Hospitalized Abroad With Altitude Sickness

Hospitalized Abroad With Altitude Sickness

Over Christmas break, I made the spontaneous decision to take a solo backpacking trip. I literally booked a flight to Costa Rica twelve hours before leaving the country. I had considered leaving the day before but thought I had misplaced my passport. As soon as I located my passport, I booked my ticket. The plan was to explore Costa Rica for a day or two (I’ve been before) and then hike the Incan Trail to Machu Picchu. Perhaps the hardest year of my life was 2019. Backpacking solo usually helps me to find peace. I often feel God’s presence the strongest in nature, so it seemed like a good idea. Who would have thought that I’d be hospitalized abroad?

The trip started out great. Upon arriving at the Fort Lauderdale International Airport, an agent offered me a $225 travel voucher to switch from my overbooked Spirit Airlines flight (which, as I mentioned, I booked the day before) to a JetBlue flight that left a mere hour later (a major upgrade). I quickly made friends with the fellow travelers that were rebooked with me when we all laughed when the Spirit agent asked if any of us had checked bags. Those that travel with just the backpacks on their backs are my kind of travelers. Detachment from material goods allows travelers to be less burdened so it’s easier to explore.

Hiking the Aerial Volcano

Upon arriving in Costa Rica, I rented a car with a few other solo travelers that I had just met and set out to drive to the Aerial Volcano. However, the fog thickened and we only made it halfway, so we purchased a night at a hotel. The next day, we made it to and out of the Volcano and hiked a bit. After the Volcano, I made my way back to the San Jose airport, with intentions of traveling to Peru to hike the Incan Trail. This didn’t go as planned…

solo traveler lima

My first day in Peru was lovely. I explored the capital city of Lima to its fullest. I learned a lot about Peruvian history on a walking trail, visited the mountainous coast, enjoyed Christmas markets, and went to a Peruvian advent mass. Until I arrived in Cuzco the following day with plans to hike to Machu Picchu, I didn’t begin to experience serious problems.

Peru lima mountain

Hospitalized Abroad with Altitude Sickness

I had heard of altitude sickness before but had never thought much about it. I have been hiking and skiing countless times before and had never gotten sick. However, Cuzco, Peru is about 12,000 feet above sea level. For reference, Miami is basically at sea level. I became extremely sick almost immediately when I landed in Cuzco. At first, I thought I felt simply really tired. But after sleeping fifteen hours in the hostel and only feeling worse, I knew something was definitely off. I could hardly breathe and felt extremely faint. I knew I couldn’t hesitate any longer to go to a doctor.

By the time I got to the hospital, my oxygen levels and blood pressure fell so low that they immediately hooked me up to oxygen and an IV for fluids and medicine. They hospitalized me overnight. I had never been hospitalized overnight before. Nonetheless, I felt greatly comforted by the support and care that I received at the hospital in Cuzco.

The doctors and nurses assured me that although I seemed in bad shape, they see countless cases of the same thing every day and that I would be okay. I felt especially touched by a Peruvian nurse who had done her high school and undergraduate studies in the States. Upon learning that I taught ESOL, she made it a point to share with me how strong of an impact her English teachers in Boston had had on her and how important she viewed my role. These encounters often make the world feel “smaller.”

plaza in lima

Heading Home After Being Hospitalized Abroad

When I was finally discharged from being hospitalized abroad, I knew that the best option was to cut my losses and immediately return to Miami. The most effective cure for altitude sickness is declining in elevation. Although there are treatments to adjust to the altitude, it would take more time and money. I made the judgment call that although I was stabilized and starting to feel better, there was no way that I was going to be up for hiking the Incan trail that week. I bought a new ticket (not cheap when booking the day of with limited options) from Cuzco to Miami.

Although this trip obviously didn’t pan out the way that I had hoped, I still gleaned a lot from the experience. People often ask me why I’m not afraid to travel alone. The reality is that I’m not naïve enough to think that nothing bad can happen. It can and sometimes does! However, I trust my judgment to respond appropriately when it does and know when to cut my losses. You cannot live your life on the sidelines in fear. Although I definitely wouldn’t have gotten altitude sickness in Miami, I could’ve just as easily gotten into an accident or came down with some other sickness. To live life to the fullest, you must be willing to step outside your comfort zone. Adventure awaits.

Looking back, I definitely learned some lessons. Suggestions to ensure that you feel prepared include:

  1. Have your health insurance information handy. Since it was Christmas Eve, the hospital in Perú was unable to get ahold of United Healthcare back in the states. I am still trying to receive reimbursement for some of those expenses.
  2. Have a contingency plan. I’m known to be a budget backpacker. However, it’s also important to know when to cut your losses and ensure that safety takes precedence. It’s not cheap to buy a new ticket the day of or seek medical treatment abroad. 
  3. Take reasonable precautions. Anything can happen at any time at anyplace (including your hometown, so this isn’t a reason not to travel). Don’t let this scare you, but also take reasonable precautions. Always register with the embassy of your home country, know emergency numbers to call, and have proper identification and documentation. Also, research common risks and illnesses where you’re going. For example, don’t cancel a trip somewhere with common mosquito-spread illnesses out of fear, but take reasonable precautions such as using adequate bug spray (or tea tree oil) and use a sleeping net. 

Hospitalized Abroad with Altitude Sickness

by Stephanie Best

12 thoughts on “Hospitalized Abroad With Altitude Sickness

  1. Hey Stephanie, sorry things didn’t work out for you. I’ve done Peru and Machu Picchu, and even though I spent my 3 days in Cuzco trying to acclimatize I never did. It felt like I was carrying a piano on my back visiting the sacred site. The local teas and gums didn’t help and I had to change my plans of visiting Bolivia and Iguazu Falls. Plenty of research makes for a better plan.

  2. Having to be hospitalized abroad is a scary scenario for me. I would be extremely fearful of the type of care I’d be receiving in a foreign country. I’d also be concerned about what my insurance covers. I happen to be insured with UHC so It’s good to know they care fo things for you. 🙂 . I hope you get the chance to make it back! My dream is Machu Pichu.

  3. Altitude sickness is one of those things that you can’t entirely predict. There is no way to know if it’s going to hit you or not. When we climbed Mt Kilimanjaro it hit me pretty hard in a different way, the nausea was almost overwhelming on the last part of the hike before reaching the summit. Luckily for me, it wasn’t bad enough that I had to be evacuated off the mountain, although that does happen with some others. Some of the most ‘fit’ people weren’t able to complete the climb due to it, proving that it really can hit anyone!

  4. Stephanie, i’m so sorry this happened, that sounds terrible. Thats the one thing with altitude you can’t really antecipate, I think your tips are spot on. Did you remove that from your list once and for all or are you willing to try again some time in the future?

  5. That would be so scary to be hospitalised in a foreign country and especially on your own. Glad you made it back home safely. I hope you get to see Machu Picchu another time.

  6. Stephanie, I’m so sorry that you got very sick in Peru. I’m even more sorry that you lost this chance to see Machu Picchu.

    My family and I have traveled to Peru several years ago. We rented a car in Lima and drove down Panamerica making unforgettable stops on the way. Then, we turned inland, and from the sea level our next stop was high in the mountains in Cabanaconda (altitude: 20,630 ft) near Colco canyon – that’s the only hotel reservation we made back at home. All other places were not booked in advance – we’d stop where the night gets us.

    The route from the seashore to Cabanaconda was long, and there were no other tourists’ stops on the way – no hotels or restaurants – only a narrow serpentine road. We’ve only met a few cars going in the opposite direction during the whole day of driving. It was a tricky to share the narrow mountain road letting each other pass by.

    It was getting dark and we were worried that we won’t be able to make it to the town before night. Then, we saw a broken truck on the road. There were 3 men in it. They didn’t speak English, but it was obvious that they needed help. There were 3 of us in the car (my husband driving, myself, and our son who was 20 years old, but was no help in driving as he is blind with other disabilities). We could only take 2 more men. So, we did. They were happy that they could go to town and call for help while their friend stayed with the truck. Speaking of danger… It felt a bit dangerous to take in your car two local men who didn’t speak English at all, and we didn’t speak any Spanish. But they turned out to be the most polite and appreciative people. This extra stop delayed our arrival a bit more. It was dark when we reached our destination.

    The first thing we were offered was tea with coca leaves. That’s what locals use to treat altitude sickness. All 3 of us drank this tea. Our son and I were okay, but my husband felt sick and couldn’t even finish his dinner. We think that his exhaustion added to it, but mostly it was probably altitude sickness, which he never experienced before. Our rise from the sea level to 20.5K+ ft was too quick. My husband felt better the next day, and we continued our trip to the canyon and then to Puno (Lake Titicaca), Cuzco and Machu Picchu. We drank tea with coca leaves several times a day while in the mountains, and no other episode of sickness happened to any of us. Though, Cabanaconda was the highest point above the sea we’ve reached during that trip.

    The whole trip was fabulous. You are a reasonable person – so, I can’t advise you to go back since you felt sick at 12,000 ft, needless to say, 20,000. But Machu Picchu is worth seeing and so are condors in Colca Canyon. If you ever decide to try again, be better prepared with the insurance and the emergency numbers as you suggest, but also remember the tip about the tea with coca leaves. It didn’t make us high at all. I asked the locals first, or I wouldn’t have given it to my boy. It really didn’t have any narcotic effect on us, and I believe that my husband’s condition could have been worse if it wasn’t for the tea, and who knows, maybe all 3 of us would end up in a hospital.

    I wrote a post under your post! LOL I hope it adds value to yours.

    Be well, brave and adventurous woman!

    ~ Julia

  7. Peru looks like a dream, what stunning views! It’s unfortunate that your trip didn’t end up like you had planned but it’s a good thing you sought out medical attention when you realized something wasn’t right! Health first, always! It’s so important to have travel insurance when travelling, because you never know when something can happen and it’s better to be prepared and spend the money on the insurance with the hope of never needing it!

  8. Holy cow, that doesn’t sound like fun at all, but being prepared as you were seems to have made it easier. You shared some excellent tips — although I’ve never needed it, I always buy travel health insurance (and will often yell at my sister for not doing it 😉 ). I’m really glad to hear that the Peruvian healthcare system took so care of you.

  9. This would be a nightmare for me. I’m glad you were able to make a connection with one of the nurses though. Sometimes that simple connection makes things much easier because it feels like you aren’t totally alone. You clearly have good judgement and knew when to go to the hospital, which is a huge deal. Too many people ignore signs and symptoms for too long and that can lead to far bigger problems.

  10. Well that was quite an unexpected experience but it’s a good thing the people there are quite supportive. Thanks for the tips, will definitely keep them in mind.

  11. Wow! What an exciting and still, scary experience! The exciting part was following along the first part of your journey. I think it is so cool that you can live that way. When I was in college I took a last minute backpack trip through Mexico. Not something I could do now, I’m afraid. So I loved reliving your adventure! However, I would be super scared to get sick and be in a hospital in a foreign country. Especially if you don’t know the language very well. You sure are brave! Thanks for all the lessons you pointed out at the end as well. It would have never occurred to me to register with the embassy when you arrive but if I ever go to another country it will now!

  12. Aw, sorry you had to go through that. Thanks for sharing your insight though! My husband and I had a lovely honeymoon in Costa Rica. We did get sick for a couple days though (thankfully nothing serious, just stomach upset). Its definitely necessary to take precautions when going somewhere so different than where you normally live!

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