It’s tradition… it’s what people tell you immediately after you say you’re traveling to see Machu Picchu… so, will you be having coca tea??
As the word says… coca leaves are the raw material to make cocaine. Yep… cocaine, the drug. But coca leaves are also the natural remedy of choice to acclimate to the 11,000 feet above sea level altitude where Cusco resides. For centuries, Peruvians have chewed on coca leaves to help them deal with the side-effects of being so high up in the sky, no pun intended.
Altitude sickness can be very debilitating – headaches, difficulty breathing, disorientation, dizziness, among others. For perspective, you only reach 10,000 when traveling on an airplane. When you’re traveling to Cusco, you need to incorporate some down and easy time to get used to the altitude and not allow it to get the best of you and your trip.
I was not sure if I would have coca tea or not… I’ve never been in the presence of the drug and have no interest in ever trying it. But because of the novelty, and because I did not want to bring down my group my feeling sick on a trip, I gave it a try. This will be the closest I’ll ever be to getting a hit in my life… so let’s enjoy the experience, no??
Coca tea tastes very similar to linden tea. I sweetened it with brown sugar and it was a very enjoyable experience… one that I could certainly get somewhat addicted to. ;) I only had it twice… as our Guruji told us it really has a substance that hinders your spiritual growth. After we had the experience and acclimated well to the altitude there was really no real need for it anymore.
Coca remedies for altitude sickness come in various presentations – the raw leaves, in traditional tea bags and even in candy form. These are only to be enjoyed in Peru. I do not believe any of these are permitted to bring into the US, for obvious reasons. So this is something that can only be experienced when you visit these parts of the world.
After a few days, we also learned there is yet another remedy for altitude sickness which is sometimes even more effective, but not as notorious as coca tea… it’s Muña Tea. Muña is an Andean mint leave, very pretty and very fragrant. Cusqueños offer muña tea as a welcome drink to visitors. I had the chance to taste muña tea a few times and it’s a delicious, caffeine-free way to deal with altitude sickness and the cold up in the Cusco mountains.
Have you ever visited Cusco? Have you ever had coca tea? What was your experience?