Our short flight from the capital Lima just landed in Cusco where we are greeted by a totally unfriendly weather with heavy rain and wind and by the invisible enemy called high altitude which will constantly remind us that breathing might require more concentration and effort than before.
The touristic town of Cusco is located 3400 meters above the sea level where the air is thinner and the pressure low, making not only each breath more difficult but draining the last drop of energy from our body when doing simple activities like walking or talking. Even locals seems to encounter similar symptoms related to the altitude being always tired and breathing heavily reason why they are restlessly chewing Coca leaves, a natural medicine which fight against the altitude sickness.
As you might have guessed already, Coca leaves are the raw material used to produce the drug Cocaine and while the hallucinogen powder is illegal everywhere in the world, the Coca leaves remain the most wide spread medicine and herbal tea in the Andes region, totally safe and…legal.
This being said, in the airport next to the carrousel bag a big basket of Coca leaves is inviting the tourists to taste the bitter plant (3 leaves for free) and even if I am not fan of weird “experiences” I grab the complimentary plant before I would have changed my mind. I am waiting patiently for my brain to go in a state of hallucination ready to meet the dragons and flying monsters deep hidden inside of my head but after few minutes I realize that none of this is ever going to happen.
Same as I mentioned before, Coca leaf is not a drug but a medicine used to suppress hunger, thirst, fatigue, pain and overcome altitude sickness. It can be found raw, as main ingredient of caramels and candies or as capsules in pharmacies. However you decide to try it don’t forget that Coca is prohibited outside of Peru and taking it to your home country might put you in serious trouble. Beside that, if you have a job which require periodically drug tests (aviation, army, police) you might want to stop the Coca ingestion at least 36 hours prior your duty as it might mark you positive for drugs. Explanation as “I just got back from Peru where Coca is legal” wont help you much.
Cusco is nothing compared to the beautiful capital of Peru, Lima, but a small town in the mountainous region of the Andes, very popular for the tourists interested in ancient history and backpackers hiking the difficult terrains, all of them chasing the same goal…to explore one of the most beautiful wonders of the modern world…Machu Pichu.
The altitude continue to trouble us even if we had the wrong idea that working as cabin crew would help our body to adapt much easier with the low air pressure so we decide to spend first and last day of our trip in Cusco, experiencing the andean cuisine and the esoteric rituals so famous in this part of the world.
The travel brochures advice no heavy meals and no alcohol and trying to follow strictly the instructions we choose an organic restaurant recommended by a colleague Chef and well rated on trip advisor: Organika.
5 stars restaurant for 2 stars bill
The restaurant does’t impress by its design and our first thought was that we are in the wrong place but once the plates were brought to our table we didn’t regret the choice we’ve made.
The food was not only healthy but absolutely delicious and plated with passion and attention for details by the 5 chefs who were working together in the open kitchen. Beautiful edible flowers were used to decorate the meals making it even more appealing to the guests. Faced with the entire frenzy of taste and colors we couldn’t resist the temptation of pairing our main course with a glass of Cusquena, one of Peru’s most popular beer. Travelers vs Altitude sickness 1-0.
**Quinoa salad, Grilled fish with sweet potatoes, Warm chocolate tart with raspberry sorbet.
The girl in charge with our table noticed the delight on our face and suggested that we should try their newly open restaurant “Rucula” based on same concept of delicious organic food meticulously selected by their chefs. And that was definitely a great choice for dinner. Best food quality in a casual environment and affordable prices (20 euro for 2 persons), all that we need after a failed shaman experience.
** Shrimps and avocado salad, Carpaccio, Lasagna and Carrot cake.
Now we are going to enter into the “dark” details of our trip and if you are not into esoteric, spiritual stuff you better stop reading like now.
Chasing the coca ritual
My friend G. came up with the weird idea of reading our future in Coca leaves (thats how I found out another benefit not so well know of the Coca) and I knew that whatever argument I will bring against it she wouldn’t change her mind so I decide to follow up with the plan. Like the Tarot and other similar scams, this art is not normally practiced in plain street view but having no clue where to find a proper fortune teller we started by asking every street vendor for details. This is how we end up in a bad famed neighborhood of Cusco called Calle Nueva (New street) full of beggars and people engaged in doubtful activities.
We were about to give up and leave when we noticed a tiny old lady displaying a bag of Coca leaves and some playing cards on a street corner. “There she is” we thought full of excitement while giggling and waiting impatiently for the old lady to finish the casserole of rice served for lunch. We approached her confidently, greeting her in Spanish, well aware that English wont be familiar to a person of her age. Surprisingly she wasn’t speaking Spanish also and the only way to communicate with our fortune teller was in Quechua (the Inca language spoken only by 25% of Peru population). Its time to give up, said my friend never and while we continue our journey on the obscure streets of Calle Nueva we decide to involve the new technology in search of old habits.
After a detailed research on Google we found ourselves ringing the bell of one of the most popular Shaman house in Cusco, willing to pay the 100$ tax for an accurate reading of our future. The website advertise professional expertise of one’s life from a real Shaman plus translator from Quechua to English so why not to try?
Do not fall in the trap of fake shamans
The whole ritual was a total scam from the beginning to the end. We were invited to enter the “consultation room” one by one and while G. entered first I continued my research online still questioning the veracity of their prophecies.
When my turn came, I entered the big room simple decorated with an old rug in the center while the Shaman wearing a funny colorful hat and a poncho was waiting for me.
(Google picture from the same place just for you to have an idea what I am talking about when I mention “funny” clothes)
He immediately start invoking his ancestors or bullshiting something in Quechua which was totally incompressible to me. The lady who was assisting him was responsible with the translation but it looked like she didn’t pass the basic English test at school (if she ever attended one). The Shaman was keep blowing on his leaves “A ver, A ver” (let’s see, let’s see) was whispering the whole time but either the Coca leaves were deaf or the Shaman an impostor because nothing of what he tried to guess didn’t apply to my current life situation.
When I was about to lose my faith in the Shaman magical powers (which I never had in the first place) the floor start shaking violently under me and I thought “that’s the end of this story…some ugly demons will come out of the floor ready to punish me for my skepticism”. Fortunately it was just an earthquake so common in this region as Peru is located in a seismic zone between Nazca and South America tectonic plates and little tremors can happen on daily basis.
In the end, the Shaman tried to convince me that I have some issue with the Chakras located on my stomach which require an urgent healing session. I said “No thank you, I like my stomach the way it is” and I rushed to the entrance door ready to leave this charlatan behind, angry and with few dollars gap in my budget.
**Making some extra money with overpriced clothing
Surprisingly….or not…my friend was all excited and convinced that she needs a new ritual meant to cure her life of bad luck and negativity, performed on another floor by the same “gifted” Shamans.
Pachamama or the Mother earth ritual is performed every year on early August (but doesn’t matter for our experienced Shamans that we are only few months earlier-March) and basically represent the concept of giving back to Earth whatever we took from it. Different offerings are blessed and buried in order to show the gratitude and obtain even more goodies in the future. The whole ritual was performed under the close supervision of a stuffed Alpaca which made the whole situation even more hilarious.
I thanked God when we finally finished the whole masquerade but rushing to the exit I bumped into two young men who just finished the so told “Ayahuasca retreat”, looking a little high and having a weird glow in their eyes.
The ceremony involves drinking the hallucinatory mix of plants under the guidance of a Shaman and expect a whole new set of feelings which are unique and personal for each and everyone.
Some people describe it as an out of body experience, indescribable happiness, encounter with the divine while others more unlucky never come back alive from this journey.
Whoever have the curiosity/courage to experience the “wisdom plant” must know that this is a truly life changing and transformative experience which require a serious process of purification through fasting, deep cleaning and a trustworthy Shaman.
Around the city