The Curious Case of Coca Leaf Legality: Coca Tea in the Andes
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 (3,300 m)—deeper than the Grand Canyon.
However, the towns that surround the canyon sit at altitudes ranging from 7,000-12,100 feet (2,133-3,688 m) above sea level. Altitude sickness tends to kick in around heights of 8,000 feet (2,438 m) 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 a grueling day trudging through the canyon, and suffering horrible sunburn because I refused to believe more than 30 SPF might be needed, I welcomed my home stay in Coshnirhua, a tiny spackling of basic dwellings hardly enough to be considered a town.
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 mix into boiling water, or coca leaves to make into tea. I knew from experience the repulsive horror of this so-called “coffee,” so I opted for the unknown leaves.
Coca leaves ready to make tea.
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.
That night in the Colca Canyon, I went to bed and woke up with coca tea. My host mom explained the drink’s medicinal properties and though she insisted it wouldn’t help my blistered feet or sunburned shoulders, I held out hope. 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
Colca Canyon in Peru’s Andes. Laura Yates photo.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. In the United States, coca leaves are a Schedule II Controlled Substance (on a one-to-five scale, one deemed the worst and therefore most regulated).
This classification puts coca leaves on par with cocaine. The rationalization for this grouping comes from a 1961 United Nations treaty, the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which rather ambiguously specifies various substances for regulation or prohibition.
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 objected the most to this foreign categorization of coca and has fought to get the leaves removed from the list.
In 2009, Bolivian President Evo Morales even wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times on the topic. 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.”
It can be a bit absurd for tourists as well. Who would have thought bringing tea bags back to the US could be a crime? 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 …
Coca leaves in a basket drying.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.”
And, though luckily I had no problems with this, other visitors to South America should also be aware that drinking coca tea can alter drug test result up to a week after tea consumption.
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, affects on the brain and body. Cocaine is illegal in South America.
I knew nothing of this 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 she seeped through my altitude-stricken and trekking-ravaged, 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—though I’m sorry to report it had no effect on my sunburn or blisters.
Laura Elise is a proud Midwesterner living in Indonesia. Before moving to Asia, she spent several years in Latin America, setting up base in Mexico City and then Lima, Peru. In-between adventures, she writes about South America for SA luxury Expeditions’ travel blog.
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