One thing that sets New Mexico apart from most other states is its elevation. Santa Fe and Taos are about 7,000 feet above sea level; Albuquerque is more than 5,000 feet above sea level. The reduced oxygen and humidity can precipitate some unique problems, as noted below. The desert environment can also present some challenges.

Common Ailments

High Desert Challenges -- One of the most common ailments in New Mexico is acute mountain sickness. In its early stages, you might experience headaches, shortness of breath, loss of appetite and/or nausea, tingling in the fingers or toes, lethargy, and insomnia. The condition can usually be treated by taking aspirin as well as getting plenty of rest, avoiding large meals, and drinking lots of nonalcoholic fluids (especially water). If the condition persists or worsens, you must return to a lower altitude. Other dangers of higher elevations include hypothermia and sun exposure, and these should be taken seriously. To avoid dehydration, drink water as often as possible.

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Limit your exposure to the sun, especially during the first few days of your trip and, thereafter, between 11am and 2pm. Liberally apply sunscreen with a high protection factor. Remember that children need more protection than adults do. It's important to monitor your children's health while in New Mexico. They are just as susceptible to mountain sickness, hypothermia, sunburn, and dehydration as you are.

Dietary Red Flags -- Though some places in New Mexico can have the feel of towns in our neighboring Mexico, the food and water here are safe. As well, a broad range of food is available, so that even vegetarians can usually find something to eat; small cafes often offer beans and rice. One of the few dietary concerns is the spicy chile, so be sure to ask how hot it is before ordering.

Bugs, Bites & Other Wildlife Concerns -- If you're an outdoorsperson, be on the lookout for snakes -- particularly rattlers. Avoid them. Don't even get close enough to take a picture (unless you have a very good zoom lens). As well, watch for black widows, which have a bulbous body and an hourglass image on their belly; a bite from this spider can make you very sick. The same goes for scorpions, which are crablike spiders with a curled stinging tail. If you get bitten by a snake or spider, or stung by a scorpion, seek professional medical help immediately.

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Visitors to the state should also be careful of contracting the plague and hantavirus, a few cases of each reported annually in the state. Both diseases can be fatal, and both are transmitted through exposure to infected rodent droppings. Though it's unlikely that you'll be exposed to such things while traveling, be careful anytime you note the presence of mice or other rodents.

Weather Concerns -- You'll also want to be wary of arroyos, or creek beds in the desert where flash floods can occur without warning. If water is flowing across a road, do not try to drive through it because chances are the water is deeper and flowing faster than you think. Just wait it out. Arroyo floods don't last long.

General Availability of Health Care

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The most reliable hospitals in the area are St. Vincent's Hospital, 455 St. Michaels Dr. in Santa Fe (tel. 505/820-5250), Presbyterian Hospital, 1100 Central Ave. SE in Albuquerque (tel. 505/841-1234, or 505/841-1111 for emergency service), and Memorial Medical Center, 2450 S. Telshor Blvd. in Las Cruces (tel. 575/522-8641).

What To Do If You Get Sick Away From Home

If you suffer from a chronic illness, consult your doctor before your departure. Pack prescription medications in your carry-on luggage, and carry them in their original containers, with pharmacy labels -- otherwise they won't make it through airport security. Visitors from outside the United States should carry generic names of prescription drugs. For U.S. travelers, most reliable health-care plans provide coverage if you get sick away from home. Foreign visitors may have to pay all medical costs upfront and be reimbursed later.

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Safety

Tourist areas as a rule are safe, but, despite recent reports of decreases in violent crime in Santa Fe, it would be wise to check with the tourist offices in Santa Fe, Taos, and Albuquerque if you are in doubt about which neighborhoods are safe.

Remember that hotels are open to the public, and in a large hotel, security may not be able to screen everyone who enters. Always lock your room door; don't assume that once inside your hotel you are automatically safe and no longer need to be aware of your surroundings.

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Be aware that New Mexico has a higher-than-average reported incidence of rape. Women should not walk alone in isolated places, particularly at night.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.