You may not have heard of coca, but these green leaves are a common sight in the Andes region. Whether it is boiled up as tea or held in mouths for hours on end, many men and women from the north west of Argentina to Venezuela couldn’t live without it. And if you’re a Coca-Cola fan, you probably couldn’t live without it, either.
Coca is wonderful stuff. It staves off hunger, thirst, pain and tiredness, and it gives you a mild buzz like caffeine. It contains calcium, potassium, phosphorus, vitamins B1, B2, C, and E, and nutrients including protein and fibre. It has also been used in burials and other religious ceremonies for thousands of years.
A bag of leaves can be bought for about one US dollar, and will last an amateur the duration of their stay. Many travellers I met were saved from sickness and given much needed boosts thanks to the leaves.
It’s also a nice way to bond with locals – I haven’t met a single person who has refused a few leaves on a long walk or out on the farm. When embarking on the Inca Trail; or fighting socorro at high altitudes, the use of coca leaves is encouraged.
Coca is not chewed or sucked, but stored between your gums and cheek. With a little help from baking soda, saliva slowly breaks down the leaves, releasing the juices and the effects.
Depending on where you’re from, you’ll either rip the leaves and take out the hard stalks, or just roll up everything together and pop it in your mouth. The pack can stay there for hours, and people look like hamsters as they pack more and more leaves into their cheeks throughout the working day.
Routinely used in communities for generations, the coca plant is pretty innocuous. It takes about 300 grams of coca leaves to make just one gram of cocaine. Despite this, it’s still under sharp scrutiny.
In most countries outside of South America, the law sees coca as a Class A drug, the same as cocaine. It’s a bad idea to bring coca products including teabags and sweets out of the countries they are sold. Coca is also illegal in Argentina (except in some northern provinces where the practice is widespread), Paraguay and Brazil. So enjoy this magical plant while you can.
Anyone with a passing interest in coca should head to the coca museum in the Witches’ Market in La Paz. This small but informative museum is thoughtfully laid out with plenty of information in English as well as Spanish.