Chile is a fairly risk-free country to travel in as far as health problems are concerned. No inoculations are required, though you might want to consider a hepatitis A jab, as a precaution. Check, too, that your tetanus boosters are up to date. Many travellers experience the occasional stomach upset, and sunstroke is also quite common, especially at high altitudes.
Chile is well endowed with pharmacies (farmacias) – even smaller towns usually have at least a handful. If you need to see a doctor, make an appointment at the outpatient department of the nearest hospital, usually known as a clínica. The majority of clínicas are private, and expensive, so make sure your travel insurance provides good medical cover.
Rabies, though only a remote risk, does exist in Chile. If you get bitten or scratched by a dog, you should seek medical attention immediately. The disease can be cured, but only through a series of stomach injections administered before the onset of symptoms, which can appear within 24 hours or lie dormant for months, and include irrational behaviour, fear of water and foaming at the mouth. There is a vaccine, but it’s expensive and doesn’t prevent you from contracting rabies, though it does buy you time to get to hospital.
Anyone travelling in Chile’s northern altiplano, where altitudes commonly reach 4500m – or indeed anyone going higher than 3000m in the cordillera – needs to be aware of the risks of altitude sickness, locally known as soroche or apunamiento. This debilitating and sometimes dangerous condition is caused by the reduced atmospheric pressure and corresponding reduction in oxygen that occurs around 3000m above sea level. Basic symptoms include breathlessness, headaches, nausea and extreme tiredness, rather like a bad hangover. There’s no way of predicting whether or not you’ll be susceptible to the condition, which seems to strike quite randomly, affecting people differently from one ascent to another. You can, however, take steps to avoid it by ascending slowly and allowing yourself to acclimatize. In particular, don’t be tempted to whizz straight up to the altiplano from sea level, but spend a night or two acclimatizing en route. You should also avoid alcohol and salt, and drink lots of water. The bitter-tasting coca leaves chewed by most locals in the altiplano (where they’re widely available at markets and village stores), can help ease headaches and the sense of exhaustion.
Although extremely unpleasant, the basic form of altitude sickness is essentially harmless and passes after about 24 hours (if it doesn’t, descend at least 500m). However, in its more serious forms, altitude sickness can be dangerous and even life-threatening. One to two percent of people travelling to 4000m develop HAPO (high-altitude pulmonary oedema), caused by the build-up of liquid in the lungs. Symptoms include fever, an increased pulse rate, and coughing up white fluid; sufferers should descend immediately, whereupon recovery is usually quick and complete. Rarer, but more serious, is HACO (high-altitude cerebral oedema), which occurs when the brain gets waterlogged with fluid. Symptoms include loss of balance, severe lassitude, weakness or numbness on one side of the body and a confused mental state. If you or a fellow traveller display any of these symptoms, descend immediately and get to a doctor; HACO can be fatal within 24 hours.
Sunburn and dehydration
In many parts of Chile, sunburn and dehydration are threats. They are obviously more of a problem in the excessively dry climate of the north, but even in the south of the country, it’s easy to underestimate the strength of the summer sun. To prevent sunburn, take a high-factor sunscreen and wear a wide-brimmed hat. It’s also essential to drink plenty of fluids before you go out, and always carry large quantities of water with you when you’re hiking in the sun. As you lose a lot of salt when you sweat, add more to your food, or take a rehydration solution.
Another potential enemy, especially at high altitudes and in Chile’s far southern reaches, is hypothermia. Because early symptoms can include an almost euphoric sense of sleepiness and disorientation, your body’s core temperature can plummet to danger level before you know what has happened. Chile’s northern deserts have such clear air that it can drop to -20°C (-4°F) at night, which makes you very vulnerable to hypothermia while sleeping if proper precautions aren’t taken. If you get hypothermia, the best thing to do is take your clothes off and jump into a sleeping bag with someone else – sharing another person’s body heat is the most effective way of restoring your own. If you’re alone, or have no willing partners, then get out of the wind and the rain, remove all wet or damp clothes, get dry, and drink plenty of hot fluids.
Chile’s shellfish should be treated with the utmost caution. Every year, a handful of people die because they inadvertently eat bivalve shellfish contaminated by red tide, or marea roja, algae that becomes toxic when the seawater temperature rises. The government monitors the presence of this algae with extreme diligence and bans all commercial shellfish collection when the phenomenon occurs. There is little health risk when eating in restaurants or buying shellfish in markets, as these are regularly inspected by the health authorities, but it’s extremely dangerous to collect shellfish for your own consumption unless you’re absolutely certain that the area is free of red tide. Note that red tide affects all shellfish, cooked or uncooked.