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Mama Coca: An Introduction to a Misunderstood Plant
An Introduction to Casual Coca Chewing
by Murple
March 12, 2002
HTML & orig pub by Erowid

In June, 2001, I had the opportunity to travel to Bolivia for two weeks. This was an epic vacation about which I'm writing a detailed travelogue, and anybody who has any interest in ethnobotany, shamanism, or Native American culture would have a hard time finding a better place to visit. One of the more unique aspects of the trip deserves a little essay of its own for distribution to certain special interest groups: Coca.

The coca plant has been used by the native Aymara, Quechua (Inca) and predecessor cultures of Andean Bolivia since long before recorded history. Archeological evidence of its use goes back at least 5000 years. The roles it plays in these cultures are so important and diverse that it is difficult to compare it to something equivalent in American culture.

Coca is an important medicinal plant. One of its most famous uses is as a treatment for sorojche (altitude sickness). It helps the body make better use of the limited oxygen at the high altitudes (downtown La Paz is at about 3500 meters). It is so effective that the U.S. embassy recommends its use as a remedy for sorojche, in spite of the U.S. government's relentless persecution of coca. In addition, coca is widely used for digestive problems, particularly in the form of tea. The leading manufacturer of coca tea in Bolivia, Windsor, produces a blended tea called Trimate ("triple tea") specifically for thus purpose which contains coca, chamomile and anise. Coca is also used for headaches, particularly by the indigenous peoples. For this purpose, the usual way to take them is to lick two or three leaves and stick them to the forehead. Coca is also used to treat muscle aches and arthritic conditions, and for this purpose, coca balms (pomadas de coca) are sold. Chewed leaves are commonly used for tooth aches and sore throats.

Coca is of course widely used as a stimulant. For this purpose, it is generally chewed. It is widely used by laborers and taxi drivers (who generally work 24 hour shifts followed by a few days off). Many people who use it as a stimulant use it continually throughout the day, and among the native peoples units of distance or time are sometimes measured by a unit called a cocada, which is the time elapsed or distance walked before a quid of coca needs to be replaced.

Coca also plays an important role in the spiritual practices of the native peoples, and coca leaves are referred to as las hojas sagradas, "the sacred leaves." The spirit of the plant is anthropomorphized as Mama Coca. The leaves are a critical element in sacrificial bundles (along with candies, cigarettes, incense and other items) which are burnt as offerings to Pacha Mama (Mother Earth) or Inti (the sun god). Coca leaves are read as a form of divination, similar to the practice of reading tea leaves in other cultures. In the pre-conquest cultures, coca leaves were buried with the dead, and they were important in the rituals of the Inca empire. Today, coca is also a badge of cultural identity among the native peoples, the flip-side of this being that the U.S. backed persecution of coca is often used by Spanish bigots and culturally assimilated Indians as a way to oppress the native cultures.

Beyond all that, coca also is an important source of nutrients. The leaf contains high levels of calcium, iron, phosphorus, potassium, and vitamins A, B12 and E. In fact, many chewers get 100% of the recommended daily allowance of these nutrients from their coca use. For many poor people in the more barren regions of the Altiplano, coca is a critical element of their diets.

An essential stop in La Paz for any tourist interested in coca is the Coca Museum (They have a very informative web site at http://www.cocamuseum.com/main.htm for those who can't make it to Bolivia. This small museum is located on Calle Linares, down the street from the Mercado de los Brujos (Shaman's Market). The museum features numerous displays on the history, culture and science of coca and cocaine, including a rather amusing "cocaine fiend" mannequin and an alcove with live coca plants. The price of admission is very low (what isn't in Bolivia?) and English guide materials are available (as are versions in several other languages).

The coca business is quite large in Bolivia, and manifests in several forms. Quite a few products made from coca are available, in addition to the plain unprocessed leaves.

There are at least two American style supermarket chains in Bolivia, Ketal and Hipermaxi. Walking around in these stores, you would notice almost no differences from any large modern Safeway, Publix, Giant or Food Lion in the United States. One thing you would notice different is that when you walk into one of the stores, you check any bags you're carrying with a security clerk at the entrance. Another thing you would notice is that in between the coffee and the tea are rows of Windsor brand mate de coca (coca tea) and Trimate. Coca tea is sold along side regular and herbal teas. The manufacturer, Windsor, is the leading tea company in Bolivia - sort of the local Lipton's. In addition to coca teas, they also make black, green and herbal teas. Coca tea is an entirely mainstream commercial product in Bolivia, and its purchase will raise no more eyebrows than buying a box of Earl Grey or chamomile tea.

There are some social peculiarities surrounding coca. Among many people from the (mostly Spanish or mestizo) higher social classes, chewing coca is looked down upon. These people see it as a low class habit, which is in large part based on racist attitudes - chewing coca is an Indian habit. The same people who find chewing coca so distasteful generally have boxes of coca tea in their kitchen cabinets and drink it. While this attitude is far from universal, it is prevalent enough that only packaged coca tea bags are available at the large supermarkets. Loose leaf and coca wines are not available from these stores.

There are a few specialty coca shops in La Paz. There is one tucked into one of the many artesanals (courtyards or maze-like tunnels full of small merchant booths) along the main street about a block uphill from the San Fransisco church. The shop displays a sign displaying the name Coincoca, a Cochabamba-based home industry that manufactures various coca products. I don't know if this means the shop was affiliated with with Coincoca or whether they were just advertising that they sold those products. This shop sold coca leaves, coca teas, Coincoca Vino de Coca (coca wine), several brands of coca balm, Co-Dent toothpaste, and other coca related products. I ran across similar shops in Coroico, and I'd wager that most Bolivian towns have them.

The most widespread facet of the coca market is unquestionably the many street vendors operating businesses off push carts or collapsible tables. There are probably hundreds of these vendors in La Paz, with the highest concentration being in the shopping districts around Calle Sag▀rnaga and the morning market. The smaller vendors operate from pushcarts, selling little sock sized bags for 2 Bolivianos (around 12 cents, in 2002) and bags three times that size for 5 Bs. The largest ones consist of one or two large collapsible tables covered with various coca related merchandise including various sized bags of loose leaf, coca teas and wines, different kinds of alkali, and often other herbal medicines such as u▒a de gato or pingo-pingo (an Andean ephedra species). Many of these larger vendors would have a few fifty gallon plastic bags full of coca leaves from which they measured out the smaller 2 or 5 Boliviano bags. All the plastic bags used in the coca trade, from the small sock sized 2 Bs. bags up to the 50 gallon bags, appeared to be made of either red or green plastic.

When I arrived in La Paz, my friends picked me up at the airport and we took a taxi back to their house. They immediately offered me a cup of coca tea for the altitude, although I didn't feel any sorojche symptoms. I had tried coca tea before, having had some Peruvian tea bags (Zurit brand). The tea I was given at my friends' house was made from whole leaf steeped in hot water, however. The taste was essentially the same as the Zurit I'd had before, only it seemed fresher by comparison. I suspect the Zurit I'd tasted was sitting around for quite some time.

The tea has a taste which is very similar to Japanese green tea. It has a more complex bouquet of subtle flavors, but they are similar enough that anybody who enjoys one would enjoy the other. I've found it best with some sugar and cream. The effects of the coca tea are a nice stimulation and mood lift. It doesn't produce any significant numbing of the mouth nor does it give a rush like snorting cocaine. Much of the effect of coca seems to come from the secondary alkaloids, as it is not only quantitatively different from pure cocaine but also qualitatively different. It's a pretty mild stimulant, comparable to a cup of coffee. I find it superior to caffeine though, as it produces no caffeine jitters and no crash when it wears off.

I made a comment to one of my friend about wanting to try chewing some, and he told me to be quiet about it, informing me about how chewing is considered low class by some and that his grandmother and cousin would not approve of me chewing coca in their house, and that we would chew some later.

After a quick breakfast, we took a taxi to my nearby hotel. When I checked in, the counter clerk asked if I wanted a complimentary cup of coca tea. I accepted, of course, and room service promptly brought up a cup each for my friend and myself. This was the only non-Windsor coca tea that I saw on my entire trip, the tag on the string being white and bearing no brand name. Every other box or bag of coca tea I saw anywhere during my two week stay was Windsor. As we sipped the tea, my friend brought out an incredibly cheezy homemade pipe that had been crafted from a thimble, a plastic pen, and some Scotch-tape. He filled the thimble with some dry, brownish, flakey Bolivian pot that had lots of seeds. Didn't look or taste that great, but it did get me pretty high. Maybe that was partially due to the altitude, or maybe it was better than it looked (my money's on the altitude).

After we finished the tea and the bowl, it was time to try chewing some coca leaves. I was quite excited to try this, and it was one of the main things I'd been looking forward to on this trip. My friend pulled out his bag and demonstrated the technique, which is an interesting little ritual. In the local Spanish dialect, there is even a verb meaning "to chew coca": picchar (pronounced something like "picture").

First, you put a wad of about 1 or 2 grams of leaves (which look somewhat like bay leaves) in your cheek and let them get a little wet. The leaves are always sold dried, but they rehydrate pretty quickly in your mouth. They feel kind of weird in your mouth at first because of their dryness, but they have a pleasant taste.

Then, you break off about a pea sized chunk of a thick, black, soft, tarry substance called lejia dulce and put it in your mouth, slowly chewing it into the leaf wad. Lejia is the name for the alkali used to activate the coca by changing the pH of your mouth to be more basic, allowing the coca alkaloids to be absorbed. There are several forms of it available, my favorite being this one, lejia dulce (sweet lejia). This lejia is made from an alkali (ashes obtained by burning the grain quinoa) which is mixed with cane sugar and anise. Another popular form of lejia came as hard O-rings about as round as the old U.S. silver dollars, and is made of some black material with a salty and slightly sour taste. A third kind, which I did not try, came as hard white oval rocks, and appeared to be some kind of lime. There were a few other less common varieties at some vendors.

Within a few minutes of adding the lejia, your mouth goes numb, you feel stimulated, and you develop a mild mood lift which is much more of a subtle glow than the overwhelming rush you get with pure cocaine. I used cocaine for a while when I was quite a bit younger, and got bored with it pretty quick. I have no desire to ever use refined cocaine again, but chewing coca turned out to be very pleasant, far exceeding my expectations. While the stimulation isn't too much more than what you get from drinking coca tea - in other words, it's comparable to a cup of strong coffee - you get a pleasant numbing sensation in your mouth, and it has a very nice taste. Imagine green tea with a hint of licorice (from the lejia) and mint (from the numbing). The fact that this was not only legal but accepted was rather mind blowing at first, and it was really amusing to be able to stop in the middle of a public sidewalk and prepare a chew without anybody giving a second glance. That particular novelty wore off in a few days, but the chewing remained just as pleasant, and was an activity I engaged in near daily throughout my stay.

On my second day in La Paz, I purchased my own bag of coca leaves for 2 Bs. (a large chunk of lejia dulce is included in the price) and a bottle of vino de coca for 10 Bs. from a street vendor on Sagárnaga. The coca wine came in small plastic bottles with an amusing label showing someone in gym clothes running, and claims that the coca wine improves athletic performance (among other benefits). One or two swigs of this wine packed quite a punch. The taste was interesting, being a blend of red wine, brandy, and coca. The first time I tasted it I thought it was somewhat nasty, but I quickly came to like the taste. The warmth of the brandy added a nice kick.

One of the more interesting day trips I took in Bolivia was a bus ride down the Yungas Road (considered the most dangerous road in the world, with very good reason!) to the small town of Coroico. This town is down in one of the tropical cloud valleys at the base of the Andes known as the Yungas. The Yungas are the primary growing region for legal coca used for making tea, medicinal products and chewing leaf. The Yungas are also where much of Bolivia's coffee and bananas are grown, and plantations of the three plants form a visible patchwork over much of the Coroico valley. The coca which is grown illegally for the cocaine business comes from a different part of the country, east of Cochabamba. In Coroico, there were numerous coca shops, and the prices on coca products were much cheaper than in La Paz. For 2 Bolivianos, you can buy a bag twice the size of a 5 Boliviano bag in the city. It's also much fresher. A trip to Coroico is definitely worthwhile, not just for the chance to see coca plantations and buy cheap coca, but also for the fantastic views and the bragging rights of saying you've survived the world's most dangerous (and beautiful) road.

Chewing the whole leaf with some lejia dulce was certainly my favorite way of using coca. I chewed coca several times a day nearly every day of my 2 week stay. I didn't have any problems with the altitude, though I can't say for sure if the coca helped or if I'm just not prone to sorojche. I can say that it did help me climb up Mt. Chacaltaya. With a quid of leaves in my mouth, I was climbing up steep slopes of shale at 5000 meters without problems... and terrain like that would ordinarily have left me short of breath even at lower altitudes. It also enabled me to dance quite vigorously at a rave we attended one night in La Paz (an event worthy of its own story). Chewing coca was also a great way to help digest the insanely massive portions of rich, heavy food that every restaurant and family serves in Bolivia (and not eating it all will have your hosts thinking you don't like it).

When it was time to return home, I decided to take the risk and mail home the rather sizable bag of coca leaf I still had. I was elated when it showed up at my door a couple weeks later. The bag lasted me for a few months, and I got into the habit of walking the 2.5 miles to work almost every day, enjoying a chew on the way there and another on the trip home. Coca is an excellent accompaniment to hikes, and I was sad to see the last of the leaves go. I had some coca tea bags, and I found that emptying out and chewing one or two of the bags gave similar results... but it wasn't nearly as good. The taste wasn't as fresh, and it seemed that many of the secondary alkaloids were missing since some of the nice subtle pharmacological overtones weren't there. For a while, I used to chew the tea bags and go to the gym. I found that coca greatly improved my endurance and performance while working out, and the combined mood lift of endorphins and the coca... well, I think if coca were legal here, Americans would no longer be the fattest nation.

Overall, I found coca to be one of the most beneficial plants I have had the pleasure of working with. There were no negative side effects, it produced no crash when it wore off, there was no craving for more, and it felt much cleaner than caffeine or other stimulants. It is an entirely pleasant experience, it tastes good, and it has health benefits. The fact that this plant is illegal in most of the world is absurd. Not only does it give milder psychoactive effects than caffeine, but it is far less addictive. The fact that this plant is not legally available from any supermarket or health shop is a travesty. I sincerely hope that some day I can get my hands on more coca leaves, preferably legally after the silly laws against it have been thrown out.

ÝMe gusta mucho picchar!