By Laura Elise
The South American Andes hold many surprises for the uninitiated pallet: llama burgers, fried guinea pig, and cow heart shish kebabs. But the gastronomic shock doesn’t always stop at the stomach. Sometimes, carrying culinary traditions across borders is a crime, especially if the tradition can be traced to one of the most demonized drugs in the world: cocaine.
In this case, culpability steams from a little green leaf whose cultivation in the Andes dates back 4,000 years. The coca leaf is the key ingredient for one of the most popular and practical Andean drinks—the internationally infamous mate de coca, or coca tea.
The Colca Canyon and Coca Tea
I first tried coca tea when I visited the Colca Canyon in Peru, just five hours outside of Arequipa, the country’s second largest city. I was on a three-day trek through what is one of world’s deepest canyons, dipping down more than 9,840 feet—deeper than the Grand Canyon. However, the towns that surround the canyon sit at significant altitudes ranging from 7,000-12,100 feet above sea level. Altitude sickness tends to kick in around heights of 8,000 feet above sea level for those not acclimatized. I had arrived from coastal Lima, which sits at, well, just bit more than sea level.
I was not acclimatized.
After hours of panting, pretending to take photos so I could rest, and getting sunburned (the Peruvian sun is merciless), I finally collapsed at a rustic house owned by a Colca Canyon local. Several residents of Coshnirhua, the tiny spackling of basic dwellings where I ended up, welcome trekkers into their homes as part of a homestay experience (which I highly recommend).
After gleefully shedding my backpack, I gifted my aching feet with blister-friendly flip flops and met our host mom in the kitchen for dinner. She heaped my plate with fried potatoes, soup, and formidable mounds of rice. She also presented me with two beverage options: instant coffee packages to stir into boiling water, or coca leaves to make into tea. I knew from experience the “coffee” was repulsive, so I opted for the unknown leaves.
Green with Altitude
Coca tea is an herbal tea drank widely across Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and other Andean countries. It is usually made by pouring hot water over several whole, dried coca leaves. The taste is similar to green tea and delivers a small kick similar to the caffeine in coffee. Bags of crushed or whole leaves are prevalent in markets throughout South America.
The drink is popular not only for its taste and affordability, but also for its medicinal properties. Ingestion of coca leaves, taken in a tea or chewed, is an indigenous and natural way to relieve altitude sickness. Many tourists to Cusco, Machu Picchu, or Lake Titicaca—where altitudes range from 8,000 – 12,625 feet above sea level—start their day sipping coca tea, just like the locals. The leaves are also known to alleviate hunger and boost energy levels.
My host mom was the first one to tell me about the drink’s medicinal properties, and promised the tea would help me recover from my trek as well as make the following days easier. Needless to say, I gulped away and eagerly asked if the coca would sooth my blistered feet or sunburned shoulders. She said no, but I held out hope, since it seemed the drink was a miracle cure-all for everything else. I even took a few leaves along with me for later (though I soon discovered every hotel in the area had their own stock).
No Coca Allowed
Tea-loving travelers who try to take this treat home over international borders (and not just to their next hotel) will be displeased to discover they’re breaking the law—coca leaves are recognized as an illegal narcotic substance by the international community. A 1961 United Nations treaty, the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, rather ambiguously names various substances for regulation or prohibition, including the coca leaf.
For years, Andean countries have protested the international classification of coca leaves as a narcotic substance, and consider it a legal substance within their borders, for locals and visitors alike. Bolivia has been the most vocal in its objection to this foreign coca categorization and has fought to get the leaves removed from the list.
In 2009, Bolivian President Evo Morales wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times which in reference to the international treaty, he wrote: “For the past eight years, the millions of us who maintain the traditional practice of chewing coca have been, according to the convention, criminals who violate international law. This is an unacceptable and absurd state of affairs for Bolivians and other Andean peoples.”
No one listened, so in January 2011 hundreds of indigenous Bolivians held a coca-chewing protest outside of the US embassy. They were objecting the US’s promised veto on a proposed UN amendment that would have changed the coca leave classification. The amendment failed.
Toxic Tea Bags
The US State Department website shares this legal tidbit: “Travelers should be aware that some drugs and other products readily available over the counter or by prescription in Peru are illegal in the United States … Although coca-leaf tea is a popular beverage and folk remedy for altitude sickness in Peru, possession of these tea bags, which are sold in most Peruvian supermarkets, is illegal in the United States.”
Although the worst thing that will probably happen to tea-hording travelers is that the bags will be taken at customs, one should note that drinking coca tea can alter drug test result up to a week after consumption. Explaining it was only tea probably won’t be much help.
Coca vs. Cocaine
So what is the real connection between coca leave and cocaine? The main association is that both originate from the coca plant. Coca leaves are a natural part of this plant and when consumed unaltered, the leaves contain various stimulate alkaloids (similar to caffeine), including the cocaine alkaloid, which makes up less than 1% to the plant’s total composition. Coca leaves are not addictive and there is no “high” from chewing or drinking them. In contrast, cocaine is a human-concocted substance created by extracting the cocaine alkaloid from the coca plant using a complex chemical process. The result is a highly addictive stimulate with strong, often adverse, effects on the brain and body. Cocaine is illegal in South America.
I knew nothing of this controversy during my first coca experience. I just knew the drink was warm, tasty, and completely natural. I felt like I was drinking nature, and as it seeped through my altitude-stricken and trekking-ravaged body, I started to feel a bit better. My head cleared, my energy returned, and I began to think I might actually make it out of the canyon alive. The tea did not, however, have any effect whatsoever on my sunburn or blisters.
About the Author
Laura Elise is a proud Midwesterner living in Lima, Peru. She previously spent two years in the hectic but lovable Mexico City. When she isn’t traveling, she works with SA Luxury Expeditionsa travel company specializing in Machu Picchu tours and trips to other South America destinations—although her own travel style trends toward backpacker-esque.