Quito is a city that will take your breath away … literally! The air’s thinner up here in the clouds - so much so that even the Brazil and Argentina soccer teams don’t look forward to playing here, and often lose. In fact, Quito’s impressive elevation makes it the second highest capital city in the world – only La Paz in Bolivia pips it to first prize. The plus side is that Quito is surrounded by spectacular Andean peaks and majestic mountain vistas. The catch is that high elevations sometime causes tourists to worry about altitude sickness.
Keep reading for everything you need to know about Quito elevation. Just how high up is Quito exactly? What are the symptoms of altitude sickness? And how to avoid it when you travel to Ecuador?
• Quito elevation in meters: 2,850m
• Quito elevation in feet: 9,350ft
Yes, that’s pretty high indeed, almost 3km up in the clouds! To put that into perspective, compare Mexico City at 2240m above sea level, Denver at 1609m and Switzerland’s famous Alpen ski town Saint Moritz at 1822m.
Of course, urban planning is no easy task in the mountains. The city of Quito stretches down the flat central valley between the eastern and western range of the Andes. This goes a long way to explaining the unusual dimensions of the city – just 5km wide across the valley, whlie stretching close to 50km in length.
The main advantage to the high Quito elevation is the mild, spring-like temperature all year round. Despite being so close to the equator (just 25km away), Quito’s high altitude takes the edge off of the stifling heat and humidity suffered in Guayaquil city on Ecuador’s coast.
Want to go even higher? Take a ride on Quito’s teleférico cable car up Pichincha Volcano. At 4,050m the views are as outstanding as the air is chilly. Treking even higher takes altitude junkies to the peaks of Rucu Pichincha (4,698m) or Guagua Pichincha (4,784m) summits.
If you are planning a trip to Quito, it’s certainly a good idea to prepare before you come.
1. Aerobic fitness training is a good place to start. The healthier your lungs, the better they may be able to cope with the shock of Quito’s thinner air. Try to hit the gym, treadmill or aerobics classes more frequently in your months before travel. Even just walking more around town will have your lungs (and legs) pumping more, and whip you into better shape.
2. Travel with altitude medication or natural remedies just in case you need them – see our tips in the best remedies section.
3. Plan your itinerary carefully. Acclimatization is the best way to travel in the mountains, so avoid big, sudden jumps from sea level to high elevation in your travel plan. If possible spend a night or two at a Quito hotel when you arrive, to acclimatize before heading higher. Remember that acclimatization starts from scratch once you go back down to sea level again, for example at Galapagos or the Amazon.
If you have suffered from severe altitude sickness in the past, then as a last resort consider flying in and out of Guayaquil at sea level instead. Of course you’ll miss some real gems from Ecuador’s highlands, but will be able to travel safely without facing high elevations.
The locals call it Soroche, and even Ecuadorians sometimes feel altitude sickness if they travel to Quito from sea level.
The good news though is that altitude sickness in Quito in not that common, and symptons are usually mild. International health advisors state that humans may begin to feel some altitude sickness at elevations over 2,500meters (8,200ft), and Quito is after all just 350meters over that limit.
So in reality many people feel no adverse effects to Quito’s altitiude, or at worst may experience mild symptoms for 1 or 2 days. Altitude sickness is more common at elevations of 3,500m+.
Interestingly, altitude does not affect everybody. Even health experts do not know who will get it and who will not. We’ve even seen super fit athletes find it tough going up in the mountains, as well as over 60’s who are just fine. You really can’t know for sure until you are here in person.
The science behind altitude sickness is quite simple. The air is thinner at high altitudes, so the human body cannot get as much oxygen as it would at sea level. At the extreme altitude of 5,500m (18,000ft) for example, the air we breathe contains just half of the oxygen we are used to at sea level.
The result is that we need to breathe faster to get enough oxygen into our lungs, and our heart and lungs work harder too. This causes faster dehydration, possible headaches and other symptoms.
As we gradually acclimatize to higher altitudes, our bodies intelligently adapt by producing more red blood cells to carry more oxygen through our system. This reduces the impact of altitude sickness as our bodies adjust, and stresses the importance of gradual acclimatization.
In Quito some of the mild altitude sickness symptoms to look out for include:
1. Shortness of breath, especially during physical activity.
2. General tiredness, feeling sluggish or light-headed.
4. Loss of appetite.
5. Nausea or vomiting.
7. Pins and needles.
These symptoms will usually last for just 1 or 2 days, if at all.
The best advice is to take it easy on your first day, especially if you fly straight in from sea level. Rest, avoid unneccesary physical exhertion, or take a nap. Above all, don’t worry – chances are you won’t see any symptoms at all, or mild and temporary ones at worst.
Hydration is really important at altitude. We recommend drinking 3 litres of water each day to avoid headaches. Also, go easy on the alcohol on your first days in town.
Aim for light meals that are easy to digest, avoiding red meat for a day or two. Extra carbs can also help to boost energy if you’re feeling exhausted.
Avoid smoking so that your lungs can focus on breathing the thinner air.
Above all try to acclimatise gradually - don’t go higher until your body feels ready for it.
The very best remedy (and prevention) is water, water and more water. Hydrate well and headaches usually disappear. Chocolate and sugar are also great energy and morale boosters.
These drugstore medications can also help:
• Painkillers – Paracetemol, Asparin or Ibuprofen.
• Altitude medication - Acetazolamide containing Diamox can be bought under the name Glaucomed in Ecuador.
Oxygen inhalers can be useful to catch your breath.
Natural remedies for altitude sickness include: Coca tea, Gingko Biloba supplement, and antioxidant vitamins C and E. These have all been reported by climbers to naturally combat the effects of high altitude.
In the case that symptoms are severe or prolonged then the best guaranteed medicine is to head down to lower altitude ASAP.
The other menace of high altitude is sun exposure. It’s deceptively easy to burn your skin at altitude, because there is less of the earth's atmosphere to block the sunlight. UV light exposure increases by around 4% for every 300 m (1000 ft) elevation gain.
So use a hat, UV protected sunglasses and high SPF factor sun cream applied several times each day. Don’t underestimate the ferocity of the equatorial sun, which can burn even on cloudy days.
At 2,850m of elevation Quito is pretty high, but by no means the only altitude challenge in Ecuador.
Some other popular Ecuadorian tourist destinations above 2,500m include:
• Quilotoa Crater Lake 3,914m (12,841ft)
• Chugchilan 3,200m (10,500ft)
• Guamote 3,060m (10,039ft)
• Isinlivi 2,870m (9,416ft)
• Riobamba 2,764m (9,068ft)
• Latacunga 2,750m (9,022ft)
• Cuenca 2,560m (8,400ft)
• Otavalo 2,550m (8,366ft)
Of course the peaks of any Ecuadorian volcano or mountain may be significantly higher still. All the way up to 6,268m (20,564ft) of mighty Chimborazo – the tallest peak in Ecuador, and furthest point from the center of the earth.
Contact us for a FREE ECUADOR TOUR QUOTE, or for more information to plan your vacation with help from the experts. If you are concerned about traveling at altitude then just let us know – we can design a low altitude itinerary for you.
In conclusion, yes the elevation of Quito is pretty high, but in truth most tourist visitors notice little or no effect of altitude sickness. So, don’t worry - just follow our advice in this blog for a fun and trouble free Quito Ecuador vacation.