The Curious Case of Coca Tea


Coca Tea

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

The Colca Canyon - Photo by Brendan van Son

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.

Photo by Brendan van Son

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.

Coca tea leaves

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.

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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.


Author: Brendan van Son

Brendan van Son, the Editor-in-Chief at Vagabundo Magazine, is a travel writer and photographer from Alberta, Canada. He is currently exploring West Africa while working on the "It's My Life 365" project. Brendan's work has been featured across the world in both press and on a variety of online productions.

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12 Comments

  1. I’m a huge proponent of the coca leaf. It was actually what I wrote my dissertation on. I stand by Evo Morales in his saying, “Yes to coca, no to cocaine”. I think anyone that visits Peru or Bolivia will see how integral the coca leaf is to their society and tradition. Plus, the tea is MAGIC for helping with altitude sickness :)
    Tawny- Captain and Clark recently posted..Meeting the Jersey Shore in the Galapagos.My Profile

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    • @Amanda – Glad you liked it, Laura did a great job on this piece

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  2. The coca leaf not only helped ease any altitude sickness but it also made my mind feel clear like i was super intelligent and my spanish all of the sudden improved.

    My sentences in both english and spanish made more sense to me.

    I just felt generally smarter.

    …hmmmm?

    The second I left Peru I just went back to normal. I think I shoulda stolen some coca leaves!
    LAbackpackerChick recently posted..Wanderlust Pictorial: British museum part 2My Profile

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    • @Alexandra – hahahaha… Coca leaves make us all smarter 😀

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  3. I want some of this tea and I want it NOW. Great article, really well written! Awesome photos by Brendan too!
    Jackie recently posted..FOMO, travel editionMy Profile

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  4. As a tea lover and tea drinker, I have always been curious about make tea with coca leaves as I knew they use the leaves in the high mountains to combat sickness. I have tried calming teas and all kinds of other medicinal teas that claim they soothe the nerves but coca leaves is something I would really like to try. I guess I will have to take a trip out of the country and see if I can partake in a cup.

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  5. Great article, my mother once tried to take some coca tea bags home with her too! Not a good idea!

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  6. Congratulations Evo Morales and all of the coca people of the world for winning the right to chew the green leaves.
    I see coca tea being sold in the usa now
    and i hear customs are not hunting for small quantity coca tea bags anymore.I have ordered tea for a year now,and all my bags made it to my home with no trouble,other than waiting around for them.:)

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  7. While amounting to 1%, cocaine is by far the most abundant alkaloid within the coca leaf – and the effects experienced are almost exclusively the cocaine. The relief of altitude-sickness is due to the cocaine increasing circulation and oxygen-flow to the brain.

    The tea does indeed generate a high, just as coffee does – a mistake here is thinking that an experienced effect is not a high just because it’s relatable to a familiar effect that is legal in domestic countries. Both are highs, and both are due to the dopamine upregulations that they both generate – and cocaine is simply a dopamine upregulator while simultaneously an epinephrine inhibitor.

    Cocaine is a 100% natural alkaloid – hence “extraction” and not “synthesis”. The extraction process is not complex, it’s one of the most simplistic of all – far more simple than most pharmaceutical processes. Cocaine is not a human-concoction, not at all.

    Cocaine is not addictive, period. If it were, then the leaves would be addictive, as they contain cocaine, and cocaine is their primary commodity. The “addiction” referred sometimes erroneously referred to regarding cocaine is not a cause of the alkaloid, but a product of the person – It’s a matter of Chemical vs Psychological addiction, and cocaine is not chemically addicted – there is no physiological side-effect to discontinuing its use at any time, nor does the body create a drive to receive more – it is purely a personal issue, and affects reportedly between less-than 4/10 and 1/10 people (with statistics varying between research and sources). Therapy does not involve any medication, as methadone might for an opiate addict (and opiates form chemical addictions).

    There are no adverse affects to cocaine on the human body – it in fact results in the release of healthier dopamine than what naturally otherwise exists in the human brain. That said, the dopamine which it causes to remain active for a longer period of time than usual is not artificial dopamine, it is the exact same dopamine that existed in the person’s body previous to their ingestion of cocaine. It simply is left active for a longer period of time, and is given inhibition properties to the bonding of epinephrine – which results in a healthier dopamine to the human body than normal.

    Cocaine is illegal in non S.A. for political and profit reasons – meaning there is none to be made on a non-proprietary molecule, which costs $0.25 to extract in bulk in a lab, and which is effortless to do – and a plethora of existing proprietary medicines would be instantly wiped from the market, because they are egregiously inferior in their medical applications.

    In South America, the situation is a little different: pressure from non S.A. regions, lack of access to comparable research and research-funding, threats of sanctions and relations downgrading…
    David recently posted..A Second Dopamine ProverbMy Profile

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  8. Sorry, I left out a key measurement: “which costs $0.25 to extract in bulk in a lab”

    $0.25 per gram of pure cocaine HCL – when extracted in at least one USA lab, via bulk imported coca leaves, and I believe the importation is in cooperation with a import-license for Coca Cola. The cocaine is extracted from the leaves prior to use for flavouring in the Coca Cola beverage. The cocaine is diverted for medical use in hospitals, dentistry, research experiments, and wherever else. The de-cocanized leaves are then sent-forward to Coca Cola, for use in part-flavouring their namesake beverage.

    Sorry for making 3 posts. Feel free to merge them all.

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The Curious Case of Coca Tea