Climate and Environment, Healthcare

Breathing Easy at High Elevation

Some great places to visit and live in Mexico are situated at higher altitudes than most people are accustomed to

Man on mountaintop

Many really good places to visit and live in Mexico are situated at high elevation—the height of the land in relation to sea level.  Elevations of 5,000 to 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. If you plan to experience the over-wintering Monarch Butterflies you’ll also need to adjust to the higher elevations in the forested mountains where these butterflies gather.

Many people who arrive in Mexico tend to come from places situated 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 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’s 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 the heat during summer months may cause you to feel more tired than usual if you are not already accustomed to higher elevation where you live.

Common symptoms felt by people adjusting to higher elevation include:

  • Headaches
  • Fatigue or lethargy
  • Dizziness or nausea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Sleeplessness
  • Shortness of breath

Elevation does bring with it some distinct advantages, too.

Being high up keeps 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 in some places – which makes for a welcome contrast to the warmer days and hotter summers.

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

Tips to help you acclimatize at high elevation:

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 is recommended; keep drinking little and often all day. Staying thoroughly hydrated is really important at high elevations; 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. Keep your skin protected from the sun even on overcast days as 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 drinking alcohol in places with high elevation; 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 days, most people find that their body has acclimatized to higher elevation and the side-effects diminish. It is, however, important to keep yourself well hydrated and watch your alcohol intake even after you have acclimatized.

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.

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