The Secret to Hiking in South America

The Secret to Hiking in South America

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Chewing coca leaves might not sound like the best idea in the world, but in Bolivia and Peru, it’s an art form. For centuries, these leaves have been boosting the energy of Andean farmers, laborers, and explorers; keeping them going through the hard times and the good. However, like any art form, there’s a trick to it.

It’s Not Cocaine

Before we get chewing, it’s worth pointing out that there are a lot of misconceptions surrounding the coca leaf. First, coca leaves are absolutely nothing like cocaine. Instead, they’re more like a shot of espresso, if the caffeine high lasted half the day. Your heart will get pounding, you might sweat a bit and suddenly feel the urge to climb a mountain. Your mouth may also go numb. That’s about it.

It’s Still Illegal Pretty Much Everywhere

Despite being widely consumed across much of the Andean region, coca leaves are illegal under international law. The United Nations, 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, prohibits the use of coca leaves for everything except scientific and medical purposes. However, this prohibition is ignored in Peru and Bolivia. Countries who have been lobbying for the leaf to be legalized internationally. Along with these two countries, possession of the leaf in small amounts for personal consumption is legal in Argentina and Colombia. The leaf is technically banned in Paraguay and Brazil, though enforcement against individuals with small amounts is unusual. Even so, respect for local laws should always come first.

While you’re in the Andes, why not try the region’s most awesome survival plant, the frailejon?

In virtually every other country on the face of the Earth, coca leaves are treated no differently than cocaine. While coca tea can be found on sale in commercial, neat little boxes in Peru and Bolivia, you’ll face possible arrest and drug trafficking charges if you try to take them to a country like the United States. There are more than enough horror stories of innocent travelers being treated like criminals in the U.S. for merely carrying coca tea, so don’t risk it. Only chew coca in the countries where it’s legal.

You Won’t Feel Much…At First

Many first-time coca chewers are disappointed after their first try, with the effects being mild at best. This is because, like many substances, coca leaves just don’t seem to give users much of a buzz until your system has gotten used to them. So if you’re not getting anything, try again in a few days. However, scientific evidence that proves coca leaves improve physical performance is shaky at best, leading many researchers to conclude the leaves don’t do much at all. This, of course, flies in the face of the experiences of generations of Andeans. Either way, don’t be surprised if you don’t find coca leaves anywhere near as stimulating as you may expect.

Not All Leaves are Equal

After sampling a few coca leaves, you might notice some massive variations in effectiveness. This is normal, and as a general rule of thumb, you can expect leaves to be pretty mediocre around tourist areas, such as Cuzco. Generally speaking, the best leaves are fresh, dark green, and flexible.

Check out Chewing Coca Leaves: The Secret to Hiking in South America at
Photo by Logga Wiggler

It Can Have Some Nasty Side Effects

On the flip side, if you chew coca leaves while hiking in South America, you might still experience some adverse side effects. Some of these include exacerbating asthma, worsening heart conditions, and raising blood pressure, while potentially impacting the sugar levels of people with diabetes. If you’re pregnant, stay away from cocoa, and even after giving birth, don’t chew coca leaves until long after you’ve finished breastfeeding.

While we’re on the topic of hapless tourists, my first experience of coca leaves was pretty unpleasant to watch. On a hiking trip in Peru, I watched a fellow gringo shovel a few handfuls of coca leaves into his mouth, and munch them like a koala. A few minutes later, he was outside, face covered in green goo, coughing up stems. Part of the problem comes down to the language barrier: you don’t chew coca leaves per se. Instead, your objective is to suck on the leaves, gumming them to draw out the alkaloids.

Speaking of surviving the Andes, check out this insane survival story of the passengers of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571.

Remove Stems

Once you’ve got some nice, pliable leaves, the first thing you’ll want to do is remove the stems. Do as locals do, and fold each leaf in half, peeling the bulk of the stem from the end. Try to get as much of the stem as possible, without breaking the leaf in two.

Having a Ball with the Catalyst

Now, select somewhere between 10-15 choice leaves. Pile them neatly, and add the catalyst. Traditionally, powdered limestone is used, though I’d strongly recommend against this. Limestone can strip the enamel off your teeth, and cause a real headache for both you and your dentist. Instead, opt for something gentler, like a bit of bicarb soda. Bicarb does a perfectly good job of activating the alkaloids, and won’t destroy your dentistry.

Once you’ve added a small amount of catalyst, roll the leaves up like a tiny little cigar. Fold the ends if needed, and keep the package nice and tight – again, without damaging the leaves. What you should be left with, is a little ball of leaves packed around a small amount of bicarb soda.

Be a Sucker, Not a Chewer

Finally, you’re ready to try your coca. Insert your little package of leaves into the corner of your mouth. Ideally, you want it lodged between your cheek and molars. Leave it there for a few hours, giving it a bit of a loll or gentle chew every so often. Throughout the day, expect your mouth to go numb and get filled with bitter flavor. It might not sound fun, but the boost of energy can be well worth it and may save your life in a survival situation. After a while, you might even start to enjoy the taste.

What do you think? If you’ve tried coca leaves for yourself, then we’d love to hear about your experience. Let us know in the comments below.

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