Category Archives: Travel

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


Travel Log: Serendipity at Machu Picchu

My wife and I recently travelled to Peru to hike the Inca Trail following the footsteps of the famed US explorer Hiram Bingham – discoverer of the ancient city of Machu Picchu.  The 3.5 day hike took us to elevations as high 4200m above sea-level, up and down undulating landscapes in the mountains, and through natural and man-made tunnels that have stood the tests of time and nature.  On the last day of our hike, we reached a landmark on the trail called Intipunku – otherwise known as the “Sungate”.

Intipunku or “The Sungate”

From this point on the trail, hikers can catch their first glimpse of the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu down below, a huge reward after such a long and arduous trek.  At first, the city looks like a small speck and is hard to discern, but as you climb down the trail and get closer, the size and grandeur of the ruins becomes more appreciable.

The first view of Machu Picchu from the Sungate

For those not able to hike the actual Inca Trail or have limited time, there is also a commercial train that takes tourists up to Machu Picchu.  On the descent from the Sungate towards Machu Picchu, we frequently encountered tourists climbing up the trail towards the Sungate who had already reached the city  via train.

Out of sheer luck, I happened to recognize one of the many train travellers walking past us in the opposite direction as Dr. Lynn Tomkins – the Past President of the Ontario Dental Association.

Dr. Michael Banh crossing paths with Dr. Lynn Tomkins, Past President of the ODA, on the Inca Trail. Machu Picchu can be seen in the distance.

Dr. Tomkins is a tremendous ambassador of dentistry, a huge supporter of The U of T’s Faculty of Dentistry, and was one of my clinical demonstrators in the Emergency Clinic at the University of Toronto.  As our meeting on the Inca Trail was quickly turning into a bottleneck with hikers building up in both directions, we quickly exchanged greetings, took a photo opportunity and went on our ways.

If you are thinking about doing the hike up to Machu Picchu, stop thinking and DO IT!  (Get medical clearance from your family physician before you go, of course).  You will be rewarded with one of the most awe-inspiring views that this world has to offer.  And you never know who you might bump into when you’re up there!

Machu Picchu

– Dr. Michael Banh


Ghana Health Team Mission 2011

This year’s Ghana Health Team embarked on yet another mission this weekend.  As we wish them a safe and successful trip, I thought I would blog about a couple of our previous trips to Africa.  When I first went to Ghana as part of the 2008 team, most of the locals had never seen a dentist before.  Without accessible and affordable dental care in the northern regions of Ghana, its hard to describe the extreme dental need that we saw without some pictures.

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By far, the most common problems that we saw were severe gum disease and broken teeth.  When a tooth breaks and is not repaired, the inner part of the tooth (dentin) is more susceptible to cavities.  Over time, the cavity grows larger and can eventually kill the nerve of the tooth, which leads to an abscess or infection.  So invariably, every time we saw a broken tooth, it was accompanied by an abcess.  We later learned that one of the reasons why broken teeth may be so prevalent in the local population is because it is common practice to chew and eat bones (eg. chicken bones) for nourishment.  Those who were fortunate enough to be seen by the team during the two week missions were able to receive treatment.  But what about the others who would break their teeth a week or a month after we left?  They would have to wait another year before the team returned to set up a clinic again.  We must never take for granted the health care system that we have in Canada.

If you would like to receive updates on the progress of this year’s team, visit

– Dr. Michael Banh