If people make a plant product into candy, chocolates, and tea, can it really be all that bad?
Well, if you’re U.S. Customs, yes, but for people in the Andes, the coca leaf is life.
If you don’t process it into white powder, the coca leaf is a pretty innocent little item. Our heavy handed government can’t make the distinction, of course, so if you bring the items pictured at the top back in your suitcase, you could get into trouble and be delayed.
I was reminded of this recently when I came through the Houston airport and saw 8 boxes of coca tea sitting in the TSA confiscation area. I’m hoping nothing worse happened to the offenders, but for all I know they ended up in a locked room for a while. This followed at trip in the fall to northern Argentina, a trip where my driver had a wad of the coca leaves in his cheek the entire three-day tour.
I’ve been cleaning up old posts on this blog, deleting some newsy ones that are way out of date and updating others. Sometimes this practice is making me feel old. I wrote my first article about coca leaves after my first trip to Peru, which it turns out was 13 years ago. I hiked the Inca Trail with my wife, the woman in the white hat above. She’s watching our Peruvian guide say a prayer to Pachamama before showing us how to construct the package to stuff in our mouths. After that we could huff it up the trail in high altitude without getting too tired.
I wrote an in-depth article about the evil/not evil views of coca leaves for Transitions Abroad, back when it was still a print magazine. Thankfully they have left it up so you can see it here: The Coca Plant Paradox.
If you have watched the series Narcos, you have good reason to believe that this is one nasty plant, and it can be. If chemically altered and turned into powder, it has the potential to wreck lives, end relationships, turn people into criminals, and even bring down governments. When you think about all that drama while in the Andes Mountains though, it seems hard to believe. You see coca tea nearly everywhere in Peru, including at the swankiest hotels in Cusco and Arequipa. They even serve it at embassy functions in Lima.
All the porters chew the coca leaves, as do most farmers and construction workers. A coca leaf allotment is included in construction contracts for the laborers. They don’t get high. They just get energized. (There’s no real buzz from coca leaf chewing, just heightened energy and alertness.)
It’s likely that people have been chewing the leaves of this shrub for 4,000 years, as long as people have been walking the trails of the Andes Mountains. It didn’t get anyone in trouble until the chemists came along and turned it from something natural to unnatural, a key ingredient in a concoction from a laboratory.
When you’re on location, it’s no big deal. In Bolivia they recently welcomed Dakar Rally drivers with wreaths of the leaves. But then again, Bolivia is also most likely the world’s biggest coke exporter these days, so it all depends on what you do with it. When I’m in South America, I’m happy to enjoy my coca candy and coca tea while hiking through the Andes. Back home I switch to the more accepted drug—caffeine.