Altitude sickness had slithered alongside as an unwanted companion after flying from Lima, Peru at sea level to Cuzco at an elevation of 11,000 feet. Descending to a lower height remained the only cure for the symptoms of soroche − screaming headaches, nausea, exhaustion and shortness of breath. During the next 15 days of our vacation in Peru, we would be headed in one direction − up. Walter, our guide, urged us to consume coca often or spend our trip lying in bed, struggling to breathe and looking green.
Travel in Peru
A plastic bag filled with dried green leaves made the rounds among the five travelers in the van. Walter instructed us to crumple a few sprigs into a small ball, place the wad between our back molars and bite down hard. Adding a piece of lime to the bundle hastened the release of active ingredients, including alkaloids containing cocaine.
A pungent, tangy fluid oozed from the clump, numbing the inside of my cheek. I remembered that mellow feeling from chewing coca leaves during my last trip to the Andean Highlands. Novices to this mastication ritual struggled to manipulate a mouthful of foliage, their cheeks bulging on one side. They preferred drinking hot, steeped mate de coca tea from thermos jugs as an easier way to stimulate their oxygen starved bodies.
“Well, keep the leaves and tea coming,” we gasped, “lots of it.”
I noticed a subtle tolerance of each other’s quirks as elevations rose and drinking and chewing increased. We weren’t exactly ‘high’ but ‘higher’ in intellectual alertness. We blossomed into a fascinating bunch and boasted about our newly found, albeit bogus, bravado. With physiological effects similar to tobacco, we developed a strange affinity for this bitter stuff. It gave us energy, eased the pounding headaches, curbed our appetites and made us coo.
Benefits of Coca Leaves
With only 0.3-1.5% cocaine in fresh leaves, chewing coca or drinking the tea doesn’t cause the euphoria of the concentrated drug, but it does regulate carbohydrate metabolism, aids gastrointestinal disorders and eases side-effects of high altitudes. Cocaine shows up in the bloodstream as a false positive after consuming just one cup of tea; Ah, the joys of being retired without fear of work-related random drug tests.
The coca plant, which grows 7-10 feet tall on the eastern slopes of the Andes, has played a traditional role in Andean culture for thousands of years. Communal chewing of coca leaves by Peruvian, Bolivian and Ecuadorian highlanders dates back 8,000 years. Following the invasion by conquistador, Francisco Pizzaro, King Phillip II of Spain demanded that all Andean captives chew coca leaves several times per day. He expected the Incas could double their labor output while tolerating imposed starvation. Shamans read coca leaves to tell fortunes and make ceremonial coca offerings to the mountains (opus), the sun (inti) and the earth (Pachamama).
Climbing to Copa Maya
By day three, a slight acclimatization evaporated into thinner air when Eber, our driver, stopped the van at the base of an almost vertical slope near the Bolivian border. With gentle encouragement, Walter convinced us to climb to the 12,000-ft. summit, where family members of an Aymara Village, Copa Maya, waited.
I gazed in disbelief as the foot path that zigzagged up the mountainside vanished into the clouds. Surveying our group of 60 somethings, I wondered who would rescue me when I dropped to the ground.
We puffed, panted, paused for pounding hearts and begged Pachamama to push our limp legs upward. I saw round, sun-leathered faces, black braided pigtails topped with porkpie felt hats and rainbow-colored skirts and blouses peering over the rim and watching our ascent. Warm hands extended to pull each one of us up over the last pile of rocks.
We assembled on rough-hewn plank benches while the villagers sat on patches of cold hard earth. Lyrical high-pitched notes from Andean flutes mixed with the dull thud of a goat-skin drum drifted from the sinewy lips and hands of the impromptu band. Women tended an underground oven where, our lunch of plump rounded potatoes sizzled on red-hot coals.
We gifted the residents with bags of coca leaves that Walter had purchased at the market a thousand feet below. The coca plant cannot grow at this elevation, but the people must have it to thrive. Daily consumption measures about two ounces of coca per person, from infant to elder.
Broad smiles revealed their worn-down teeth as the chewing began. Tribe leaders encouraged us to join in and passed the bag of leaves around. The cultural immersion into a day in the life of Andean villagers created the best high. Friendly hugs for these sun-kissed people ended our visit and sliding down the mountain proved to be a delightful escapade. Our energized laughter echoed in the rarefied air.
Back in the van, I observed Eber’s face in the rear-view mirror. Something was amiss. Showing signs of distress, with narrowed eyes, pursed lips and beads of sweat forming at his temples, he intently surveyed the landscape. I guessed that he was lost.
Nevado Veronica, the highest, snow-capped peak at 19,100 feet in the Cordillera Urubamba range of the Andes jutted out as the only visible landmark in this desolate Peruvian altiplano. She served as a stationary marker, no longer towering above us, but now just slightly taller, like an older sister.
Eber continued on the unfamiliar rutted dirt way for an hour, while everyone’s internal organs shifted from the jarring. Abruptly, the brakes squealed. Boulders placed across the gritty path signaled an impasse ahead. A far less traveled, alternate route marked by furrowed tire tracks wandered off to the right.
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