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