as possible. Never continue gaining altitude if you start to feel seriously ill. 

Pro tip: For high-altitude expeditions outside of Bolivia (there is no helicopter rescue service in Bolivia): In general, it’s a great idea to have emergency helicopter rescue insurance in the event of an emergency. Check out our full blog on high-altitude trekking insurance

Bolivia Altitude Sickness and Hiking Fitness

People who generally have good fitness and consider themselves strong climbers and hikers might think they will adapt better at altitude than someone less fit. 

This is a myth! Of course, having a high level of fitness will only benefit you in the mountains as a general rule – but it has little to do with how your body will react when deprived of available oxygen. 

Being physically fit does not guarantee better acclimatization to high altitude. Acclimatization is more about how the body adapts to lower oxygen levels rather than physical fitness. This adaptation involves changes like increased red blood cell production and more efficient oxygen usage. While fit individuals might handle physical exertion better, this doesn’t necessarily mean they will acclimatize faster or be less prone to altitude sickness.

Factors like the speed of ascent, genetics, prior high-altitude experience, and maintaining hydration and nutrition are more crucial for acclimatization. Thus, regardless of fitness, all climbers need to follow best practices for acclimatization, such as ascending gradually and monitoring for altitude sickness symptoms.

The point is, hyper-fit gym bros and gals, leave your ego at the door – otherwise, the high mountains are going to humble you real quick.

bolivia hiking expedition

Wrap Up: Battling Altitude Sickness In Bolivia

Whether you are planning an Epic holiday in Bolivia or you just wanted to read up on high-altitude sickness issues – we hope you found this blog informative!

As you might have gathered by now, the high mountains and dealing with altitude sickness in Bolivia and related topics are complex and nuanced issues. 

Never has the phrase “every body is different” been more apt when it comes to altitude. 

The main thing to consider as you prepare your Bolivia (or any other high-altitude country) itinerary is giving yourself enough time to acclimatize properly. Nothing good can be rushed as they say and this is very true for any activities at altitude.

We hope to meet you in La Paz at some point for an Epic (and hopefully headache-free) trip to Bolivia!

bolivia hiking expedition

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Here at Epic Expeditions, adventure is constantly on our minds. 

Our blog – or Journal as we like to call it – contains epic trip stories, photo diaries, and news about new tours. 

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Hailing from the Toronto region of Eastern Canada, with a background as a former standout athlete (hockey of course) and a  love of mountain adventure, Clark is a welcomed addition to the Epic team.

In addition to being a keen photographer and adventurer, Clark brings his brilliant sense of humor, leadership skills, and positive attitude to everything he puts his mind to. 

When he is not leading trips, he is working on taking over the hard apple cider game in Canada as a skilled craft brewer. 

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Noemi grew up in the mountains of German-Speaking Switzerland where she naturally developed a deep love and respect for mountain environments.

She is a talented photographer, aspiring climber, and speaks at least 5 languages fluently including Arabic (and probably a few more that we don’t know about), which she taught herself in a matter of months by watching YouTube videos. 

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As our man on the ground in Mongolia, there is not much this legend can’t do. As a native the Bayan-Ölgii province of the Western Mongolia Altai, Syerik has been working as a guide and tourism entrepreneur…

for the past several years and is one of the rising stars in Mongolia adventure travel industry. 

He is currently building a beautiful Ger (Yurt) camp near his hometown where he will host Epic Mongolia team members on our trip as well as other travelers from around the world! 

He is the perfect guide for your trip to Mongolia. Serik did an amazing job giving us a well rounded experience in the Altai NP region and down in the Gobi…
The food was fantastic and Serik gave us many opportunities to learn about the Kazakh culture in that region including traditional meals. (I can’t recommend enjoying the milk tea enough!)

– Coastal

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Choriza started off life as a care-free vagabond on the streets of Madeira Island without any place to call home. From the moment we met her, we knew this dog was just different, and it was pretty much love at first sight. 

She gave up the dog street life in favor of joining her new dad Chris to become a full-time member of the Epic family towards the end of 2022.

These days she can be found listening in on the fringes of important Epic business meetings while half-asleep on the couch. She is a keen hiker, lover of mud, rare steak, and might just be the sweetest little dog we have ever seen. 

Adventure Guide

An experienced trek leader and
IFMGA aspirant ski guide, avid alpine climber, devoted adventure photographer.

Organized and guided trekking expeditions, climbs and ski tours in Tajikistan’s Pamirs, Patagonia, Peru, Morocco, Nepal, Kyrgyzstan, Georgian and Russian Caucasus and Kamchatka.

A full member and meets the organiser of the British Alpine Club. Visited over 40 countries, lived in the UK for four years. Certified first-aider.

We joined Andrew on a fantastic trip to the Fann Mountains in Tajikistan, pure nature and magnificent scenery! Andrey was super prepared and led us safely up and down numerous passes and through some rough and icy cold rivers. Thank you for a very memorable trip, your planning and prep was excellent!

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Our man in Nepal, Sandip is what we like to call a “Swiss Army Knife”. There is not much Sandip can’t do when it comes to helping Epic to run our expeditions smoothly in Nepal.

His tireless work ethic, passion for all things trekking in the Himalayas, and smart decision-making mean that Sandip is a truly invaluable member of our team.

Sandip is passionate about showing visitors to his country an amazing time, and he goes above and beyond to make sure that happens. 

His company Himalayan Masters is Epic’s trusted partner in Nepal and one of the country’s top new tour agencies.

We really enjoyed the entire journey, and I would like to say that Sandip is truly professional. He guided us and he is a hardworking person, providing us with the best service and taking care of each one of us. Plus, he is super funny! The kind of professionnal you always want to find on your path for your explorations! 

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Fairy Meadows

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#1 Sunrise from Reflection Lake

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#2 Hiking to Nanga Parbat Base Camp

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#3 Playing cricket with the locals

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Trips Where We Visit Fairy Meadows

Our flagship Pakistani adventure tour.  Road trip with some  hiking and cultural immersion.

A trekking-style tour that features some very remote locations, inlcuding a K2 viewpoint.

Adventure Guide

João has born in the mountains of Madeira Islands in Portugal. Nature lover, writer, musician, guide, for him, a day without contact with outdoor vibes is a nightmare. 

With a degree in Cultural Studies in Portugal and a Master of Arts in Global Cultures and Creativity in the U.K.

João found out what really matters in life can be found on the trails, and in the contact with people from different backgrounds and cultures.

Guiding, crazy trekking missions, and sharing observations about the natural world, – these are some of João’s passions. 

After trekking to K2 Base Camp and exploring all over Northern Pakistan, he fell in love with the country and the local people. His experiences resulted in his desire to share these feelings with the world.

João is one of the most experienced guides at Epic and his skillset and positive mindset in the mountains is second to none

When not in Pakistan, João is  guiding and exploring in the Madeira Islands trails –  discovering some of the hidden treasures on his Portuguese Island.

João I can not thank you enough for the off the beaten paths and views you keep giving. Definitely one of the most challenging and amazing hikes we did 1200m meters all the way up to Fanal forest and circling back to the hidden village. Wow!

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Sohail is the newest addition to the Epic team and we are beyond stoked to have him on board. As a veteran of the Karakoram and a native of Karimabad in Hunza, there is not much Sohail can’t do in the mountains. 

Besides having the ability to speak more languages than we can count, Sohail has explored every corner of Gilgit Baltistan and logs more trekking miles 

in a year than most people will do in a lifetime. As of the summer of 2022, Sohail has summited Gasherbrum 1, Gasherbrum 2, and K2 – three of Pakistan’s five 8000-meter peaks. Sohail guides several trips including our annual bespoke expeditions but specializes in Hunza Valley tours.

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A veteran of Pakistan travel, Ralph is an experienced guide, photographer and writer who specializes in documenting remote locations. 

Not one to simply go where everyone else does, he insists on exploring new and lesser-known areas.

Together with Epic Expeditions, he shows people parts of Pakistan that most other operators don’t even know about. He is particularly fond of the village of Barah, which he believes will become just as famous as Hunza one day.

Just got back from EBT’s Trekking Amongst Giants 15 day tour. The experience was first class. Ralph, our head guide, ensured that the entire trip ran smoothly and relatively on time (a bonus for anyone travelling in Pakistan). We had so many unforgettable days on the tour and the trekking was well-planned, safe but also a rewarding challenge. 

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Traveling to a non-tourist destination can be a little intimidating but EBT takes all of the worry and trepidation away. From the pre-trip call to meeting the wonderful staff in person you can tell that you are dealing with a company that has a passion for what they do each and every day. Ralph, Zahid, and Khan were supportive, kind, and always willing to go the extra mile to make sure that everyone on the trip was getting what they wanted out of the experience.

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Founder | Adventure Guide | Director

Since he started exploring the world, Chris has been seeking out every shade of adventure in various parts of the globe and had visited more than 70 countries along the way. 

Over the last 10 years, Chris has logged more than 7000 trail miles across five continents and climbed multiple 6000 + 7000 meter peaks in Pakistan and Nepal.

A few years back, a distant dream and a deep passion for the mountains and the people of Pakistan led Chris to co-found Epic Expeditions at a time when foreign adventure tourism in Pakistan was almost nonexistent. Since then, Chris has guided more than 20 expeditions to various parts of Northern Pakistan.

Chris believes in using photography and powerful adventure experiences to dismantle negative stereotypes regarding what mainstream media considers “dangerous” countries while facilitating unique and meaningful memories in the mountains for countless people from around the globe. 

For him, an ideal start to the day begins with a steaming cup of good coffee, the beam of a headlamp, alpine boots, and a camera in hand.

He lives in Madeira Island when not leading expeditions in far-flung lands. 

Chris also works as a writer and photographer on his blog Off the Atlas – an adventure travel blog all about Pakistan.  

Read this interview our staff did with Chris to learn more about him!

Chris believes in Pakistan and its people, and he believes in the value of journeys shared with others and family cultivated on the road. Honesty and integrity are at the heart of what he does, and this really shines through in his work as a guide. He also makes great coffee – whether at 5am in an empty guesthouse or half way up a Himalayan peak.”

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Pakistan is a magical country! Had 3 of the best weeks of my life thanks to Epic Backpacking Tours with owner, and one of our awesome guides, Chris. From detailed itinerary, preparation with an equipment list, and visa assistance. To amazing food, great porters, helpful guides, and great accommodations. Epic really hit home run after home run. […]

Their desire for adventure and amazing trip is just as high as yours. Bring a good pound of coffee for the trip. French press coffee every morning and no average tin coffee, plus you’ll be in your guides good books.

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