The Coca Leaves Story Extends Far Beyond the Cola. At 11,000 feet above sea level, the Cusco airport provides incoming passengers with dry coca for chewing, a millennia-old tradition that locals continue to practise today. Coca are common in Cusco, Peru’s old Inca city in the Peruvian Andes. Hotels welcome visitors with bitter, earthy, and herbaceous coca tea to counteract soroche (altitude sickness), bars sell coca-infused pisco drinks, and bakeries crush the leaves to create bread. The leaves are an important element of the region’s cultural, gastronomic, and ecological fabric.
Meanwhile, in the United States, coca leaves are associated with two things, neither of which is particularly healthy: cocaine and Coca-Cola. The United Nations labelled coca an illicit drug in 1961, and it is prohibited to utilise the plant outside of nations such as Peru and Bolivia. However, one American corporation was given a pass.
Coca leaves and kola nuts give Coca-Cola its name and distinctive flavour, and cocaine—an isolated alkaloid from coca that, when ultra-concentrated, forms the addictive narcotic—was originally a component of the drink. Coca-Cola was touted as a potential brain tonic that eased migraines and mental or physical tiredness in a late-nineteenth-century advertising, when cocaine was legal in the United States. Another claimed that Coca-Cola syrup could alleviate nerve disorders, and drugstore soda fountains quickly became a vehicle for dispensing over-the-counter dosages to clients.
However, in the beginning of the twentieth century, the US Food and Drug Administration began restricting the use of cocaine in the US, and Coca-Cola removed cocaine from its formula, but coca are still a component in the drink. According to a New York Times investigation from 1988, the Drug Enforcement Administration (both then and now) authorises just one US corporation, the Stepan Company, to lawfully import coca leaves, primarily from Peru. Coca-Maywood, Cola’s New Jersey, laboratory processes coca to produce two ingredients: cocaine for certified medical use and a cocaine-free extract for flavouring.
Though the appearance of cocaine in soda fountains was brief, and coca leaf consumption in the United States is now strictly prohibited, archaeological evidence suggests that Indigenous foragers in the lower Andes of northern Peru ingested coca leaves 8,000 years ago. Moreover, Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala detailed the function of coca in Andean civilization during the Spanish invasion. In Nueva Crónica y Buen Gobierno, Peru’s Indigenous chronicler wrote about and portrayed Andean culture. The text from 1615 recounted how the Inca farmed and harvested coca, chewed and sucked the fluids from the leaves, and incorporated coca into nearly every part of their existence.
Centuries later, ethnobotanist Timothy Plowman immersed himself in the study of coca leaves in Peru. According to Plowman’s 1984 paper “The Ethnobotany of Coca,” cocaine is an organic compound found in coca, but they also contain “a complex mixture of chemicals, including alkaloids, essential oils, flavonoids, vitamins, and minerals,” a combination with different effects than isolated cocaine. Unfortunately, many people, including the United Nations, confuse coca and cocaine, which are related but quite distinct culturally and pharmacologically.
Throughout the Andes, the sacred ritual of chewing coca leaves, known as “chacchar” in Quechua, is typically done all day. Plowman describes how Quechua people roll the dry leaves into a ball in their mouths, sometimes adding ashes from burnt quinoa stems or other plants for a stronger effect; moisten the coca with saliva; and ingest the grassy, green, stimulating juice—comparable to a strong coffee—to suppress ailments like stomach pain and to ward off hunger while working hard.
However, according to Choque, alcohol and coca leaves may also be used medicinally: “Some manufacturers prepare macerados using methanol, coca leaves, and other plants.” These macerados are common analgesics that families use on gauze-wrapped injuries, for example.
Choque is pleased to introduce travellers to the culture of coca leaves. “They have a preconceived opinion that coca are a horrible product,” he explains, “but when they remain in Cusco, they realise the reality.”