Travel Log: Capybaras, Cordoncillo, and Coca Leaves

One of the highlights of our trip to Peru was a two day side trip into the Amazon Rainforest. From Lima, we took a small plane to a town called Peurto Maldonado, where once you step off the plane, it’s as if you walk into a 40 degree Celsius wall of heat and humidity. From the airport, a bus shuttled us along the red dirt roads deeper into the jungle until we reached a branch of the Amazon River. From there, we boarded a long boat and enjoyed the cooling breeze of the 1 hour ride to our jungle lodge in the Tambopata National Reserve.  Upon reaching the lodge, it’s hard not to notice the nonstop conversations of the birds singing overhead, beautiful sounds impossible to reproduce.  Macaws were regular visitors during our stay.

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For nature lovers and those wanting to see exotic wildlife, this excursion is a dream-come-true.  Some of the animals we saw included Capybaras (the world’s largest rodent), caimans (relatives of the alligator), tarantulas, and countless insects and other critters.

Along one of our many hikes, our tour guide stopped us at what appeared to be a  fairly unremarkable plant – he called it a Cordoncillo.

The unremarkable looking cordoncillo plant with really unbelievable anesthetic properties

He reached down and cut a tiny piece of the plant off as seen below:

After chewing this tiny piece of the plant, my tongue and lips felt numb!

He told us to chew the piece of plant that he rationed for us, but not to swallow.  As I chewed, an intensely sour taste burst through mouth.  I felt pins and needles in my tongue and my lips, as if I had rubbed some sort of topical anesthetic (like orajel) on the surfaces of my oral mucosa and tongue.  I couldn’t believe the numbing sensation that was going through my mouth just from that small piece of plant.  Our guide told us that this plant had been used by the locals as a natural anesthetic to relieve tooth pain and to help with simple dental procedures.

Another plant that we encountered quite frequently in Peru was the ubiquitous coca plant, the stimulant properties of which were well known to the Incans centuries ago.  The leaves of the plant are used to make a tea which supposedly helps with altitude sickness, among other ailments.

Coca leaves used to make coca tea and from which cocaine is derived

Some of the locals still chew the leaves which also produces a numbing effect in the mouth.  It’s interesting to note, that cocaine (a potent stimulant and narcotic) is derived from the coca leaf, and was one of the first local anesthetics to be used in surgery and dentistry in the 1800’s.  Since that time though, newer and safer synthetic anesthetics have been developed that are used in modern dentistry.

(The featured image of the moth at the top of this blog entry was taken by fellow traveller and friend, Amanda Wilhelm)

– Dr. Michael Banh

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