Coca: The Sacred Leaf
An intro to a seemingly simple leaf that symbolizes the complexities of traditional Andean culture as well as modern politics in a region that is highly spiritual yet rife with violent history. Having spent some time in Southern Peru and Bolivia in rural communities, I’ve been fortunate enough to learn about the leaf and how it symbolizes their rich and dynamic world-vision. As we left the crashing waves of the coast and the rolling sand dunes of the desert, I wanted to introduce the coca leaf to the group, knowing that it would be such an important part of any experience in the high Andes.
Before arriving to Cusco, we made camp at a totally exposed site next to a couple alpine lakes at roughly 4,000 meters above sea level. At that altitude, symptoms of altitude sickness are quite common (nausea, headache, vomiting, shortness of breath, etc.) and without a doubt, the treatment that has been around the longest, for nearly 2,500 years in fact, has been the almighty coca leaf.
There are 14 active alkaloids that make up the phytochemical structure of the plant, one of which significantly reduces symptoms of altitude sickness. It also produces a very mild stimulant effect, which in many ways attributed to the Spaniards’ ability to continually crack the whip on indigenous slaves who were put to work extracting gold and silver from the legendary mine of Potosi in Bolivia; without the coca, a strong argument can be made that not nearly as much wealth would have been shipped off to the Spanish crown.
Traditionally, three coca leaves are used to make an offering to Mother Earth, each one representing one of the three different worlds in Andean cosmo-vision: Uju Pacha (the underworld), Kay Pacha (the surface world we inhabit as humans, also known as Pacha Mama), and Janaq Pacha (the upper world). The under world is symbolized by the serpent, the surface world by the puma, and the upper world by the soaring condor. Shamans believe that these three leaves are necessary for communicating with the gods of these different worlds – they are literally the conduit for spiritually traversing all three worlds and delivering important messages.
Before you begin to chew coca leaves, you remove three of the best leaves you have and offer them to the person next to you. Typically, you are not supposed to begin chewing until you have been offered to receive the leaves from someone else. Once you get the leaves, you gently blow them in the direction of the local Apus (living mountain spirits) and then begin to chew them. As we did this, we made a simple gesture to each other and began the communal chewing of the sacred leaf as well as drinking coca tea. Many people felt an improvement to their symptoms within 20 minutes.
As we move through the Andes, we expect to see people (men, women, and children alike) chewing their beloved coca leaves. Unfortunately, there still exists an unfairly strong connotation between coca and cocaine. Yes, the coca leaf is a raw ingredient necessary to make cocaine but the two are about as related as a piece of plywood and a house. Ever since the coca leaf (yes, just the leaf), which scientifically has no addictive qualities nor toxic properties, was listed as a Schedule I drug it has caused horrific damage to the region, both politically as well as culturally. For us, it represents a fascinating way of connecting with the Andean world and an alternative to treating altitude sickness.