How to handle the ups and downs of Bogotá’s high altitude

Bogotá's high mountain climate can be tough on newcomers.
Bogotá's high mountain climate can be tough on newcomers.

[dropcap]B[/dropcap]ogotá’s altitude can catch you unawares when you first arrive in the city. The effects are quite mild, not like in La Paz where recently de-planed tourists lurch around the witch market like zombies, or Cuzco where a day at the ruins can end in ruin.

No, in Bogotá, mal de montaña or soroche is more subtle and hardly mentioned at all, so it is surprising to realize that Colombia is the country with the fourth-highest capital (after Bolivia, Ecuador and Bhutan) at 2,640 meters.

Altitude, of course, affects a lot more than just our capacity to climb stairs. It has a profound effect on the environment, particularly in the tropics where driving up a mountain for a day can bring dramatic changes of climate and vegetation from cactus-filled dry gullies to moisture-dripping rainforest to temperate pine forests to chilly Andean moorland and even snow.

A casual glance of the streets of Bogotá does not give much away. There are no Beware of the Altitude signs on the pavements and upmarket hotels do not routinely offer guests blasts of bottled oxygen like in Bolivia and Peru. But the fact you are standing on a street corner wearing a warm jacket while on the same latitude as the Amazon jungle should give you a clue.

Air pressure drops exponentially as you climb from sea level, and temperature drops on average 1 degree every 150 meters up.  The air is thinner, so there are fewer molecules to bounce around and keep warm and not as much oxygen gas to breathe in and recharge your red blood cells.

Let’s differentiate between altitude sickness, which is an unpleasant but bearable inconvenience to travelers arriving in Bogotá, and more serious health risks such as pulmonary oedema which kicks in at 4,000 metres.

Cerebral oedema — a kind of brain failure — is extremely rare and strikes mountaineers in notorious “death zones” such as the 8,000 mts high peaks of the Himalayas. 

To have any risk of these more severe forms of mountain sickness in Colombia you would have to scale the highest peak Pico Colón (5,775 mts) or be on some high-altitude trek on the Cocuy ridge which starts at 3,500 mts and ascends to over 5,000 mts. It’s worth noting that in Peru buses pass at 4,800 mts and jeeps on roads in the Bolivian Altiplano ascend to 5,000 mts.

In Bogotá, you are at the lowest end of the altitude scale in terms of physiological effects and some travelers arriving here will not notice it at all.  Altitude sickness is quite a fickle condition and at times paradoxical — seemingly affecting more — people with a high level of physical fitness.

I figured this out dragging tourists over Andean trails as a tour guide. Most groups could be roughly divided into exercise fanatics ready to test themselves against the mountain, and the drinkers and smokers who reckoned on restricting any physical activity to strolling from their hotel room to the bar.

In the end it was the smokers and drinkers who won out, perhaps as a result of taking things slowly and the years spent inadvertently preparing their bodies for a low-oxygen environment. Altitude, what altitude? Meanwhile the fit types would nip out for a quick jog then end up on a glucose drip in the local hospital.

The first rule of altitude is: “Don’t fight it!” The human body coming from the lowlands needs several days to properly acclimatize to the lack of oxygen above 2,500 mts, and there is no real easy way to short-circuit the process.

The first and most obvious response is heavy breathing and a faster heartbeat, which causes changes to the blood and other biological changes such as sweating and palpitations, a slow-down of non-essential bodily functions such as digestion, and an increased need to urinate. Something like your first date, then.

The outcome is more like a hangover. Dehydration caused by faster breathing in the dryer air causes headaches, and nausea can slow down digestion.  These symptoms are usually mild but can become very quickly exaggerated by any strenuous activity, leading to migraine-like headaches and vomiting, in severe cases.

So take it easy the first few days. Take taxis, don’t walk. Avoid any aerobic exercise or the itch to scale Monserrate, which peaks at 3,150 mts. Take frequent rests and maybe even a siesta (hey, you’re still in Latin America, even if it’s cold).

There are some medical drugs you can take which alleviate the effects, such as Diamox, but they have side effects such as fatigue, so better allow time for the natural adjustment to take place, which usually takes four days and is the time your body needs for the metabolism to reset to thin air.

A better cure is a sweet herbal infusions or aromatica as it is called locally. Some swear by coca tea, but actually any warm sugary fluid will pick you up as it is the glucose which alleviates the symptoms.

I found Coca Cola, long recognized as the best hangover cure, is almost miraculous for altitude with its rich mix of caffeine and sugar. This was something I picked up on driving trucks in Peru, sometimes climbing from sea level to 4,500 mts in a day and working hard at the wheel to keep on the hairpin roads. Peruvian truckers, I noticed, would only tackle high passes with several bottles of Coke on the cab.

Once you have got over the four-day hump your altitude problem will mostly be behind you. Be warned though, if you go higher by another 500 mts your body will need to reset to the new height, and the exponential effect of altitude means that above 4,000 mts your body will still feel new effects at lower increments.

If you stay around Bogotá, though, any altitude sickness will soon become a distant memory. Your body will increase your red blood cell count, peaking after a month. You will probably start to feel healthier and more energized, with a good appetite but eating less, and maybe needing less sleep.

The long-term effects of living here are not fully understood by scientists, but there is a strong consensus that at the altitude of Bogotá, the human body thrives. 

Medical studies have shown a range of benefits from improved cardiovascular health, a lower risk of heart attack, less childhood asthma and a 40 percent lower chance of becoming obese. These benefits are related to increased body metabolism and the extra vitamin D produced by the high UV sunlight.

From my own unscientific studies, I find food tastes better at altitude. So there you have it: come live in Bogotá for fine dining. Just be aware that the lower air pressure reduces the boiling point of water to 90 degrees Celsius, so don’t expect a good cup of tea.


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