Peru is teeming with natural vegetation, and anyone traveling to the area is likely to come across a lot of plants – probably too many to remember. But pay close attention during your Peru adventure, as you may just come across one rather extraordinary little bud: the coca plant.
At first glance, coca plants are quite inconspicuous. Growing to roughly the size of a grown adult, if not a bit taller, coca plants are large, bushy and covered in light green leaves of a neat oval shape. They are known to flower and bear red berries – though most people are only interested in the coca plant’s leaves, which boast some remarkable medicinal properties.
Native Peruvians have long been aware of the value of the coca leaf, and have traditionally chewed the leaves straight off the trees. There is evidence of coca ingestion dating back more than 8,000 years, though coca did not become widely acknowledged until the flowering of the Inca Empire. Coca leaves were identified as divine, and restricted to noble or religious use, the latter a requirement for Inca priests attempting to contact the spirit world.
This restriction came to an end with the arrival of the Spaniards in the 1500s. After conquering the Incas, Spanish conquistadors put the Inca to work – and used coca leaves to bolster the work of their slaves, feeding coca to the workers in large quantities. Coca leaves would soon spread to Europe via the Spanish, and despite some early medicinal forays – for example, coca was used to create the stimulant known as Coca-Cola – coca was, in time, harvested en masse to produce cocaine.
Despite earning a poor reputation thanks to its illegal use, however, the coca leaf remains a staple of products in South America, widely regarded for its health benefits. Coca can be found in tea, cookies, candy, cosmetics, toothpastes and herbal remedies, and is defended as beneficial by South American authorities. It also remains something of a sacred plant, and is used to predict fortunes and solidify marriages, among other things.
The coca plant has long been heralded as something of a medical miracle worker, and though some of its benefits may be the work of myth and wishful thinking it is nevertheless a scientifically supported fact that coca leaves can improve one’s health.
Most notable to international visitors is coca’s ability to alleviate altitude sickness. Coca is a stimulant, and was regularly used by Inca and Andean workers forced to labor in the Andes as a means of settling the stomach and energizing the body. Anyone traveling into the mountains for a tour may want to grab a handful of these helpful leaves before hitting the slopes. Coca can also make a good meal for anyone about to get on a plane who would otherwise suffer from altitude sickness.
Their ability to energize the body aside, coca leaves are said to relieve headaches, wounds, sores, broken bones, the pain of child birth, rheumatism and a myriad of other problems, and has regularly been used as a cure-all supplement by natives of South America. Chewing coca leaves remains a popular staple of many South American cultures, particularly in Peru, Bolivia and the Andes where the plant is most commonly found and cultivated.
Despite its somewhat checkered history as the raw component of cocaine, the coca leaf remains a relatively harmless supplement on its own. With a long history of South Americans swearing by its medicinal benefits, there might just be something to this little plant that puts a spring in a traveler’s step.