The coca leaf played an important role during the Inca period, the Incas considered it sacred. They valued the coca leaf as highly as gold not only for its role in sacred rituals but also for its medicinal properties. There is an age-old ancestral tradition of the Andean people that consists of chewing coca for altitude sickness (place a small handful of coca leaves inside your cheeks and chew them until they get mushy). Nowadays, locals, as the team of Cusco Peru Travel, still do it. Besides, coca leaves are used also to relieve pain and hunger.
But what is altitude sickness? Also called soroche, it occurs when traveling to a high altitude too quickly from a lower altitude. At high elevations there is less pressure, it means that each breath you take contains less oxygen. Symptoms may include headaches, tiredness, vomiting, and dizziness.
It’s not a drug, it’s a miraculous leaf
Despite gaining notoriety for being the source material for cocaine, the coca leaf is still part of the culture and history of the people of the Andes. In fact, many Peruvians chew coca leaves or drink mate de coca (coca tea) in the same way you drink your morning coffee. They increase energy levels which is very useful for your Machu Picchu trip, don’t you think? But don’t worry, scientifically the coca leaf has neither addictive qualities nor toxic properties. It’s totally the opposite, it’s considered a miraculous and very effective medicine.
In addition, as we mentioned before, the Incas used not only coca for altitude sickness but also for rituals and rites. Traditionally, in the Andean religion, three coca leaves are used to make an offering to Pachamama (Mother Earth). Each one represents one of the three worlds in the Andean cosmovision: Uju Pacha (the underworld represented by the serpent), Kay Pacha (the surface world we inhabit as humans, symbolized by the puma) and Janaq Pacha (the upper world represented by the condor). Andean people such as shamans believe that the coca leaf is necessary for communicating and delivering important messages to the gods of these worlds. Also, some people believe that the coca leaf can be read to tell the future.
If you are slightly wary of trying out coca leaves…
First off, you must take into consideration that the coca leaf is not a synonym of cocaine. It is not addictive; you will never get high with it. Certainly, it’s really common to see local people chewing coca leaves. With this in mind, don’t be afraid to take them. Trust us, coca for altitude sickness really works!
We know that nobody wants to waste any day of their journey feeling sick. So, when planning a trip to Peru -especially to the highlands-, it’s advisable to take it easy on the first day and rest to help your body acclimatize to the high altitude. Once acclimatized, go ahead, start enjoying your adventures! But please, don’t be tempted to carry a bag of coca leaves in your luggage when coming back home. That is illegal!
Alternatives to coca for altitude sickness
- Stay hydrated: At high altitude, the body dehydrates quickly. Thus, it’s really important to stay hydrated before and during your trip to avoid unpleasant altitude sickness symptoms. You can take mate de coca as well but not in excess, it can produce palpitations. If you have a heart condition or suffer from high blood pressure, it’s better to exclude it. In addition to that, we recommend avoiding heavy meals since the stomach takes longer to digest food at high altitudes.
- Avoid alcohol: The effects of alcohol enhance at high altitude which makes the effect of altitude sickness worse. We know you want to drink a Pisco Sour (the national drink) to celebrate you are in Peru. But a good and specialized Peru travel guide, such us, will recommend you to hold off on the pisco sour for the first couple of days.
- Go lower: When traveling to Cusco, our piece of advice is to head straight to Machu Picchu or the Sacred Valley of the Incas. We know that maybe this can change your trip plans, but keep in mind that Cusco is at an altitude of 3,400 meters above sea level, while in the Sacred Valley the elevation is about 2,900 meters above sea level. Lower altitude can make a huge difference.
- Take it easy: Relax and moderate your physical activity. We recommend taking a few days of plenty of rest to let your body acclimatize to high elevations.
- Get an Oxishot: Anytime you need a boost, take an Oxishot. It’s a small dischargeable can filled with oxygen which helps you to reduce fatigue and headaches. You can find it in almost every pharmacy in Cusco. Even many 5-star hotels offer oxygen supply. They keep oxygen tanks on-hand for their guests.
- Check with a doctor: When traveling overseas make sure to get a travel insurance Peru. If you are slightly wary of trying out coca leaves or mate de coca, Cusco Peru Travel highly recommends you to consult a doctor. A doctor can always advise you with the right medicine you could take in case you feel sick, even find out if you are able to travel to high places like the Andes. It’s better to be safe than sorry, right?
A magical pill
In the Peruvian highlands, there is a magical pill called Sorojchi Pill that can save your life… We are not overstating. Lots of travelers consider altitude sickness like a free invitation to the other side. But don’t feel paranoid, if you are not really into natural and ancestral medicine, you can take these pills (it contains acetylsalicylic acid, salophen and caffeine). These over-the-counter pills will help you with your blood circulation and headache. Your body will eventually accustom to the altitude and symptoms will gradually subside. After trying them, you would realize how effective they are.
Finally, when coming to Peru, you will inevitably experience the coca leaf. Not only to regain energy but also experience the ancestral Andean use, i.e. coca leaf reading. It attracts many visitors each year since it provides you with a unique insight into our ancient and mystic culture.
Peru has many wonders waiting for you to be discovered. Here in Cusco Peru Travel, our speciality is to make your trip an outstanding experience, fill-in this form and let your tailor-made luxury Peru vacation begin.