Wednesday, July 11, 2007


Coca is a most wonderful thing. Yes, its refined form, cocaine, is what you more commonly hear about in the news, but in its natural, leaf form it actually doesn’t lead to drug addiction, pregnancy, vagrancy, or a deadly disease. While working in Peru I have chewed coca and though the day did seem to pass a little quicker, likely do to constantly having to fool with the leaves in your mouth, the only side effect I felt was a numb tongue.

Peru is currently the world’s second largest producer of coca with Columbia coming at number one. While it is true that most of the 34,000 hectares of coca that is grown in Peru gets shipped to Columbia to refine, the other smaller percentage is used locally, turned into tea, or sold to the Coca-Cola company. Long before the powers of the coca leaf were harnessed in ways not entirely unlike the atom, they were used on a daily basis by the ancient Peruvians.

Along the coast the leaves were a high status marker because they had to be purchased from jungle communities and couldn’t be grown locally. The coca was often enhanced by chewing lime which acted to release the alkaloids in the leaves more effectively than mastication alone. Coca chewing is represented in the archaeological record in ceramics, textiles, associated chewing paraphernalia, and skeletal remains.

Within Peru, it is likely that coca can be found in the markets of small cities and large towns, becoming less common within the capital of Lima. Today, coca chewing is considered a low class activity due to its close association with drugs and the coca-eradication campaigns taking place all over the country.

Coca leaves are frequently used to make tea and this practice becomes much more prevalent in the higher elevations. The tea can help treat altitude sickness and upset stomach and is commonly given to tourists unfamiliar with the extreme elevations and local foods.

Don’t count this little guy out due to its bigger and badder brother.

Next time you are in Lima try this coca macaroon


Nic said...

Where can you get macaron in Peru?! I don't have a lot of time there, but having travelled to and from Bolivia, you always have to stop in Lima. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

So happy to stumble on this. I was in Peru only briefly, long enough to do the inca trail years ago. The coca leaf tea and chewing leaves helped so much with altitude sickness, nausea, stomach aches and headaches. It's the single most effective herbal tea I've ever drank (other than guayaba leaf tea for hangovers), and I was so sad that I couldn't bring a bag back into the U.S. - as if a half-lb bag of coca leaves would be enough to make cocaine!

Sarah C. said...

Nic, you can get the coca macaroon at T´anta in Miraflores. They have them on a little dessert cart they bring around.

Anon, Thanks for the props. I dont think the powers that be would have made a big fuss if you tried to bring in the tea.

Chef John said...

Thanks for comments on my site! I hope you had a nice trip. Let me know if you want to trade links to each others sites. Thanks.