Our friend and culinary blogger Margot Haest, who loves to travel, brings us this entertaining article demystifying coca as she vividly experienced during her vacations in Peru with us. Enjoy the reading and the coca as well!
To chew coca, how you do that? What an odd statement one might think. Indeed I hadn’t imagine that until my last holiday in Peru, few weeks ago, where coca chewing is a cultural daily routine.
Coca, a major good?
The only permitted coca in the Netherlands is Coca-Cola. All the other issues related to coca are forbidden and are considered negative, especially of course, cocaine consumption. How different is that across the globe? For example, in Peru, where I was recently visiting, coca is a big thing and it is known by its medicinal properties since unmemorable times.
Looking for a good daily performance? coca! Headache? coca! Altitude sickness? coca! Concentration problems? coca! Stomach issues?…you guessed again: coca!
Chewing since Inca times
During the times of the Inca, the coca was already used by foot messengers, running hard between 30 to 50 Km every day to take the important messages throughout the country, without Red Bull or any other energy drinks, but with a handful of coca leaves in the pocket. Coca stuns physical aches and also alleviates hunger. Very useful when you are on the run!
Coca still plays an important role in current lifestyle in Peru. Leaves are sold at numerous market stalls. And not just the leaves but coca in the form of candy or tea bags is used daily by everybody, especially high in the mountains, in the Andes.
The coca experience
It is always good to get to know a country’s customs. So it was time to experience the coca effects on my own. The first time was with Rosario, my guide in Lima who explained to me how to chew on coca. I had bought a bag of coca leaves at Mercado 1 in the Surquillo district of Lima. Once out of the market I followed her instructions: to take in a whole mouthful. You really get that hamster cheek. It was not easy to handle all those leaves in the mouth. You really have to chew a lot before they get mixed with some saliva and to soften them in your mouth. The taste?…not my favorite, maybe comparable with tobacco. (I have no experience on that, but I can imagine!)
Rosario told me that after some time chewing I would feel how my mouth starts to numb, something compared with a dentist’s anesthetic syringe. For how long should I have to keep this big gob of milled leaves in the mouth for a little effect? At least 45 minutes, according to Rosario. I thought it was quite a long time. I really didn’t like that big gob in my mouth, it was very uncomfortable. But after a quarter of an hour I noted that my inner mouth was already sedated. What an strange feeling! I kept it for twenty five minutes, but then I thought it was enough for it being my first experience with coca.
Coca with flavor
Few days later I went to Arequipa. There I also headed to the market, with my guide Caroline. Apparently the coca is used differently in different regions. From Caroline I learned that you can change the flavor of coca by adding edulcorant, in this case; natural Stevia, also on sale at the market in the shape of cubes. There are several colors on what Stevia is presented, but gray would be the best. Caroline took a lot less leaves, added a bit of Stevia y then chewed. The flavor was, in fact, better than earlier and a smaller amount of leaves to chew was also better. I drank mate de coca (beverage) every day. It helps to acclimatize and to get used to altitude. At the beginning I didn’t like the taste, but one gets used to it. At the end of my vacations I even enjoyed it! Coca seems to be the way to prevent altitude sickness.
The last explanation about the use of the coca leaves was given to me by my guide Octavio while we were trekking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Octavio said that chewing coca is also a kind of ritual. Before intaking the leaves, some are offered to the Pachamama, the mother earth. Then you put three leaves inside your mouth. These three leaves symbolize important Inca icons: the condor, the puma, and the serpent. During the hike along the so-called The Coffee Route, you can see the plant naturally growing in the wild, it is a common view.
In general, it is very nice to know these local customs. But it is a shame that the beneficial properties of the coca are shadowed by the terrible drug that is obtained from it, what makes the plant to have a bad reputation worldwide.
In any case, I was very pleased with the coca leaves during my journey along Peru. I had them with me during the whole trip, but I had mostly drank coca tea at high altitudes, also had some coca candies (available in different presentations, one better that the other) and also had chewed leaves with Stevia as well. And it helped! Despite some headaches, I didn’t suffer at all, even at 16500 feet.
Too bad I couldn’t take any coca to The Netherlands.
Fun facts about coca:
Seems like, coca was not always forbidden in The Netherlands. In the first half of the 20th century, Holland was a coca trade leader. The Dutch East Indies were the main producers of coca plants during that period and were commercialized in Amsterdam. A factory that transformed it into cocaine was the Dutch Cocaine Factory. (source: Wikipedia)
Mother coca (or Cocomama) is the goddess of health and happiness. Originally, she was particularly promiscuous, and was split in halves by her many lovers. Then, from her body remains the coca plant grew and men were allowed to consume the leaves for their health and joy. (source: Wikipedia)
Are coca leaves addictive? The Jellinek clinic says the following: “to chew coca leaves is less addictive than to inhale or to smoke cocaine. The addiction rarely happens. Chewing coca leaves is not addictive because cocaine barely gets to the bloodstream and when it does it does it ephemerally”.
I travelled this country along with RESPONSible Travel Peru. All guides mentioned were organized by RESPONS and every experience is unique, with a sustainable approach and always giving a close look upon nature and most importantly, local communities.