Andrew Evans gets a taste of Bolivian remedies.
Altitude sickness feels really weird. I’d read about before but always thought it was for the extreme travelers–climbers on Mount Everest or adventurous balloonists pushing the limits of the stratosphere. I didn’t expect to get it on the bus.
To be clear, I have made this entire journey without a single guidebook. This might sound strange coming from somebody who writes guidebooks himself but when you’re traveling on the open road, the last thing you want is for someone else to tell you what to think about a place. Thus I traveled across Bolivia without a clue about soroche.
Luckily, my new friends on the bus warned me of the ill effects altitude sickness can bring and began plying me with cups of hot coca tea to lessen the blow. Yes, coca tea is made from the same coca leaves from which the drug cocaine is extracted and let me tell you–after my bout with soroche, I’m definitely a believer.
The road I rode in and out of La Paz was over 13,500 feet and I stayed close to that height (and higher) for several days. Until recently, the highest mountain I had ever climbed was around 10,000 feet. After several hours at that height I still felt absolutely normal and congratulated myself for my strong stamina and superman ability to not fall victim to a “made-up illness” like everyone else on the bus. That self-assured feeling lasted until another feeling came to replace it–an uneasy feeling of dizziness, shortness of breath, dry mouth and lips, an airy headache and general malaise like no other general malaise. Upon arriving at my hotel, I had to lie down and wait as I had no energy–only fatigue.
On the streets of La Paz I found more coca tea for sale, as well as the dried leaves themselves. A woman showed me how to chew the leaves–an ancient native practice that’s still a core part of Bolivian culture today. I dipped in and took part and spit green spit from my mouth.
OK, honestly, I found the chewing on coca leaves a little unpleasant. I reverted to drinking cups of coca tea and found that indeed, it helped.
After one or two cups, the headache went away and I was able to move along. I kept up the habit of drinking coca all the while that I was in Bolivia. Later, I bequeathed my coca leaves to friend and fellow travel writer David Farley who happened to arrive in La Paz on assignment the very same day that I was leaving (again, small world). I warned him of what would most certainly hit him and hung around long enough to prove myself right (hope you’re feeling better, Farley).
So there’s my testimonial: Coca works. I kept drinking it all the way to the Argentine border, where we began descending from the impossibly high plains down to more levelheaded heights. Also, my foray into altitude sickness made me love Bolivia even more. How can you not love a destination that lays you flat on your back–literally–every time you arrive?