High in the Andes


Volcán Cotopaxi (5,897m/19,347ft) peeking through the clouds. Cotopaxi is about 50km from our house, and last erupted in August 2015.

I’m used to working up a sweat while involved in some heavy sawing or planing, but what I’m not used to doing is gasping for air and getting a pounding headache in the process.

The Andes are big mountains, and Quito is one of the highest-elevation metropolitan areas in the world. Fortunately, we are living in the suburb of Tumbaco, which is about 1600 ft lower in elevation than Quito proper. Unfortunately, that means that we’re still at 7800 ft.

The traditional treatment for symptoms of altitude sickness is mate de coca, or coca leaf tea. In Peru, commercially produced mate de coca, in teabag form, can be found just about anywhere, and in the higher elevation cities like Cusco, you can purchase large plastic bags of the dried leaves for only a few dollars. Just about every hotel in Cusco has a bowl of coca leaves and a pot of hot water in the lobby for you to brew your mate. Strictly speaking, I don’t think the bulk leaves are legal, but nobody seems to care (probably because they’re all drinking mate).


Mate de coca, the quicker picker-upper.

Mate de coca is far less common in Ecuador, apparently because of greater influence from U.S. Government policymakers. There is some tension between its classification as a harmful drug and its traditional use as a natural medicinal/spiritual plant. You won’t see mate de coca in a supermarket, but you can find it if you look. (I know of a specialty gourmet coffee and chocolate shop in Quito that stocks it, for example.) The only place I’ve seen whole leaves is at the market in Otavalo, and even there it’s in itty-bitty little bags.

The active ingredients in mate de coca are cocaine and related alkaloids (of course), as well as methyl salicylate, which is chemically similar to aspirin and has analogous pain-relieving properties.

Does it work? It seems to, although it might be that it’s the methyl salicylate that’s doing the bulk of the work, rather than the cocaine. Consuming mate de coca does have a couple of noticeable additional consequences: For one thing, it has an energizing effect (which the Incas used to advantage when they wanted their slaves to work harder). It also inspires confidence, which can be a good thing when one is immersed in artistic pursuits, but is probably not such a great idea while working with tools having very sharp edges. So for woodworking, I think I’ll stick to acetazolamide and ibuprofen.

–Steve Schafer

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5 Responses to High in the Andes

  1. John Paver says:

    Things really go better with Coke! It had to be said!

  2. artisandcw says:

    I am thoroughly enjoying these posts from the edge of the world. I detest travel myself and might be described by some as a xenophobe, but I revel in the accounts of those not so hindered.

  3. drjohn1963 says:

    I always liked llapingachos for altitude sickness. Like a hangover breakfast….

  4. Steve, glad you’re not doing cocaine. Would like to hear about the wood working you are doing.

  5. misterlinn says:

    I too am enjoying these posts.

    It’s interesting to read that an altitude of 7800 gives one altitude sickness. The cabin altitude of your plane on the way there would have been around that, but you weren’t sick. I’m an airline pilot so spend my working day at 8000 feet, but don’t feel sick. Why?

    I found a clue as to why when I visited Gruyere a couple of years ago. We took a cable car up the mountain there, to about 6500 feet. Walking around up there, I found myself out of breath. So it’s exertion that’s the issue. It seems that the human body can sit still, but mentally exert, without any problem at these altitudes, but as soon as you try to do something physical it can’t cope as well, and the amount of exertion you can manage before becoming breathless is a lot lower.

    Imagine hand ripping a long board at 8000 feet…

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