The Coca Leaf in Peruvian Culture

The coca leaf is a huge part of Peruvian culture and has been for centuries. For many South Americans, coca is part of their everyday lives, much like coffee is for inhabitants of other parts of the world. Coca, however, also holds important significance in rituals and in religious practices in Peru, and it’s also used for its medicinal purposes.

According to historians and archeologists, Andeans have been using coca for at least 8,000 years, suggesting that the leaves were chewed with lime. Hard evidence has been discovered in mummies from around 1,000 B.C., in which traces of coca were detected. Coca became an integral part of rites and ceremonies with the Incas, who believed the plant was a direct gift from the gods. Ancient images of Incan Emperors often depict the leaders wearing a coca pouch over their hearts.

Traditionally, coca has been used in a variety of ways in Peru, and many are still used today. For example, the leaves are used in a ritual of thanks to the earth, the mountains, and the sun. Reading the leaves is believed to reveal future events, also. The practice of placing coca leaves in the grave with the deceased is largely observed in modern Peru, just as it has been since the time of Incan mummies.

The coca leaf is also used in celebrations today, just as it has been for thousands of years in the Andean culture. It’s considered a cherished gift and a way to show honor and respect to the receiver. When a Peruvian male chooses a girl to marry, he often presents her father with coca leaves. When a new baby is added to a family, the father often passes out coca leaves to friends and relatives to celebrate the occasion.

Coca leaves have a long history of medicinal uses in Peru. Women in labor often chew the leaves to ease pain and to hasten the birth of the child. Over the centuries, coca has been used to relieve a wide assortment of aches and pains, as a laxative, as an aphrodisiac, and as a treatment for ulcers, asthma, and malaria. Because coca constricts blood vessels, it’s also been used to treat nosebleeds and wounds.

Many Peruvians chew coca leaves on a daily basis as a mild stimulant to relieve hunger, thirst, and fatigue, and to increase alertness. It’s usually chewed with black lime powder, at the beginning of the day. It might also be used just prior to a difficult journey or an arduous task to increase stamina.

Coca’s ability to relieve altitude sickness is well known. In this case, the coca may be chewed, or a tea called “mate de coca” can be made by steeping the leaves. Many visitors to the Andes drink coca tea to prevent the detrimental effects of high altitudes. The finest hotels in the Andes region often offer coca tea to visitors not used to the high altitude. Two famous guests who followed this practice include Princess Anne and Pope John Paul II.

Coca leaves in their natural state are very different from cocaine. To make cocaine, solvents like gasoline, kerosene, or alcohol are used to extract the cocaine from the coca leaves. Next, acid is used to separate the cocaine and the liquid, resulting in cocaine crystals. After that, the crystals are dissolved in alcohol and crystallized again. When these crystals are dissolved in sulfuric acid, the result is cocaine that can be freebased or smoked. Further processing creates a form of powdered cocaine that can be snorted.

Natural coca is not highly addictive like cocaine, nor does it share the serious side effects. The coca used by Peruvians and other Andean inhabitants is more similar to a strong cup of caffeinated coffee or tea. In fact, most coca leaf users report that they don’t even experience nervousness or shakiness with coca, as they do with caffeine.