Surviving Giardia While Overseas

Being sick while traveling is never fun. From headaches from too many late nights, to upset stomachs from questionable street food, to just a low immune system from always being on the go - travel can sometimes (often) be tough on the body.


While we have been pretty lucky when it comes to staying healthy while traveling, there is one instance that really stands out that completely rocked our (healthy) world. It occurred during the last couple of weeks of our South America trip when Luke got so sick that we almost had to rush him to the emergency room.

It all started on a beautiful mountain pass high in the Andes of Peru. We were doing a 3-day backpacking loop in a more remote part of the mountains near the town of Huaraz (aka the trekking capital of Peru). It was our second day in and we were feeling pretty good.


That morning we had finally crossed the pass that we had been making our way towards the whole day before, and in the process had reached an elevation over 16,000 feet - which is super high, even for two Coloradoans who grew up in the Rockies (and who had conquered their fair share of 14-ers). The pass had been quite intimidating - especially on the side we had to make our way down: deep snow, steep grades, and rainy, windy weather. But we eventually made it to a small pampa (flat part) and started setting up camp for the night.


We didn’t realize it, but we were still over 14,000 feet in elevation at camp, and we were also quite dehydrated. Luke started to get quite sick from the altitude, so we decided to bowl a lot of water (a sure way to help altitude sickness). Luckily, there was a stunning waterfall about 100 yards from camp that we could easily get water from. The only thing we really had to deal with were the cows.



This is another key thing to know about the situation. While we saw all of five people on our three-day trek, we saw probably a hundred “wild” cows and horses, some of which were grazing at elevations as high as ~15,500 feet. Altogether, this meant there was cow dung… everywhere.


We didn’t think much of it until later. As we lay in our tent, listening to the wind and the rain, all we could think about was Mexican food (we had been craving it for weeks). Luke ran out to get some more water from the nearby stream, in hopes of it curing his pounding headache. We boiled it for a good amount of time before dumping it into our bottles. After taking the first sip, Luke poured it all out: it didn’t taste right.


And that right there - that one drink - is what caused Luke to almost be rushed to the hospital a couple of weeks later, this time during our stay in Quito, Ecuador.

After the backpacking trip outside Huaraz we headed north to Ecuador. After spending a couple of days in Guayaquil, the urban metropolis down south, we headed to the exciting and adventurous town of Banos. We spent another week there, going on lots of fun adventures, before tackling one of the things we were most excited to do in Ecuador: the Quilotoa Loop.


By now Luke was starting to not feel 100%. He was weak, he kept having to use the bathroom, and he just felt really bleh. We both thought it was just the long travel days and overall non-nutritious food catching up with us. By the third day of the hike though, we thought it might actually be something worse.


After conquering the Quilotoa Loop we finally made it to Quito, the capitol city and one of the highest capitol cities in the world (elevation: 9,350). We found a nice hostel, unpacked and settled in for a week of adventuring and exploring. The only issue - Luke was now full-blown sick and incredibly weak.



He couldn’t keep anything down, he could barely walk up a flight of steps and his stomach was just killing him. Overall, he seemed to be fading before our eyes. It got so bad, that we almost rushed to the hospital nearby just so he could get some fluids in him.


After playing Dr. Google we came to believe that it was giardia, an infection in your small intestine that is caused by a microscopic parasite called Giardia lamblia. Giardiasis spreads through contact with infected people, by eating contaminated food or by drinking contaminated water. We are pretty sure Luke got it during that hike in Huaraz, during that infamous night near the pass.


The most common symptoms, and all the ones Luke unfortunately had, were fatigue, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite (he survived off plain crackers and Pedialyte the whole time), stomach cramps, and weight loss. Due to his lack of appetite, and mixed with the fact that he couldn't keep anything down, by the time Luke finally kicked giardia he had loss between 15-20 pounds.


Most of the days we were in Quito, Luke spent it either in bed, in the bathroom or weakly walking behind me or lying in the grass. He could barely walk a hundred yards before having to stop and take a break. It was a very sad, and frankly, frightening sight to see.



In the end, we didn’t go to the hospital. With only had a couple days to go before heading back home to the United States, so we thought it would just be easier to figure it all out once back there. Plus, Luke eventually got into the “good” cycle of giardia: because it is a parasite it goes in cycles, so you do have moments when you are infected with it that you don’t feel too bad (the time between when the parasite lays its eggs and when they hatch, or something to that degree). So there were days when Luke wasn’t terribly sick - luckily, our long flight back to the USA was one of those days.

In the end, Luke went to the doctor, got confirmation that it was giardia, got on some medication and within a month was cleared as healthy. The only lasting effects were the weight loss (which he quickly gained back in the States) and an overall desire to head back to Quito to actually see it (as a healthy human).


Giardia is definitely not something you want to mess with. So make sure to take all the precautions necessary:

| boil your water for the right amount of time if getting it from a natural source (we did not boil it long enough for the elevation we were at)

| make sure you know where the water is coming from if in an urban environment, and consider only drinking water from reliable sources (water stations are a popular option)

| cook all vegetables if you can, and try to eat fruits that require you to peel the outside (or clean them with good water)

| finally, and this doesn’t just have to do with giardia, when traveling focus on your overall health: get enough sleep, eat right, move around frequently, etc.


When traveling - no matter for how long - it is important to have a strong immune system. So take care of yourself, physically, mentally and emotionally. Because there is nothing fun about puking in trashcans or lying in bed instead of exploring a wonderful city or adventuring in the great outdoors.

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As always, stay adventurous friends :)