Having lived most of my life 2.640 meters (8.660 feet) above sea level, I never had to worry about altitude sickness. Occasionally I would get light-headed or dizzy after returning from a long trip, but nothing a nap or a good night rest couldn’t fix. But getting soroche? Never. That was an alien, old people decease that afflicted the unaccustomed. Not me.
But a week in Peru’s Andean heights proved me wrong.
Short-breath, nausea and blinding headaches assaulted me in Cusco a few hours after we landed. At first I thought it was food poisoning (drinking tap water can be a health hazard), but it soon became apparent that my body wasn’t really used to high altitudes, just used to one kind of altitude. 3.440 meters was too much.
Our trip had just started and my state threatened to tie me to a bed for the next several days. That would mean no Inca Trail, no Machu Picchu, no Cuzco, and, really, no fun. Excited for the hikes to come and desperate and eager to recover, I broke an odd and misguided “cultural taboo” and chewed coca-leaves for the first time.
Santo remedio, as they say.
The coca-plant is a bushy tree native to western South America. For centuries, it has been a central part of the indigenous communities’ religions and medicinal practices, even complementing local nutrition (the leaves are a good source of some essential minerals). The Spanish colonization of the Americas might have done away with most, but many communities remain and some practices have bleed into the national culture and folklore of several countries.
Nowadays, the coca-leaf s still an important symbol for the remaining indigenous Andean communities and its tea (mate de coca) is drank all the way down to the Land of Fire (Chile).
But, although the consumption of coca-leaves in tea is wide-spread in many countries, Colombia has a (to put it mildly) complicated relationship with the plant. Why, is a topic I’m not going to explore here completely, but let’s just say that the closeness of coca-leaves to cocaine (the drug) can make their consumption somewhat culturally problematic. This, I believe, is something many foreigners might come to think as well.
(And, also, coffee is the hot drink of choice in Colombia. Tea is much less common).
Cocaine – that highly addictive psychoactive that was all the rage in the 80s – is a substance found in coca-leaves (albeit in small quantities). To extract this substance from the plant, fresh leaves must be mushed into a paste, doused in gasoline and other chemical solvents (acid-base extraction) and then dried. This highly concentrated byproduct is the strong stimulant benzolmethylecgonine, commonly known as coke. Consumption of this peculiar white powder can cause euphoria, a distanced sense of reality, megalomania, agitation, increased heart rate and enlarged pupils (and probably more).
But consumption of cocaine via brewing or chewing the leaves won’t have the strong stimulant and psychoactive effects the drug is known for (nor will it cause addiction or abstinence). The concentration is too low and the absorption very different. Coca-leaves are a mild stimulant that can suppress hunger, thirst, pain, and fatigue, and are considered particularly effective to combat altitude sickness. You won’t get any kind of high from it.
If you are not particularly fond of tea and find that green tea is horrid and tastes like grass, coca-leave tea might not be your cup of tea. It is a rather bitter, grass-y beverage whose taste I often confuse with other medicinal leave-brews. Adding sugar, honey, or agave can go a long way in making it more pleasant to drink (or any other sweetener). Your choice.
(Personally, coca-leave tea is a good after-meal drink if you like palate cleansers and great food-anxiety suppressant if you binge eat when nervous).
“Chewing” (mambear coca) coca-leaves is another deal completely. In the past, natives might have chewed fresh picked leaves, but nowadays it’s a little different. To better absorb the active chemicals in the leaves (I presume), you wrap the dried leaves around a little bit of cal (quicklime or burnt lime; calcium oxide), and place the small bundle against the inside of your cheek. Your saliva will make the quicklime foam and extract the juices from the leaves. The taste is not fantastic, but you get used to it.
WARNING: Don’t swallow the bundle: quicklime burns and I doubt gastric juices go well with it. It didn’t happen to me and I have not heard of this happening to anyone, but it is still worth mentioning. Just in case. (Some people swallow gum, I guess, so… just don’t).
The leaves probably saved my trip to Peru. Shortly after I began “chewing” them and drinking tea my altitude sickness disappeared, and – preemptively – I kept doing it throughout my hike in the Inca Trail and again when I was back in Cuzco from Machu Picchu. How exactly it prevents or cures altitude sickness apparently has not been systematically studied (or so says Wikipedia), but it worked for me (hurray!).
Still, even though coca-leaves are the raw material for a very popular, very powerful drug, there is no reason not to try, at the very least, the tea. And no risk in doing so. It is an interesting alternative to coffee in the mornings – if you don’t like coffee and want that extra umph to start your day – and it can also double as a remedy for mild headaches (has also worked for me).
The chewing I would only really recommend if you find yourself in a similar situation to the one I suffered through: hiking with altitude sickness sounds very unpleasant. The medicinal benefits of the plant might be a reason to have at it, but unless you are already in the habit of chewing tobacco and what to give coca-leaves a go, tea is much more convenient option (in my opinion).
Anyway, hope you don’t get altitude sickness like I did. Rather horrid experience. But if you do (and I so sorry for you) you might find in this interesting green leaves a glimmer of hope.
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