High Altitude and Coca Leaves

Coca, the stuff cocaine is made from. And I am drinking it. A lot. Why? Because it helps with altitude sickness. There is a big bowl of the leaves in the lobby of the hotel along with a big container of hot water. Don’t worry about us though – we won’t get addicted. Tom tells me that bushels of coca leaves are required to make any cocaine.

We arrived in Cusco this morning, a town 11,000 feet above sea level (~3400 meters for you metric folks). I don’t suffer from heavy altitude sickness, or at least I have not through ski trips at similar altitudes. But this is some non-trivial oxygen deprivation. My body is tingling, I occasionally need deep breaths and it feels like I am somehow heavier, or wading through a swimming pool, as I am going up the stairs. And I have a headache. I am drinking a lot of water and coca tea, and it’s helping, so hopefully tomorrow I will feel better. Tom has been taking special altitude sickness pills obtained before leaving home. Someone on our plane actually passed out during our descent. A paramedic boarded as soon as we landed. I use the word “descent” but really the plane just sort of stopped moving rather than descending. There was almost no ear equalization necessary.

I was feeling dizzy so Tom was kind enough to pick up the luggage at the baggage carousel. Have I mentioned how nice it is to have help at times like these? We were greeted in Cusco at the airport and given coca tea at our hotel. We found ourselves suddenly very sleepy, despite getting enough rest in Lima. It’s the altitude. After a nap (are we in kindergarten again?), we had some soup. Digestion happens a lot more slowly at high altitudes, and we were stuffed after a bowl of soup and some juice.

Since we were feeling okay, we went out and walked a couple of blocks to see the town square. The main square of Cusco is in the exact center of the former Inca Empire: the Four Corners of the Earth. The plaza boasts a very nice fountain and a garden. We were approached immediately by the usual salespersons and a beggar, but for the most part, people were good about taking no for an answer. I saw some lovely alpaca knitwear and some neat handicrafts, and bought postcards. We saw the very impressive Cusco cathedral and equally impressive Jesuit church. Apparently, they got into a building beauty contest that was so intense the Pope had to intervene. The Jesuits lost, but they were almost done with construction by the time that reply came back from Rome anyway, so the exterior still looks darned fine. Apparently the interior is less nice, but we’ll see about that on tomorrow’s Cusco tour. We were getting very tired, and Tom was starting to feel sick, so we hurried back to the hotel, and lay around doing a whole lot of nothing. I hope we are doing better soon. More coca!

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2 Responses to High Altitude and Coca Leaves

  1. Meggi Raeder says:

    Oh yes, I remember the coca leaves and tea that we made on my backpacking tour to Machu Pichu many years ago (rain, rain, rain in the Andes while hiking – but thankfully sunshine once we arrived at the ruins). Hope you are acclimatizing fast and enjoy your trip to Aqua Caliente and Machu Pichu. Look forward reading about it.

    • Hi Meggi – The coca tea is working and I think I am acclimatized. It’s lovely here – today we saw Sacsayhuaman and tomorrow we tour the sacred valley. Macchu Picchu is coming up soon. I bet your photos were great.

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