LA PAZ, Bolivia — Pope Francis enjoyed an in-flight tea made partially with coca leaves — illegal in the United States — to prevent altitude sickness during a visit to the world’s highest administrative capital.
Sitting at an altitude of 13,000 feet, La Paz has air 30 percent thinner than at sea level and the reduced oxygen level can cause fatigue, headaches and shortness of breath. That was a real concern for Francis, who has had part of one lung removed as a child due to an infection.
Francis — Latin America's first pope — is on a tour of the region.
Staff on the Bolivian Airlines plane from Quito, Ecuador, on Wednesday offered journalists a traditional remedy of coca tea to reduce the effect of altitude sickness.
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A flight attendant told NBC News that the pontiff was instead served Trimate — a tea mix of coca, chamomile and anise seeds.
Coca is known throughout the world for its psychoactive alkaloid, cocaine. But because the leaves have very low alkaloid content, they are used as a mild stimulant — unlike the high produced by chemical cocaine.
Importing the leaves into the United States is prohibited — the Coca-Cola company has an exemption, but removes the cocaine traces from the plant during its manufacturing process. However, in the Andes the leaves have been chewed and brewed as a mild stimulant for centuries.