Coca leaves – an altitude wimp’s best friend

Posted by on February 25, 2011

There’s no way around it. I’m a wimp.   I get winded going up stairs, have to eat every two hours, need lots of water and sleep, don’t like cold, hot,  humidity, wind, snow, rain, and worms.

So, it’s no surprise that I’m sensitive to high altitudes.     When we stopped in the town of Humahuaca at 9,100 feet above sea level Jeff and Dean felt fine,  I felt weird.

Walking around town I was headachey, dizzy, and tired.   It must have been obvious, because as I staggered by a row of stalls, every woman held up a green bag of coca leaves.

coca leaf sellers

I bought a bag for the equivalent of 75 cents, took out some leaves and started chewing.  They taste exactly like you would think dried leaves would taste like, bitter, hard and kind of gross.

But they really did help. By the time I walked up a giant set of stairs to meet Jeff and Dean  I felt like myself again.  The only effect besides not feeling altitude sick  was my lips and tongue went numb.

That night in Ticara at 8,200  I started feeling sick again, so pulled out more leaves at dinner.  After chewing several mouthfuls I felt much better.

Then the next day when we hit the pass on the way to the Salinas Grandes and got up to 14,000 feet I felt positively awful.  But, after chewing a wad of leaves I felt better

Coca leaves are chewed and legal in Boliva, Peru, Ecuador and parts of Chile and Argentina, but not legal everywhere. They are illegal in the US in the “out of the bag” form.

They’re illegal because they are one of the ingredients in cocaine. But in the amount I was chewing they had no drug effect.    You would need tons and tons of leaves, and other chemicals to have any cocaine effects.

Surprisingly, they are also an ingredient in Coca Cola.   They are specially imported into the US and “de-cocained.”   You can also buy them on Amazon.com  Not sure if they are “decocanied” or not.

All I know is that as I was legally chewing them, I had no drug-like effects, but did feel much much better at 14,000 feet.