There are many things to think about when traveling to another country, but have you thought about altitude sickness if traveling or planning a trip to Bogotá, Colombia? 

During my last trip to Colombia to visit my family, my husband suffered from a rough case of altitude sickness. He has traveled most of the world and had never had issues, but I should have known that Bogotá could affect him, especially with him being from The Netherlands (below sea level).

Now we know that altitude sickness truly affects him, and as we prepare for our trip to Quito, Ecuador (even higher altitude than Bogotá), we are taking precautions so he can enjoy the entire trip. 

What is Altitude Sickness (soroche)?

Altitude sickness, also known as acute mountain sickness (AMS), is a condition that occurs when people ascend to high altitudes (above 8,000 feet) too quickly. The lower the atmospheric pressure at higher altitudes, the less oxygen is available to the body. This can cause a variety of symptoms, including:

  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Shortness of breath
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Cough
  • Racing heart
  • Pale skin
  • Loss of appetite
  • Irritability

In severe cases, altitude sickness can lead to high-altitude cerebral edema (HACE) or high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE). HACE is a swelling of the brain that can cause seizures, coma, and death. HAPE is a swelling of the lungs that can cause shortness of breath, chest pain, and coughing up blood.

Soroche is altitude sickness or, as some people call it, mountain sickness. Soroche is a condition that affects some people who visit destinations in high elevations. It happens because there is less oxygen at higher altitudes. 

Why does Altitude Sickness happen in Bogotá?

Bogotá sits at 8,660 feet above sea level. To compare a bit, Denver, Colorado, the city with the highest altitude in the U.S., sits at 5,280 feet above sea level. In Denver, many people experience altitude sickness; therefore, preparing for altitude sickness is crucial if you plan on visiting Bogotá.

I was born in Bogotá, and while living there, I often heard people visiting were suffering from Altitude sickness, “soroche.” When other soccer teams would come to play in Bogotá, they would also have to meticulously plan their visit to avoid the dreaded “soroche.”

Altitude Sickness & Soroche Symptoms

If you travel to Bogotá from a low-altitude location, you will most likely experience some of the following symptoms: 

  • Weakness
  • Tiredness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Dehydration
  • Shortness of breath
  • Headache
  • Chills

How to prevent Altitude Sickness in Colombia (soroche)?

You may not be able to prevent Altitude Sickness in Colombia entirely, but you can do a few things to reduce the symptoms and help your body acclimate to the high altitude. 

  1. Talk to your doctor before traveling: Your doctor may be able to prescribe medication to help you acclimate easier. 
  2. Plan ahead: Save 2-3 days at the beginning of your trip to acclimate, or if you are traveling to different parts of the country, start with the lower altitude cities and save Bogotá for the end. During our last trip, we landed in Bogotá and headed straight to Villa de Leyva. None of us experienced soroche. On the way back, we spent 3 days in Bogotá to visit my family. My husband felt awful. He had a bad case of soroche. My son felt a little tired, but nothing; a little nap the first day couldn’t help. I had no symptoms of soroche. 
  3. Drink lots of water: Staying hydrated is essential. Start a few days before your flight and continue drinking lots of water on the plane to Bogotá. It may be an inconvenience on your flight since you will probably have to use the restroom often, but it will help you once you are on vacation. 
  4. Rest: Take it easy the first few days in Bogotá. Give your body a chance to get used to the new altitude. Do not add exercise, and avoid hiking to or visiting the highest point in Bogotá during those first days. For example, Monserrate. Monserrate, although absolutely worth seeing, sits at 10,341 ft. Allow your body to acclimate before visiting so you can enjoy it. 
  5. Do not drink alcohol: Alcohol is very dehydrating. Avoid alcohol the first few days, so you can stay hydrated and help your body get used to the altitude. 
  6. Watch what you eat during the first few days: Stick with light foods. Soups are a great choice as they continue to hydrate you. Bogotá is also famous for its delicious soups, including Ajiaco. 
  7. Listen to your body: Don’t overdo it. Take your time to understand what your body is trying to communicate. 

My husband Bas did pretty okay on the first day in Bogotá. The second day, however, he woke up feeling a little tired. Nothing too terrible. He thought perhaps he was exhausted from the drive from Villa de Leyva back to Bogotá. Nevertheless, he decided still to join us for the plans for the day. He was so excited to see the city and enjoy the delicious food. 

My uncle had planned to take us to the Jardín Botánico, Plaza de Mercado, Andrés Carne de Res, and a few other places. As we started exploring the Jardín Botánico, Bas struggled to catch his breath; he felt super tired, out of oxygen, and extremely weak. We sat down to allow him to catch his breath, but he explained it felt like he couldn’t breathe normally. He struggled going up 1-2 small steps. We took it super easy the rest of the day. We didn’t make it to everything we had planned, but we have a reason to go back to Bogotá. Bas had to take it easy. It was clear he had soroche. 

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