If you haven’t chewed the coca leaf… you haven’t done Peru correctly

As the elevation gets higher near the Andes, a small bag of green leaves becomes your most important item. It’s your survival kit. A bag of coca leaf. Chew seven leaves. It’s a strange sensation, a handful of dry leaves in your mouth. After 15 minutes? Difficulty breathing, fatigue, and potential headaches are all gone. At the beginning of our Salkantay Trek, we were advised to buy two bags of coca leaves for five days of trekking. This is the coca magic.

Coca leaf saved me

When I thought I was choking from the air in Colca Canyon (elevation 3,650m) of Peru, our guide Nestor gave me a handful of coca leaves and a bit of stevia. My tongue and cheek became numb. Like magic, I could breathe again. When we were up in Lake Titicaca (elevation 3,812m), coca products could be found everywhere: coca granola bars, coca candy, coca tea, chocolate-covered coca leaves, and so on. I thought this was just one of those ancient medicines that are commonly used in the Andes to beat altitude sickness. Then I got curious, and asked, “What is this, really?” In a small boat on Lake Titicaca, I looked through the Peru guidebook (that’s how we used to research pre-internet. Remember?) Turns out, coca leaves are the main ingredient for cocaine, and there’s Coca-Cola, whose name came from… You guessed it. What? Why didn’t I get the memo?

Chewing coca leaves on Salkantay Trek. Couldn't have done without it!
Chewing coca leaves on Salkantay Trek. Couldn’t have done without it!

Did you know Coca-Cola got its name from the coca leaf?

In the Andes, coca is used as a stimulant to overcome fatigue, hunger, and thirst, and especially against altitude sickness. Not just that, it also is used as an anesthetic, even for treating broken bones, childbirth, and operations. In the new world, since the 19th century, the coca leaf has been used to produce cocaine, a powerful stimulant extracted chemically from large quantities of coca leaves. Up until 1929, the Coca-Cola company used to put cocaine in their beverages. If you don’t want to get searched by a canine unit at the airport, you’d better empty your pockets of coca leaves before you come home.

The drug part aside, coca leaf plays a big role in culture and religion throughout Peru and other countries in the Andes. Traces of coca have been found in mummies dating 3,000 years back. Extensive archaeological evidence for the chewing of coca leaves was found during the Inca period.

Honoring Pachamama and Apu Salkantay

When we reached the highest point of our Salkantay Trek (Salkantay Pass, elevation 4,850m), we thanked Apu Salkantay and Pachamama with three coca leaves. Holding three coca leaves and a flat rock from the valley up high, we said, “Sulpayki Apu Salkantay, sulpayki Pachamama, sulpayki Ayqui” – thanks to Salkantay mountain, thanks to Mother Earth, and thanks to the valley for taking care of us. You’ll see three coca leaves on many signs, statues, and figurines. Coca is also part of social rituals. In the mountains, trekkers and chaskies hand coca leaves out to wish for successful trekking. On Taquile island in Lake Titicaca, two people exchange a handful of coca leaves before saying hello. Only after leaves are in the mouth, will they start their conversation. When our group was tired and felt sick from the altitude, we all chewed coca leaves together. It was like an Andes’ style pat on the back.

Tribute to Apu Salkantay - leaving chewed three coca leaves under the rock
Tribute to Apu Salkantay – leaving chewed three coca leaves under the rock
Coca leaf ceremony on Salkantay Trek
Coca leaf ceremony on Salkantay Trek

I didn’t feel stimulated by coca leaves or coca tea. Maybe because I didn’t use it with stevia. But when I was walking on the Salkantay Trek, I chewed coca leaves one after another, especially during the uphill climbing. It was a part ritual, part belief, and part desperation. It’s the closest thing to drugs I’ve ever done, and I am honored to have been a part of the Andean tradition. I think I’ll miss it.

20 thoughts on “The Coca Leaf Magic”

  1. Is it weird I’ve always wanted to go to a high altitude destination just to see if the coca leave really works on me? (Most prescription drugs don’t, so I’m curious about natural remedies!)

    1. Some of the trekkers were taking some kind of medication, but I didn’t. They said it worked. Coca leave worked for me – at least it gave me some strength when I really needed.

  2. HA! I loved and hated coca leaves when I was in Peru. I do think they helped relieve altitude sickness and gave me small bursts of energy when I needed it most, but they sure did taste awful!

    1. At first I had this weird sensation, that a bunch of dry leaves in my mouth… but it grew on me. 🙂 I did it for pleasure quite a few times!

  3. I loved coca leaves when I was in Peru! They gave me continuous energy! I remember going to a local market and bought a black ball of what looked like charcoal and was told to scrape some of this off onto the leaves before chewing them and it brought out even more of the helpful qualities of the coca leaves. I wish I could remember the name of this stuff – it worked wonders. Once a Japanese tourist was completely out of breath and hyperventilating after running for the last train of the day. I opened my back and gave him some coca leaves with the black powder and he began to breath normally again. I considered bringing some coca leaves back but then thought that the DEA might not have appreciated that so much. hahaha 🙂

    1. It was probably ‘stevia’. One guide told me it was ‘ash of banana’. Both tasted sweet, so stevia is my guess. We’re about to leave to US from Peru, so we have to do a thorough search of our bags tonight! Can’t go to jail for that!! 🙂

    1. As far as I can tell, yes. Not everyone likes it, but when we were up in a really high-elevation, everyone chewed together. It never really gave me any stimulation that I could recognize, but it is stronger when you chew it with the ‘activator’ (usually stevia).

  4. I did drink mate de coca my first time in Peru till the time I spent a night completely awake with my heart racing – I am so silly I had not realised it is a high stimulant. I never tried it again! I have been to Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and no, I just take it easy to adapt to the altitude. I can’t deal with the effects of it!

    1. Really? It never affected me that way. But to be fair, I don’t think I’m sensitive to caffeine either. Coffee or tea never helped me stay awake – it’s more of ritual.

  5. I remember drinking some type of tea they made with the coca leaves in Peru. I thought that was a better way of consuming the leaves rather than just chewing them raw. 🙂 but to each his own, I suppose. Nice post, btw.

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