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High in the Andes by Carol Bowman

High In The Andes and I Don’t Mean Elevation

by Carol Bowman

“Take four leaves, crumple them up into a small ball, place the wad between your back molars and bite down hard. Add a piece of lime to the bundle to release the active alkaloids containing cocaine,” our guide, Walter, instructed. He popped the mass into his mouth to demonstrate. This was serious stuff.  We bought coca leaves form this colorful vendor at a market on the Peruvian-Bolivian border- the higher we went, the higher we got. Photo by Ernie Sowers


A pungent, tangy fluid oozed from the clump, as my cheek felt tingly and numbed, like a shot of Novocain. I remembered that dreamy feeling from chewing coca leaves on my last trip to the Andean Highlands.  Ten fellow travelers, newbies to this mastication ritual, struggled with the process. They resembled a bunch of Guernsey cows, learning how to chew cud. 


For those not adept at manipulating a mouthful of leaves, Walter sent around thermos jugs of hot tea from steeped coca leaves, called mate de coca. He knew that our oxygen starved systems needed the mildly-powerful stimulant, pronto. 


We had just landed in Cuzco, Peru, at 11,000 feet above sea level, where altitude sickness, with screaming headaches, nausea, exhaustion and shortness of breath can kick in quickly. The only fail-safe cure is to descend to a lower elevation. For the next two weeks, the only direction we were going was ‘up’. Higher than the clouds, we needed coca leaves to fight off soroche, altitude sickness. Photo by Carol Bowman


“Chew coca leaves and drink mate de coca whenever you can. It’s the Incas’ antidote for soroche (altitude sickness) in the High Andes,” Walter urged. “There’s never a Cuzqueña without a bag of coca leaves. It fights hunger, thirst, pain and fatigue. They live here. They know.”


“Bring it on,” we obeyed; “Lots of it.”


With 0.3-1.5% cocaine in fresh leaves, traces show 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, I thought.


As we ascended upward to Bolivia and Lake Titicaca at elevations of 12,000 to 14,000 feet, the drinking and chewing increased. We weren’t exactly ‘high’, but the level of our intellectual conversations and alertness soared. A soothing tolerance of each other’s quirks evolved.  We blossomed into a fascinating bunch. Just ask us. With physiological effects similar to tobacco, we developed a strange affinity for this stuff. It kept us going, gave us energy, eased the pounding headaches and made us coo.


Coca leaves became illegal outside of South America in the early 20th century. In 1961, the United States classified the coca leaf as a Schedule II narcotic, despite the minimal amount of cocaine alkaloids. Walter advised the group’s US citizens NOT to buy mate de coca tea bags to take home.


But wait, I live in Mexico.  My adopted country couldn’t have such a silly law. I developed a fondness for my daily pick-me-up. I bought 100 tea bags. On the overnight flight home from Lima to Mexico City, the announcement interrupted my fitful sleep:  “All baggage on flights originating in South America is subject to canine inspection.” This old gal is carrying a pack full of coca leaves on her back to help her make her trek easier near Puno, Peru at 14, 884 feet. Photo by Ernie Sowers


OMG. Would drug sniffing doggies detect my coveted tea bags? I packed them in my husband’s luggage. Should I tell him or wait until the federales drag him away to a Mexico City carcel?  As we waited at the baggage carousel, suitcases dribbled onto the circular path in spurts. My duffel showed-up alone.


After one hour, we were the only two, desperate looking passengers left. I started composing ‘Confessions of a 65 Year-Old Tea Smuggler’ in my mind.  The mouth of the baggage flap opened and spit out my husband’s yellow and black bag, looking like it had encountered a scrappy German Shepherd.


We grabbed it and headed for the final obstacle, the customs official and that dreaded Mexican game, ‘Red Light, Green Light’.  Red, we’re dead, Green, me and my tea would be home free. I closed my eyes, said a prayer and pushed the button.

EXTRA INFO FROM CAROL: Altitude Sickness knows no human boundaries. Any traveler, without regard for age, physical fitness or health, who visits elevations of 11,000 feet and above, as in the Peruvian Highlands, can fall within its borders.  Go slow for the first few days until acclimatization is reached. Eat light and do not drink alcohol until your body has adjusted. You either respect altitude or you’ll regret it. We took Diamox 250 mg, which is prescribed for US Armed Forces troops going into high elevations, two days before we arrived in Cuzco and continued it for two days after we arrived. This medication, which is used in the treatment of Glaucoma, helps oxygen molecules adhere to red blood cells more efficiently. Diamox, combined with chewing coca leaves and drinking mate de coca allowed for a symptom free, enjoyable trip. A few, who did not heed alerts, spent almost the first full week in bed.

Carol, talks about the tough times in the Andes with an elderly resident of Pisac, a market  town outside of Cuzco. Photo by Ernie Sowers Carol L. Bowman worked for 35 years as a social worker and Director of Admissions at a PA State Psychiatric Hospital. To maintain her sanity, she and her husband traveled independently to over 50 countries. Now, retired and living the ex-pat life in Chapala, Mexico, Carol writes for local English magazines El Ojo del Lago, Living at Lake Chapala and Lake Chapala Reviewand teaches English to Mexican adults. She won the award for the Best Feature Article for El Ojo in 2010 and has had 10 Cover Stories for that magazine. She has been published in the Anthology, Tales From the Couch V, available on