coca tea for altitude sickness

When most people hear the words Coca Leaf, they think of the negative side of the leaf. However, in Peru, the coca leaf is sold openly in markets, supermarkets, and on the street. Even for many centuries, the coca leaf has been helping the highlanders of Peru cope with the altitude. Local people use these sheets to help them get to work and get through the day. They usually roll it into a ball and put it in their mouth most of the day. Coca tea has been shown to help alleviate the symptoms of altitude sickness. Therefore, together with the Machu Travel Peru team we have prepared an article about this product. We invite you to abandon all the prejudices you have about this wonderful plant. Since in Peru, the Coca leaf carries a much deeper meaning and is rooted in its great culture.

Coca leaf tea: An ancestral medicine


what is the coca leaf

Coca leaf is a plant native to the Andean region in South America. It has great nutritional potential and a great variety of compounds with different pharmacological effects. Among them, the controversial cocaine. Despite being related to this drug, the consumption of the coca leaf in its natural state has no health consequences. Keep in mind that the plant has to go through a synthesizing process. In addition to the fact that more than 125 kilos of coca leaves are needed to only produce one kilo of the narcotic.  Among the best-known facts about Peru, you will find how the coca leaf is a clear representation of our Andean traditions.

The coca leaf was used by the indigenous peoples of America for thousands of years. Even these leaves were sacred to the Incas and have been used medicinally ever since. Today it forms a vital part of the Peruvian national identity, becoming part of the cultural heritage. Usually marketed freely in supermarkets, open-air markets, and in the streets of Cusco. It is known for helping both tourists and locals cope with the symptoms of altitude sickness. It is true that the coca leaf is the main and basic ingredient in cocaine. But the leaves in their pure form are in no way addictive or harmful to health. Unless you were consuming them by the ton. A good analogy is that Coca leaves are to cocaine what Poppies are to heroin.


drink coca tea for altitude sickness

In Inca times, the coca leaves were sacred and believed to have many healing powers. The Incas used the Coca leaf for headaches, sore throats, and stomach problems. Today its qualities and health benefits continue to be used. And while you enjoy tourism in Peru, you will be able to see how the locals make use of this plant in open spaces. As you walk the streets of Cusco, you will often see locals chewing on the leaves. Many of them even drink tea for breakfast as a way to start the day.

Coca leaf tea is best used for the treatment of altitude sickness. Something that many of the visitors to Cusco tend to experience. The properties of the Coca leaf are considered a miracle medicine. They are very effective in treating the symptoms of altitude sickness. Remember that the main ingredient of the coca leaf is the active compound known as cocaine. But the leaves themselves are not addictive and will not have negative consequences on you. You can drink up to three or four cups of coca leaf tea a day without any problem. Even most hotels in Cusco provide tea free of charge to help you acclimatize.


where to find the coca leaf

One of the first things she will want to buy upon arrival in the Peruvian Andes is the coca leaf. Since the consumption of this can make the common symptoms of altitude sickness disappear. If you are in the city of Cusco, one of the best places to get it is the San Pedro Market. Once you are inside, you will not be able to avoid noticing that most of the stalls sell coca leaves. Any salesperson will be able to guide you a bit and tell you where to get it. Most vendors usually offer them in bags of different sizes. And the price usually depends on the size of the bag, although they do not exceed 3 soles each.

In the same way, the markets are not the only place where you will find the Coca leaf. In the surroundings of the most important tourist sites in Cusco, you can also find it. Any stall or street vendor can offer you this wonderful plant.


andean coca tea for altitude sickness

When you think of holidays in Peru you don’t necessarily think of altitude sickness. But if you are looking to get to know Machu Picchu, it will be one of the things that you will learn quickly. When going from sea level to high altitudes, the body reacts differently to changes in oxygen levels. The higher you climb, the air becomes thinner. So there will be less oxygen for your body with each breath you take. Eventually, your body will adapt and make more red blood cells. But this process can take a day or two, so it is recommended to take it easy for the first few days. If you go from low to high altitude very quickly, you will most likely feel the effects.

But if you have a mild case of altitude sickness, this will not interfere with your normal activity. If you still feel bad after several days, you may need to visit a doctor in Cusco. Some of the symptoms of altitude sickness are headache, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, poor appetite, dizziness, sleep disturbances, and difficulty climbing stairs. Despite this, not all symptoms are the same in people. Some people feel absolutely nothing while others may be more susceptible.


coca leaf tea for altitude sickness

Here are some tips to avoid altitude sickness:

  • If you are planning a trip to Peru and its highlands, you should take it easy for the first day. Make sure to limit the amount of physical activity. Do not arrive in Cusco and start a trek, the next day you might suffer. 
  • For the first few days take it easy on the alcohol, drinking will make the symptoms worse. Drink water instead. 
  • If you are feeling the effects of the altitude, then you may have to go to a lower altitude until the symptoms pass. 
  • As mentioned before, drink Coca tea. This will help, without a doubt, with the altitude. If you do not like the taste you can add some sugar. But don’t drink too much as it might cause palpitations. Everything in excess is harmful. If you have a heart condition, high blood pressure, or suffer from diabetes, it’s better to exclude it. 
  • Most hotels have a supply of oxygen so if you need air then ask the reception of your hotel. Some of the more luxury hotels in Cusco have oxygen pumped into the rooms so if you can afford a five-star hotel then you will have oxygen on tap. 
  • Before you leave home, visit your doctor and ask for medication for the altitude, it is better to have it than not to have it and need it.


cusco coca tea for altitude sickness

You may wonder why to visit the city of Cusco if there are so many problems with the altitude. The reason is that the city and the surrounding valleys were home to the powerful Inca Empire. This mythical city was once the heart and capital of the wonderful Inca Empire. So in the city, you will find a wonderful history to know and places of great importance. Cusco is full of wonderful temples and squares. The mark that the Incas left on the city can still be seen today and makes the city a must-see. Its wonderful architecture borders between the old and the contemporary. Each building in its historic center is a journey back in time where you can appreciate what it once was.

There is a free walking tour of Cusco Peru that departs from one of the squares every morning and takes you to most of the important sites. You can also choose to travel to the Sacred Valley of the Incas and discover some of the best examples of Inca architecture out there. Beyond the Sacred Valley, is located what would be the most famous Inca site, Machu Picchu. Here, you can discover the magic and genius of the Incas. This magnificent site appears on most people’s wish lists and must be seen at least once in a lifetime.

There are many ways to get to Cusco, flying is usually the fastest way to get to Inca city. Although you can also take a bus from Lima to Cusco and thus know the wonderful countryside of Peru. Either way, a trip to Peru will be a memory that will last a lifetime.


traditional forms of consumption of coca leaf

In general, the Coca leaf can be consumed in the form of tea and by chewing its leaves. These are the two most traditional ways to consume this ancient medicine. Although there are also an infinite variety of products made from the coca leaf. An example of this you will find candies, coca leaf powder, coca leaf flour, and much more.


Chewing coca is a ritualistic and medicinal social habit and practice. The practice is usually more common in South American countries such as Bolivia, Peru, Argentina, and Chile. As well as in some indigenous reservations in Ecuador and Colombia. It is chewed to reduce fatigue, hunger, and indigestion. It is even chewed to lessen the effects of altitude sickness due to lack of oxygen at high altitudes.

To chew the coca leaf, just take a handful of these and put them in your mouth. The main thing is to chew them until you get a pulp with a smooth texture. You can let it rest on your cheek while you take advantage of its benefits. This can be for half an hour or more depending on your taste. Note that the taste can be a bit bitter. In general, when coca is chewed, it is usually accompanied by a small alkaline substance. This can vary between sodium bicarbonate, lime, or quinoa ash known as Llipt’a. In general, this promotes the extraction of the alkaloids from the coca leaf and thus increases its effect.


When you buy Coca leaves, they may offer you some Llipt’a or Yipta. Yipta is a ball of ash that usually activates the effects of coca leaves. The Yipta is composed of a variety of organic materials ranging from banana, cocoa, mint, quinoa, stevia, and more. If this is your first time, we recommend that you try the varieties of banana or stevia that are sweeter. When chewing coca with Yipta you will notice how your mouth and tongue go numb as you chew the leaf. Which are the effects of the plant enhanced by the alkaline substance.


Now, if the experience of chewing coca is not to your liking, you can choose to prepare a tea. In the Andean regions of Peru, the coca infusion is called Mate de Coca. And its preparation is quite simple and similar to any other infusion. To do this, you must bring the water to a boil. Then put some coca leaves and then cook for about five minutes. After this, the infusion is strained and it can be served with sugar or honey. Mate de Coca is usually one of the first things that tourists are offered when they arrive in Cusco. Its use is ideal to avoid the different symptoms of altitude sickness. Avoiding altitude sickness is one of the best ways to appreciate the great biodiversity in Peru.


In conclusion, the coca leaf is one of the most traditional ways to prevent altitude sickness. It is not only an important part of the Andean culture in Peru but also an ancient medicine with great benefits. We hope together with Machu Travel Peru to have made you aware of the important use of the coca leaf. For us, this sheet has little to do with drugs. For us, this plant represents an important part of our cultural heritage. And therefore, being able to taste a Mate de Coca is an introduction to the adventure that is Peru. If you want to know more about our tours throughout the country, we recommend you consult with our team. They will be happy to help you organize the trip of your dreams!

Peru has so much to offer, it can be hard to know where to start. With many years of experience in the tourism sector, Machu Travel Peru is happy to help with anything regarding your trip to Machu Picchu and any tours around it. Make your Machu Picchu experience an unforgettable one!