Chewing the leaf – Coca in Coroico, Bolivia

I love a lot of things about Bolivia. It is an incredibly beautiful country, first of all, mountains, plains, rivers, valleys, giant freshwater lakes with silly names really high in altitude…Still though, the Andes (and especially Bolivia) is the only place where the coca leaf is chewed as a matter of course. It is of course the raw ingredient behind cocaine, which is of course illegal everywhere since it is a dangerous drug. This has given the coca leaf some undeserved notoriety. By itself, it is harmless—the number of leaves it takes to create a small amount of cocaine is staggering—and in any case, as an old Bolivian man said to me,  shrugging, “One makes wine from grapes”.

No one gets pissed about grapes, was his point. So don’t get all worked up from the coca.

It is said that the best coca is found near a small town called Coroico, which is a mountain town on the way down the scariest highway in the world, an epic, one-track road, collapsed in places, steep, narrow, and teeming not only with reckless drivers but burros and people and rocks and mud. Most of the time is spent veering near the edge of thousand-foot cliffs. In any case, the Coca of Coroico is sweeter, stronger, and more desirable. A large bag will set you back about 15 cents at a market or so, unless you get cheated, which you most certainly will. Don’t sweat it though, because getting cheated means you’ll pay like $2 instead of 15 cents, still no big deal. I spend $2 on dumber shit in NYC.

Coca has been used for centuries by Andean natives, and was valued for its healthful and stimulating properties. Placing a chaw in your cheek for a bit you’ll enjoy the lightly sweet flavor and perceive over a short length of time a sense of energy, power, confidence, and well being. Your breathing is easier, you can hike on forever, even at high altitudes. In fact, the first time I was there, I was helping to lead a group of kids through the country, translating for them and forcing them to chew coca leaves and so on, and I often prescribed coca, or a tea made from it, to combat altitude sickness, malaise, and homesickness.

From Wikipedia: “Besides cocaine, the coca leaf contains a number of other alkaloids, including methylecgonine cinnamate, benzoylecgonine, truxilline, hydroxytropacocaine, tropacocaine, ecgonine, cuscohygrine, dihydrocuscohygrine, nicotine and hygrine. When chewed, coca acts as a mild stimulant and suppresses hunger, thirst, pain, and fatigue.”

None of the euphoria or psychoactive effects which result in the irritating sociopathology of cokeheads are present when chewing coca, though tests have shown that trace amounts of cocaine are present in coca-chewers’ bloodstreams after chewing—but experts agree that the addictive properties of cocaine are not an issue, or very much present, in the unprocessed leaf in its natural state.

Because folks up here tend to shit their pants about everything they can possibly figure out how to judge each other for, even the harmless coca leaf is illegal to buy and sell here in the US, but there are several googleable online stores from which you can buy it in teabags—and I’m sure you can find whole coca leaves as well. Still, it’s nothing like Coroico; the air is thin, mountains surround the area, the sun shines brighter, and the coca tastes like the energy of the intense Andean sun. Go to Bolivia for the myriad cultural and ecoantitourism possibilities, but don’t forget to try the coca.

By: Ben Britz

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