Coca Leaves...
The ancestral medicine of the Andes

Coca plantation in Bolivia
Coca field in Bolivia. Gerard Coles / Istockphoto

The use and chewing of coca leaves is something intrinsical to the Andean cultures since the beginning ot the times.

In fact, there is archaeological evidence that dates back at least to the 6th. century AD.

Traces of coca have been found in mummies dating back to 3,000 years ago.

The Moche culture in Peru, for instance, where coca representation is found through pottery, utensils, etc.

Later on was adopted by the Inca civilization, up to the point that coca cultivation became a state monopoly, and its use restricted to nobility and VIPs in general.

With the decline of the Inca empire, it turned back to its ancestral owners: the people of the Andes.
And it continues to be so in present days...

During the time of Spanish conquistadores, the consumption of coca leaves seems to have been encouraged for the majority of the population.

For indians working in the mines of Potosi (Bolivia) for instance, the increased productivity and tolerance for starvation achieved by consuming them was indeed something desirable to the Spanish Crown.
It is estimated that by the 1600s, some 285,000 kg of gold and 16,000,000 kg of silver found their way to Spain.


Do not confuse coca leaves with chlorhydrate of cocaine, a "man made" chemical process, very addictive by definition and a surefire way to end up bankrupt and to finish your days by overdose, if not careful.
In any case, even if you manage to survive, you will isolate yourself from the rest of the world, an scenario I wouldn't particularly recommend to anyone.

Chewing coca leaves is energizing and takes the appetite away. It also has a very bad effect on one's teeth.
A coquero in the Andes can consume 200 grs a day.

To be precise, they are not chewed, the dry leaf is moistened with saliva and kept between the gum and cheek, while sucked gently.
This is known as "Akullaku".

Coca leaves
Coca leaves. Sayarikuna / Istockphoto

Coca leaves are rich in calcium, vitamins, protein, iron and fiber. It also contains many alkaloids, including cocaine, a powerful stimulant.

The actual cocaine content found in a coca plant varies. It fluctuates between 0.1% and 0.9%. It tends to get higher with the altitude..

The coca plant grows to a hight of up to eight feet and favors the warm, moist, frost-free valleys between 1,500 and 6,000 meters above sea level, on the Eastern slopes of the Andes.

It's widely cultivated in Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela.

Many indigenous tribes use coca tea for medicinal and religious purposes.

Harvesting time begins at the third year and can yeld three harvests a year for another twenty years.

In some cases, if well cultivated and in optimal conditions, can be harvestable for fifty and even one hundred years.

Coca tea (coca leaf tea), also known as mate de coca - don't confuse it with yerba mate, popular in Argentina, southern Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay - increases the absorption of oxygen in blood, thus helping to combat altitude sickness or "soroche".

Today, coca tea (in filtering bags) is available just about all over the world, however, "decocainized, as much as coffee is decaffeinated to reduce the amount of caffeine content.

So don't be surprised if invited with a mate de coca when you make it to the heights of Peru, Bolivia, Colombia or Ecuador. It will definitely help you to adjust to the altitude in the first place, and secondly, you will be sharing a millenary tradition of the Andean culture.

Yes, coca leaves are also part of your most unique South America travel experience...


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