Combating Altitude Sickness with Leaves

A trip up high in the Andes

Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Peru

August 09, 2022

Those who travel to the Andes usually want to go really high. What helps against altitude sickness at over 2000 m above sea level? We asked around...

Traveling the Andes will sooner or later bring you above an altitude of 2000 meters (6,562 feet). At this height, the risk of suffering from altitude sickness increases. Symptoms usually include headaches, followed by nausea, loss of appetite, weakness, dizziness, and breathlessness.

To prevent this from happening, it is important to give your body one or two days to acclimate to a new altitude before heading to an even greater one. The insider tip among the local population for combating altitude sickness in the Andes is the consumption of coca leaves.

Coca leaves are sold mostly by the indigenous population in markets or on the streets in Andean countries, which range from Colombia all the way down to northern Chile. In these parts of the South American continent, coca leaves have been chewed and sucked on for centuries because of the many benefits. In order to avoid addiction, some plant ash or chalk is mixed under the leaves. Coca leaves contain essential oils, minerals, vitamins, alkaloids, and other trace elements that are beneficial to the human body. Back in the day, the population of the Andes was only interested in the plant itself for its healing and anesthetic properties as well as its ritualistic use. Unfortunately, the discovery of the drug quickly overshadowed the healthy properties of coca plant, and today, coca leaves are forbidden in most countries.

Despite its legal restrictions around the world, in Andean countries, the consumption of coca leaves is still legal and widely used for a variety of purposes. The bitter leaves are consumed in a variety of ways, including through drinking coca leaf tea, directly chewing them, or eating them in the form of candy. As previously mentioned, one of the main uses of coca leaves is to provide relief for altitude sickness. It serves as a natural remedy against headaches and stomach pains. The coca plant, therefore, could aid those who are traveling among the mountains of Chile, Bolivia, Peru, or Colombia.

Although coca leaves can be very useful during your South American adventures, it is important to remember that one cannot bring any coca related products back home! In Germany and the United States, as well as many other countries, everything made from the coca plant is strictly forbidden. This is due to its potential to be processed into cocaine, even though one would need an immense amount of coca leaves to actually produce it.

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