In an Incan legend, a number of men aggressively pursued a particularly beautiful and pure young woman. She resisted all temptation which angered them. The men ended up abusing her, and she responded by committing suicide. On the spot where she died, a coca plant grew. This explains the spiritual importance of the coca leaf in a culture that places it in such extraordinarily high regard. The other reasons, as I’ve learned firsthand in Peru, are a lot more practical.
The coca plant grows in the mountains and jungles of Peru. Cocaine can be extracted from large amounts of coca leaves. In fact, Peru produces more coca for use in the production of cocaine than any other country on the planet. In this sense, it is a hugely important cash crop for Peruvian farmers.
The leaf also has many therapeutic uses that I benefited from on my trip. A handful of raw coca leaves can be mixed into hot water to create a tea that is a staple of any tourist arriving in Cusco, a city situated at over 11,000 feet. The tea is both delicious and an excellent remedy for altitude sickness. We woke up to piping hot coca tea delivered to our tents every morning on the Salkantay trek. It is the ideal way to start a day in the Andes.
Peruvians commonly chew on raw coca leaves to provide a mild stimulate and alleviate complications of altitude sickness. My guides on the Salkantay trek always carried large bags of coca leaves. I followed their lead, and we would stuff 20 or so leaves in our cheeks at a time and chew them like tobacco during our hikes. The flavor is similar to raw spinach and reminded me of the refreshing coca tea. It made my mouth feel tingly and numb, but I enjoyed it mostly because I felt like a local.
Coca is a major part of Peruvian culture for better or worse. The tea is so nice that I will miss it dearly when I get back to the states. Medical school doesn’t drug test anytime soon, which is great because I would certainly fail after my coca indulgence in Peru.