As you travel across South America, in particular, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Columbia you will find the coca plant alongside the mountain and growing in many plantations of high altitudes. It’s offered to backpackers in every hostel and most importantly on every trek. The world knows it is used to produce the highly addictive drug, cocaine, however chewing it raw or drinking coca tea is actually a non-addictive leaf but simply used as a remedy to combat hunger, lethargy, and altitude sickness.
In North America or Europe, the majority of people hear coca and automatically think the leaf that produces “cocaine”. This mainly because coca plant’s chemical compounds are known as psychoactive alkaloids, but in actual fact the alkaloid content of coca plant is low approx, between 0.25% and 0.77%. To put in perspective, it takes 300 pounds of coca leaves to produce one pound of cocaine. Did you know that cocaine is one of the most potent anesthetic and vasoconstrictor? It is used during sinus surgery as well as any nasal procedure where bleeding and pain may be an issue. It is exported from South America legally for medical reasons as it is used an anesthesia and to numb pain in the ear, nose and throat operations across the developed world.
Despite what a lot of people think, chewing coca leaves for medicinal purposes has been taking place for many centuries across Bolivia and Peru, dating back to the ancient Inca civilization. My first experience of coca was in San Pedro in Chile where coca was sold manufactured tea bags and candies, found only in the market at the back of the village. I was told it helped with altitude sickness but as I continued along my journey coca was much more than that. As I crossed the dessert from Chile into Bolivia our driver offered us some coca leaves to munch on. This was to stop the altitude sickness symptoms like nausea headaches and sleepiness as we climbed to higher altitudes. As I chomped down on the unusual tasting leaf, there was a burst of what seemed like metal, and then became the tingling sensation in my mouth. It was a strange yet welcoming feeling as that sickness and tiredness I felt began to dissipate.
The reason it is only found in the Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Columbia is because it only grows at high altitude. It grows high in the mountain ranges, across the Andes and the upper areas of the Amazon. As I entered the higher planes of Bolivia and began to embark on many treks I began to notice a lot of my group leaders would either chew or drink coca tea. After one particularly grueling trek through the Bolivian mountainside, I drank coca tea and found the effect and benefits were not just psychological but I physically felt better too. I was ready to climb my next mountain. Studies show that brewing coca leaves act as a stimulant that is milder than coffee but this stimulant helps reduce hunger and aids digestion. So, every day for 2 months I drank freshly brewed coca tea to awaken my mind, body and soul.
Coca leafs have essential minerals like potassium, phosphorus, with vitamins B1, B2, C, and E and nutrients such as protein and fiber. Milk and cheese are not common (or if available, they are very expensive) in South America but the coca plant is high in calcium which is important for a low calcium diet. As I finished my trip I was disappointed I would not be able to brew my beloved tea leaves anymore. I really felt like my health had improved, and it did with the power of Coca.