What’s a “Coca Leaf”?

Ivo and I stood in front of the Temple of the Sun. It was mid-afternoon at the top of Machu Picchu, and our wise-cracking guide had given us some space to wander freely. We’d sauntered down a quiet Incan path that had led us to a haunting glimpse straight into the dim temple, which had a gaping, jagged slash through its stone belly. Due to a visit from some Japanese dignitaries, a small ceremony was being held on the level below us. As the rhythmic Spanish and Japanese recitations mingled, a wizened Peruvian shaman hobbled over, presumably waiting in full garb to play his part in the event. The old man asked Ivo a single question in unintelligible Spanish. Upon hearing Ivo’s answer, the man dug behind his colorful poncho and then extended a barehanded fistful of loose leaves. “He wants you to eat it,” Ivo said. As if I needed confirmation, the old man rocked his hand toward me again, opening his fingers further.

“JUST SAY NO!” shouted my repressed elementary school memories. The full weight of an ambitious childhood anti-drug campaign suddenly resurfaced with a vengeance. Flashing about in the background was my disturbing estimate that we were probably at least an hour-long helicopter ride from the nearest hospital. Visions of myself collapsing into spasms as panicked llamas scattered off the mountain tore through my head.

I popped a clump of leaves in my mouth.

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Turns out the leaves were “coca leaves,” and they’re actually pretty great. Saying I chewed the raw origins of cocaine in Cuzco makes our vacation sound like some 24-hour glowstick poncho rave, I know. Anticlimactically, they affect you about as much as coffee does, maybe less. Coca leaves just give you a nice, mild caffeine pop without the crash chugging a cup of coffee entails. Their biggest perk for tourists is that chewing them or drinking the tea brewed with them can help overcome altitude sickness. Since coca leaf tea is available for free in just about every local hotel’s lobby, on both our two trips to Cuzco, Ivo and I have burned through hundreds of styrofoam cups chugging it down. In general, these leaves have stayed popular for the past few centuries because they can also wrangle the big four of hiking up mountains in high altitude: hunger, thirst, fatigue, and pain are all dimmed by coca leaves. The ability of coca to get bodies under stress back under control has made the leaves, on the bright side, a beloved native natural remedy and, of course on the dark side, a tool for suppressing frightened sacrifice victims.

I’ve been fairly lucky on our Cuzco visits: The altitude hasn’t gotten to my stomach too much. Mostly it just got to my lungs. The air feels thin, literally, like every inhale you’re sucking in way, way more air than you bargained for. As an asthmatic, I was sort of thrown by the experience, since I’ve usually got exactly the opposite problem.

At any rate, the coca leaves didn’t impact much more than my curiosity until about 30 seconds in. Later I learned that coca leaves also had and sometimes still have a huge range of medicinal applications, among them the ability to numb localized sites on the body. Ivo and the shaman had been sort of chuckling to each other while watching me awkwardly chew and then – WHOOSH – all feeling in my cheek vanished. I’ve got to hand it to the natives. It was about as powerfully numb as it had been when I’d woken up after having my wisdom teeth yanked.

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I smiled a goobery half-smile back at the medicine guy and gave him a thumbs up. He laughed, ruddy faced, and started an informed climb back down the rocks.

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