Altitude or Elevation?

If you squint, you still won't see Cuba, but the sun is setting as we fly over the island on our way to Quito.

If you squint, you still won’t see Cuba, but the sun is setting as we fly over the island on our way to Quito.

Most people use the two words interchangeably, but they’re not really the same. If you find yourself aloft, in a jet plane leaving the US for a South American adventure you are at altitude, a certain distance above mean sea level. When you are standing on firm ground and this happens to be a noticeable height above that same level of the sea, you are at a certain elevation. In spite of that distinction, what laid me out in a hotel room for 4 days when I first arrived in Quito, is commonly called “Altitude Sickness” and I can assure you that no matter what you call it, the symptoms are not  pleasurable.

Having first experienced the malady when I was 19 and climbing Mauna Loa on Hawai’i island, I have since had altitude sickness several times. So I knew that Quito would be a problem. I’ve been living in Honolulu for the past 2 years so any tolerance I built up from living 30 years in New Mexico is gone. Landing in Quito hit me hard and I immediately reached for the medicine bottle. Before leaving I had subscribed to a local travel medicine service, and in addition to updating pertussis, hepatitis A&B, tetanus and typhoid, I also received a generic form of Diamox, the standard medication for relieving the symptoms of altitude sickness. And these symptoms, like symptoms of many other maladies are described as “flu-like,” a description that I’ve never liked.

So after 3 days of Diamox dosing (starting 24 hrs before leaving Tampa) I was feeling no better and actually feeling a little worse. It was time to do what people of the Andes have been doing for many centuries, start drinking Mate de Coca, or coca tea. It’s from the same plant that cocaine eventually comes from but has none of the narcotic effect of the highly processes and chemically tainted cocaine of ill repute. Within 15 minutes of drinking my first cup, the splitting headache was gone, my breathing was less labored (but don’t kid yourself, 9,300 ft elev. is still home to very thin air), and overall, my energy returned to a more normal level. Sometimes the old ways will always be the best.


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