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Breathing Easy at High Altitudes

Topics: Climate and Environment | Travel Essentials

Published: Friday, August 15, 2014

Mexico City

Many really good places to live in Mexico are situated at high altitudes.  Heights of 5,000-7,000 feet above sea level are not unusual for cities in Mexico’s colonial heartland as well as those in the southern states of Oaxaca and Chiapas.  Mexico City and Guadalajara are also cities situated at altitude.

Most people who come to visit or live in Mexico tend to live much closer to sea-level–perhaps a few hundred feet above sea-level at most–and so a visit to one of Mexico’s inland towns or cities may have leave you breathless in more ways than one, until your body becomes acclimatized to thinner air.

Mexico City, for example, is not only 7,200 feet above sea level (that’s about a mile and-a-half up in the sky), it is situated in a valley surrounded by mountains and flanked by two volcanoes.  The mix of altitude, heat, and smog can become quite uncomfortable at times, and may leave you feeling exhausted after what may have seemed a normal day’s activity back home.

Mexico’s provinces do not suffer the smog that metropolises like Mexico City, Los Angeles and Tokyo have come to inherit, but the altitude and, in summer months, the heat may cause you to feel more tired than usual if you are not already accustomed to high altitudes where you live.

Common symptoms people adjusting to higher altitudes feel include unusual lethargy or tiredness, the desire to nap in the early afternoon, reduction or loss of appetite, headaches, and the inability to sleep well.

Altitude does bring with it some distinct advantages, too.  Being high up can keep the climate at more temperate levels, especially in comparison to the sultry, sweltering heat at the coasts in the high summer months.   During the fall and winter months, the mornings and evenings can be quite cool – even chilly – which makes for a welcome contrast to the warmer days and hotter summers.

Getting acclimatized to altitude takes some time, and your body will usually adjust surprisingly quickly to the change of altitude given the right amount of rest and hydration.

Here are some key tips to help you acclimatize at altitude:

Take it easy at first – don’t plan too much activity for your first few days.  Give your body time to acclimatize to the change in altitude and lower oxygen levels.  Take a short nap in the afternoon if you like; or at least rest a while;

Drink lots of fresh water – two liters a day, minimum; keep drinking little and often all day.   Staying thoroughly hydrated is really important at high altitude; even if you don’t feel thirsty;

Stay protected against the sun – wear a sun-hat and use protective sun lotion, even in the fall and winter months when the temperatures are lower. Stay protected even on cloudy days: UV rays can penetrate cloud cover;

Watch your alcohol intake – wine, beer, and liquor will go to your head faster and the effects will last longer when you are situated at high altitude; alcohol also dehydrates you, so you may want to consider scaling-back your normal consumption rates and supplementing your liquid intake with additional fresh water.

Within a few weeks, you will find that your body has acclimatized to higher altitudes and the side-effects will diminish. It is, however, important to keep yourself well hydrated and watch your alcohol intake.

For more practical information about keeping well and staying healthy in Mexico, read our Mexico Travel Health Guide – it’s packed full with tips and local knowledge.

See Also: Mexico: Land of Three Lands

Comments about “Breathing Easy at High Altitudes”

  1. I know when I fly from the US to Mexico City, I start on the ground and drink at least 2 or 3 large bottles of water before I even get in the plane and have a bottle with me on the plane. This way when arriving in Mexico City I have it ready.

  2. I travel to Mexico City frequently and stay very hydrated. It still takes me about a week and a half to acclimatize. Of course I do alot of walking in Pantitlan, Iztapalapa, and Coyoacan. Even taking the subway seems to wear me out that first week, especially during rush hour traffic when you smell all the exhaust. I still get amazed during the summer when on days you you see millions and millions of what appears to be particles of burnt carbon from the exhaust blowing in the wind. The real advantage is coming back home. I live at an altitude of about 100 feet, so when I come back, that first week I have twice the amount of energy and I don’t tire easily.

  3. Loved this article! I lived for several glorious months in San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, which is “at altitude.” Didn’t notice the increased effects of alcohol consumption (ha!), but DID have a heck of a time cooking beans…..for those thinking of residing in such a place, get thyself a pressure cooker!! :)

  4. But if you have any kind of breathing disorder you will not be able to adjust easily to a high altitude in a few days. I had to move from San Miguel de Allende after ten years living there because my chronic breathing problems became worse, and my oxygenation rate was around 88% (good is 97-99%), low enough that I would have had to go on oxygen if I stayed. If you have breathing problems of any kind near sea level, don’t expect you can just work into normal life at a mile-plus altitude.

  5. I RESIDED ATOP CHIAPIAS (SCDLC) for a year and lived on Souza Extra and chicharones! The only bad memory I have is it took 3 months back in the States to get rid of the taste of tequila in my mouth…….

  6. This explains everything now! I was visiting some friends in a town close to Guadalajara this summer, and I am from the mid Atlantic region of the US, and I while I was there, I was worried that I caught some ailment, because after the being in the city for four or five days, I started feeling extremely tired and always needed a nap. I was also running there, (I’m a runner) and I noticed that I would lose energy when I would reach only half of what I would normally run, and I had to stop because I felt really almost sick. Now I know why haha!

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