Coca, Conquistadors and Customs
Coca is a species of South American flowering plant that grows freely in the warm and humid Andean foothills and is the source of the drug cocaine. Many travelers to Peru are surprised to find coca leaves and tea available for sale in markets, pharmacies and even supermarkets. The use of the leaves for infusions, foods or medicinal purposes is legal in Peru or Bolivia. However, in most other countries, including the United States, it is illegal to buy, have or use coca products. The U.S. Code of Federal Regulations lists coca leaves in any form as a Schedule II substance. Because of this, it is not recommended that you try to take coca tea or any other products which contain coca leaves out of Peru when traveling to other countries. Penalties for carrying coca into the US range can range from 5 to 40 years in prison, depending on the quantity. Remember also that use of products made from coca leaves can cause a positive result for cocaine in a drug test – just something to keep in mind when you come down to visit.
Since before the time of the Incas, coca leaves have been a vital element of life in the Andes. The leaves are used in popular medicine in the form of infusions (called mate) and poultices. It’s common for Andean people to drink infusions of natural coca leaves for ailments such as headache, sore throat and stomach problems. Mate of coca is given to people suffering from "soroche" or altitude illness – in my experience, it worked very well for this. It is also used in a poultice form to relieve the aches of arthritis and other bone or joint pains.
In many Andean highland communities, coca is chewed by workers, much like some people dip or chew tobacco. Chewing coca leaves serves as a stimulant, similar to drinking coffee, and can help alleviate tiredness, hunger and thirst. When the Spanish Conquistadors formed their colonies in South America, there were two opposing factions regarding the use of coca. Since the Incas considered coca to be of religious significance, the Church was of course opposed to its use. However, the property owners who were using indigenous peoples as forced labor recognzed that with coca, the workers were able to work longer and harder hours. The battle between opponents and supporters of coca use continues to this day. Unfortunately, drug traffickers have made heavy inroads into Peru, and the cultivation of coca for cocaine has been increasing, which endangers the lifestyle of the farmers who grow the plant for personal or commercial uses.