Our Secret To Hiking The Andes: The Coca Leaf
It’s our first time in Peru and we couldn’t be more excited! We flew into Lima from Mexico City and immediately took a flight straight into Cusco. If you’ve got time, people usually recommend the normal backpacker route by bus to get your body acclimated to high altitude, since Cusco is 3,399 meters (11,152 ft) above sea level. The normal backpacker route is Lima - Paracas - Ica - Arequipa - Puno - Cusco. Like always, we never listen and went our own way. Although we will say we got lucky with the altitude and didn’t feel it as much as others...I guess I’d have to thank the Mate De Coca or Te de Coca to be honest!
So I am not going to lie, using coca leaves to make tea was a brand new thing for us in Peru. It was something we were very curious about since Coca is such a taboo topic or big no no for those in other countries were Coca leaves are illegal. It even felt weird when went to a local mercado in search of Coca leaves to get us prepared for a tough hike. After visiting the Museo De La Coca in Cusco, we learned a great deal about this plant and it’s natural uses.
The Coca leaf has always been the sacred plant of the Incas and a part of normal life in the Andean culture for centuries. Mummies and old statues were found throughout South America with a bulge in their right cheek showing their use of this sacred plant.
Coca leaves had many uses in the past aside from relieving altitude sickness. The coca leaf was considered a source of energy, it relieved hunger, thirst and has a very high nutritional value. It was even found that years ago, the Incas used coca oil when performing brain tumor surgery. Coca cream was also developed to help deform the skulls of noble children. This was done to help differentiate the royalty from the rest of the population or for religious purposes. They tied their head with small flat wood, leather bands and rope. Over time, these children started developing elongated skulls. The Coca cream along with other plants helped to soften the skull and help with pain. Oddly enough the Mayan culture also had this practice, but I am not sure if Coca cream was involved.
Most importantly, the Coca leaf was used in ceremonies and offerings to the Pachamama (Mother Earth), the Apus (mountains), or Inti (the sun). These ceremonies are still used today. They are done as offerings or as a thank you, to Mother Earth for helping complete a job or asking for something in return like a good agricultural season.
Over the years, Coca elements have been added to many products like wine, candy, lip balm, beer, teas and yes Coca-Cola too! Even to this day Coca is an ingredient added to the soft drink, but this ingredient has been de-cocainized (all cocaine elements have been removed).
Difference Between Coca Leaf and Cocaine
Let’s get one thing straight, using the Coca leaf to make tea or chewing it for its natural benefits is NOT or will not give you the same effects as using cocaine the actual narcotic. The Coca leaf contains the psychoactive alkaloid called cocaine. This alkaloid is the raw material needed to produce the cocaine drug. Just to keep things in perspective here, it takes 370 kilos of Coca leaves to create 1 kilo of cocaine. The Coca leaf is legal and regulated by the government in Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina. Many South American governments defend the traditional use of the Coca leaf today, but are against the illegal production and consumption of it. Regardless, you should never try taking the Coca leaf as a souvenir back to your home country unless you’re looking for trouble. There are tea bags, candies, chocolates and many forms of edible goods containing Coca, but if you are planning on buying these items they are best enjoyed in Peru!
Altitude Sickness & Coca Leaf
Although there are many forms of reaping the benefits of the Coca Leaf, the most popular ones are drinking a Coca tea or chewing on the leaves to help relieve in our case…altitude sickness. Does it work? Yes it does. First hand we can tell you, the Coca Tea has a great taste and gives you energy. It was recommended by many locals that we take Coca leaves with us to Rainbow Mountain, Machu Picchu, and other strenuous hikes.
Other ways to deal with altitude sickness:
The best way to deal with altitude sickness is to give yourself some time to rest before you decide to go climb some mountains. Altitude sickness is no joke and you should take it very seriously. The last thing you want is for your trip to be ruined for not taking the proper precautions.
Give yourself 1-2 days to rest and get your body acclimated.
Don’t do strenuous activities in the 1-2 days of arriving.
Drink lots of water and stay hydrated.
Stay away from alcohol.
Gradual ascend is always best. The normal backpacker route will help with the gradual acclimatization of your body.
I prefer using natural remedies versus using pharmaceuticals. If your altitude sickness gets really bad, we highly recommend you visit a pharmacy to get some medicine. It might be a good idea to visit your doctor and get something from your home country if you already know your altitude sickness will be bad.
So what is the verdict…
The Coca Leaf was definitely our secret to completing the strenuous hikes in the Andes. Most of the cities in Peru are high in the mountains and have high elevations. If you are coming to Peru, make sure you are prepared. If you don’t feel comfortable consuming any kind of Coca goods, don’t feel pressured to do so. Every person is different and our bodies will respond different to any sort of altitude. If you decide to try a Coca tea, make sure to add sugar... it really makes a difference!
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