Travellers' Tales

How to start your day in the Andes

Before we left for Peru, we asked Paul about altitude sickness. “Very few people get it,” he said. “And the best bet to help avoid it is coca tea. All the hotels will have it available.” Which left me with a mental picture of urns of the stuff sitting in foyers, for guests to help themselves.

Imagine therefore my surprise when our hotel in Chiclayo – 0 metres above sea level – offered us coca teabags, along with the chamomile and green tea with mint, at breakfast. “Can’t be the real stuff” I thought to myself. Wrong. Here in the Sacred Valley – some 2800 metres above sea level – exactly the same teabags are on offer at breakfast time. As you can see.


We dutifully made ourselves a cup of coca tea at our first breakfast at high altitude, before moving on to the coffee. We proudly told our guide that we had been good and drunk our medicine – it’s actually quite a mild flavour, nothing to object to – only to be told that we should aim to drink 500ml a day, and not in the evening because it contains caffeine. The next morning we took 2 teabags each and managed to drink 3 of these small cups – and no coffee. This morning I spotted teapots by the hot water jug, took 2 teabags and solemnly drank my way through a potful of coca tea. And the orange juice. AND THE COFFEE!

Does it work? Well, all I can say is that we were a bit breathless on day 1 if we had to walk faster than the average Galapagos tortoise; on day 2 we were mostly walking at normal pace, although a decent slope was a bit of challenge. Today we haven’t thought about our walking speed at all.

We’re at this altitude or higher for another 2 weeks – and I’m going to keep drinking a potful of this pale brown rather innocuous liquid. I’ve drunk many a worse medicine in my time…