Altitude Sickness: Is it common in Costa Rica?

The first time that I hear the term altitude sickness was working as a volunteer coordinator and I got an email from a girl saying: ”My home is at sea level and I am concerned about altitude there”.

At that time I didn’t quite understand her concern until we started hiking higher altitudes like the Cerro Chirripó that is the highest mountain in Costa Rica. 

Altitude sickness it’s not a very popular topic when you are thinking about your time in Costa Rica. 

However, if you are planning to visit areas like volcanos, do some long hikes or move from the beach to a higher elevation on your itinerary. 

So in order to write this article besides my research about the topic I have asked some people to share where they experience in Costa Rica altitude sickness during their time here. 

It’s also important to mention that will be different for each person depending on specific conditions, age, or not having an acclimatization period.

Altitude sickness: What to know

People in Costa Rica don’t mind much about it because usually those who are at elevation for short periods of time experience what are described as hangover-like symptoms and simply returning to lower elevation relieves them. 

Even though we don’t have elevations like  Machu Picchu, Cuzco, Puno, Titicaca Lake which are famous from high altitude definitely there are areas in Costa Rica with enough high altitude Altitude Sickness that could be a concern. 

So it’s important to educate yourself in order to avoid it. 

According to Carol DerSarkissian, a board-certified emergency physician from WebMD:

Sometimes called “mountain sickness,” an altitude sickness is a group of symptoms that can strike if you walk or climb to a higher elevation, or altitude, too quickly.

When you travel in a plane, drive or hike up a mountain, or go skiing, your body may not have enough time to adjust. 

What causes Altitude sickness?

Higher altitudes have lower levels of oxygen and decreased air pressure.

If you live in a place that’s located at a moderately high altitude, you get used to the air pressure.

But if you travel to a place at a higher altitude than you’re used to, your body will need time to adjust to the change in pressure.

Some articles said that any time you go above 8,000 feet others said 12,000 feet, you can be at risk for altitude sickness.

Pushing yourself to quickly hike up a mountain, for example, may cause acute mountain sickness. mentioned who is at higher risk to experience altitude sickness.

  • You live at or near sea level and travel to a high altitude.
  • You have had the illness before.
  • You ascend quickly.
  • You have not acclimatized to the altitude.
  • Alcohol or other substances have interfered with acclimatization.
  • You have medical problems involving the heart, nervous system, or lungs.

Which places in Costa Rica are considered a “high elevation” in terms of getting altitude sickness?

Again this will be different for each case since previous health conditions, age, and how fast you move from one place to the other. Also, we heard people getting nauseous on the ride to these places because routes are very curvy. 

Moderately high altitude: 5000 to 8000 feet (1500-2500 meters)

If you know you’re particularly susceptible, altitude is probably not a factor in your headache or hangover-like symptoms at these elevations.

  • Monteverde: Most of the hiking trails are on the reserve that has a higher altitude around 5000 ft than the town where most of the lodging areas are located.  
  • Varablanca: Almost 6000 ft of Altitud people visit this area because of the number of waterfalls that you can hike like Tesoro Escondido or Rio Agrio. Al least you are coming directly from the beach and do a long hike it might be affected.  
  • Cartago: It will be very rare but some people that have visited the area may notice a difference in breathing especially if they are doing activities near Irazu Volcano like Prusia or Lancaster Garden.

High Altitude: 8000 to 11,000 feet (2500-3500 meters) 

  • Poás Volcano: 8884 ft (2708 meters)  you can drive up all the way there and the altitude is lower than Irazu Volcano, it´s not rare to experience mild symptoms like headache and fatigue, also because of the gases on the area. 
  • Barva Volcano:  Here you can do more hiking on the trails of the National Park and also is higher with an altitude of 9534 feet. Usually, people don´t spend the night here so might be fixed just after your visit by just staying in a lower elevation. 

Very High Altitude: + 11,000 (Above 3500 meters)

  • Irazu Volcano: Irazu is 11,000 ft. (3432 m). That is the same altitude as Brian Head, the tallest peak in the state of Utah. Here is where the majority of people report altitude sickness from mild to severe.   
  • Cerro de la Muerte: People who usually drive up to this route when they are visiting the Dominical area might feel air trapped and if you are doing hiking might feel fatigued or have headaches. 
  • Cerro Chirripó: 12536 ft the highest point in Costa Rica, we highly recommend acclimatization because even locals climbers are likely to experience an altitude-related illness.

What are the symptoms of altitude sickness?

In Costa Rica, we have heard the following symptoms and experiences: 

Recently on the Cerro de la Muerte, I have had intense tooth pain, I think due to air trapped in a filling, I think it must have leaked out as the pain only lasted seconds.

I had altitude sickness visiting Irazu. It was absolutely horrible as I became weak as a newborn kitten and was vomiting and fighting for breath. If you tend toward breathing problems I’d say as beautiful as it is take a virtual tour rather than go through that

There are effects of high altitude that not necessary is altitude sickness like:

  • Awakening frequently at night
  • Increased urination
  • Shortness of breath during exertion

According to Cleveland Clinic, there are different levels of altitude sickness that have different symptoms:

Symptoms of mild, short-term altitude sickness usually begin 12 to 24 hours after arriving at a high altitude. 

They lessen in a day or two as your body adjusts. These symptoms include:

  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue and loss of energy.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Sleep problems.

Symptoms of moderate altitude sickness are more intense and worsen instead of improving over time:

  • Worsening fatigue, weakness, and shortness of breath.
  • Difficulty doing regular activities, though you may still be able to walk independently.
  • Coordination problems and difficulty walking.
  • Severe headache, nausea, and vomiting.
  • Chest tightness or congestion.

Severe altitude sickness is an emergency.

The symptoms are similar to moderate AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness), but more severe and intense. If you start experiencing these symptoms, you must be taken to a lower altitude immediately for medical care:

  • Shortness of breath, even when resting.
  • Inability to walk.
  • Confusion.
  • Fluid buildup in the lungs or brain.

High Altitude Pulmonary Edema HAPE, when fluid builds up in the lungs, prevents oxygen from moving around your body. You need medical treatment for HAPE. Symptoms include:

  • Cyanosis, when the skin, nails, or whites of your eyes start to turn blue.
  • Confusion and irrational behavior.
  • Shortness of breath even when resting.
  • Tightness in the chest.
  • Extreme fatigue and weakness.
  • Feeling like you’re suffocating at night.
  • Persistent cough, bringing up white, watery fluid.

High Altitude Cerebral Edema HACE happens when the brain tissue starts to swell from the leaking fluid.

 You need medical treatment for HACE. Symptoms include:

  • Headache
  • Loss of coordination.
  • Weakness.
  • Disorientation, memory loss, hallucinations.
  • Psychotic behavior.
  • Coma.

We have heard people that visited Peru and got their lesson after their first trip when they were newbies and run, jump from happiness, and then passed out on the floor. 

How can altitude sickness be prevented?

If you feel concerned and want to be sure that you don’t have altitude sickness in Costa Rica we highly recommend you double-check with your doctor to prescribed an altitude medicine. 

We have compiled the best advice from our fellow travelers. 

Here are the 10 Golden rules for safe exploration in Costa Rica if you feel altitude sickness might affect you.   

  1. Plan your trip in order to ascend gradually from one elevation to the other. 
  2. If you’re going to spend any time over 3000 meters or hike it in a day, try and spend a night of 2 at a lower elevation first, 2000-2500 maybe. 
  3. Resting for at least a day before moving to a higher altitude
  4. Drink a lot of water and move slowly
  5. Returning to a lower altitude as soon you feel bad
  6. Reducing your activity level
  7. Avoid Alcohol because can dehydrate your body. It also has stronger effects at higher elevations, which can impair judgment.
  8. Eat carbs, Eat a diet that’s more than 70% carbohydrates.
  9. Know the “don’ts”: Avoid tobacco and depressant drugs, such as sleeping pills and tranquilizers.
  10. Medication. Ask your doctor about taking acetazolamide (the former brand name of Diamox) two days before a trip and during your trip there’s some evidence that can help prevent altitude sickness according to 

Curious explorer tip: I got a message from a reader who recommends Ginko Biloba. Apparently taking 2 weeks before your trip will reduce the risk to suffer AMS. If you like nerdy information read the following article that I found. 

I am writing about these because the more we explore Costa Rica hiking we realized that it’s a topic that became more relevant to us and for those travelers that want to do different types of hiking or visiting a volcano. 

We hope this information helps you to have a better idea that even when in Costa Rica altitude sickness is Unlikely but not impossible. 

Again just remember that investing time in good planning that takes into consideration acclimatization time will be the key to have a successful exploration in Costa Rica preventing altitude sickness.  

Posted by Ligia

I´m from the “Pura Vida” country, Costa Rica! My life in a nutshell: Background in Tourism and hotel managment. Married with Rodrigo a wonderful tour guide ;) Lover of cultures, nature and social causes! Full time administrador at Non Profit Children´s Organization in my hometown and part time blogger of Explore Tikizia. Favorite things: Coffee time, travel and Jesus!

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