Perú: Day 5 and Coca Leaves

We were finally out of the city and bound for the rural regions on the third day of our tour. I grew excited seeing dirt roads and street vendors knowing I was getting closer to being immersed in the country’s culture and spirituality I desperately wanted to guide my own life.

Rural life in Peru, captured from the comfort of the bus :/

We started the climb in elevation this day. Other than being on a plane, the highest altitude I had ever walked on was about 6,000 feet. But we were headed toward heights between 12,000–16,000 feet. And because of that, Gladys, our local guide, taught us how to prevent and control altitude sickness just like the natives had been doing for hundreds of years.

Coca leaves!

In Peru, coca leaves aren’t considered drugs because they have not been chemically altered. Rather, they are used for both medicinal and nutritional purposes. They contain vitamins like B1, B2, C, and E and minerals like calcium, carotene, magnesium, and potassium just to name a few. They also provide energy by activating red bloods cells. Coca leaves were and continue to be a key component of rituals and ceremonies, especially those held in the mountains or volcanos because the Incas believed life evolved on these high ranges.

We were warned about altitude sickness since the beginning of the tour. According to Gladys, the most common symptoms consisted of light headedness and bubbles in our stomach. So she and Flor advised us to take deep breaths, stay hydrated, and drink Gatorade. I had prescribed medication with me but only wanted to take it as a last resort. Because according to the guides, the real prevention lay in the magic of the coca leaves. But we weren’t supposed to just chew them like cows eating hay. No. There was a ritual involved in the consumption of the coca leaf. Thus began my first cultural experience.

First, we had to find three beautiful, unharmed, whole leaves. Each leaf represented a component of Pachamama, or Mother Earth. One leaf stood for the Gods — the sun, the moon, the rainbow, thunder, etc. — depicted by a condor within the Inca culture. The second leaf symbolized Earth — the mountains, the volcanos, etc. — which was depicted as a puma by the Incas. And the last leaf conveyed the Underworld, or bad places, which the Incas associated with a snake.

My coca leaves.

Once I found my three beautiful coca leaves, I had to hold them in my right hand. The ritual called for the leaves to face East but holding them in our right hand sufficed because we had no idea which way we were going. Gladys explained that we had to blow on the greens three times to communicate our offering via the wind to the mountain God, Apu, followed by a volcano name. Next, we had to make a wish. And finally, we placed the coca leaves in our mouths making sure to fully coat them with saliva. We were instructed to chew the leaves softly without turning them to mush and tuck the wad between our teeth and cheek. We could add as many leaves as we wanted and were only to swallow the saliva that carried the medicinal properties into our bodies. The leaves were only good for 20–30 minutes before we repeated the process with the exception of the ritual.

Gladys also taught us how to use the black, clay-like substance that came packaged with our coca leaves. Using about the size of a baby’s fingernail, the plant ash needed to be wrapped in a few coca leaves and tucked right along with the others to activate the alkaloids in the greens. It gave our leaves a pleasant minty taste and secreted more saliva. Gladys warned us against using exposed ash because it had a numbing effect, a trait that was used to conduct dental procedures in the rural areas.

With our altitude-sickness combating equipment at hand, we rode on towards Patapampa, a volcano overlook standing at 16,000 feet. But not before catching a few wild vicuñas on the road and a quick bite for lunch.

Oh, you know, just an active volcano.
Vicuñas, cousins to llamas and alpacas. They are the smaller counterparts.
Breathtaking. Don’t be fooled. It was cold.
Vicuña family.
Nature at its best.
Rumor has it, that rock in the middle looks like a frog looking up at the sky, admiring the Gods.
This was our lunch stop. I could not get more immersed than this!
Our audience.
Coca and muña tea. Muña is their local mint. This infusion is common to fight off the altitude sickness some had begun to experience.
Local boy enjoying a brownie that came in our lunch box.

We continued chewing coca leafs until our next stop. Flor, our tour manager, told us to layer up before stepping off the bus at Patapampa.

The Central Andes Volcano Overlook. 16,108 feet above sea level. I felt no effects thanks to the magical coca leaves ;)
Volcanos visible from this point.
Alex and Scott’s remake of Titanic, the Peruvian version.
It was cold.
We were able to pull Scott and Alex apart :p (Photo Cred: Fellow traveler)
It was THAT cold.

We started descending after our nature-filled morning. I continued chewing coca leaves feeling pretty good other than a tad light-headed. Nothing that would prevent me from zip lining and enjoying the hot springs that were awaiting that afternoon in the town of Chivay.

“Every day is a winding road…”
Lots of construction everywhere, all over Peru.
Statues of native people in traditional clothing.
Loved the bronze boy holding an ear of corn.
Peruvians do worship their Sun…
“All the single ladies…”
Grains and dried potatoes.
Traditional male attire and chocolate.
Town mural depicting Peru’s key attributes: condors, the Sun God, and llamas and alpacas.

The sun was going down but we still needed to zip line.

I soared over this river.
I took a deep breath when I crossed the river, ingesting all the good energy the Gods had to offer. (Photo Cred: Abel)

We relaxed after a full day of activities at La Calera Hot Springs at the bottom of the hill from the zip-lining location. We enjoyed the warm pool for an hour before we headed to our lodge for the night.

La Casa de Mamayacchi in Coporaque.
Homestyle dinner. I had the tastiest chicken and fideo soup here.

Because of the countryside location, there was no night life to look forward to on this particular night so most of us called it a night. Feeling like a million bucks 12,000 feet above sea level, I looked forward to the condor sighting activity scheduled early the next morning.

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