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Coca Leaves: Ancient Andean Alkaloid

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Upon arrival in Peru, travelers will find coca leaves offered in most places they visit. From hotel lobbies to every market, restaurant, and shop they enter, the leaves and various coca products are available. By contrast, in the United States this ancient Andean alkaloid carries the not-so-flattering stigmas of addiction and drug dealers. But in Peru, in its natural form coca is considered a gift from Pachamama (Mother Earth) by locals of the region to which coca is indigenous. Willko Apaza, an Andean Shaman who uses coca leaves in many of his ceremonies, took some time to explain the immeasurable value the coca plant has to the people of his region.

Coca’s Ancient Roots

Willko started chewing just “a few leaves” at the age of nine. But he didn’t start chewing them in ceremony until he was nineteen. For use in ceremony, coca has a special value to the Andean culture. “ All divine creations like plants, animals, etc., have spirits. The coca leaf is very important in the Andean world. It is the only plant that has the capacity to bridge the connection between the material and non-material, the physical and the spiritual. Through it we enter a connection with the world of the spirits and we can take heavy travels or astro travels,” Willko explained.

When I asked Willco to describe coca leaves to someone who has never tried them, he responded, “Today they are used in an infusion for altitude sickness for when people arrive in places with altitudes greater than 3,000 meters above sea level. In its traditional form, you chew a quantity of dry and fresh coca leaves. For a person who has never experimented with it they can be a little bitter. It produces moderate saliva and can numb the mouth.”

Through chewing the coca leaves you will become united with the spirit of the plant.”

Coca’s Spiritual Use

The ceremonies Willko performs and participates in heavily showcase the coca leaf. He says the most popular ceremony is an offering to Mother Earth. “HAYWAY … You go to certain fiestas for this ceremony. The offering is the physical part of the AYNI, which is the collective responsibility to bring together harmony between the spiritual and material. It is the personal offering of the cosmic community. It is to give, to receive without expecting anything in return.” Willko explained to me that participants of the ceremony are mimicking the giving nature of the elements and spirits they are celebrating.

TAYTA INTI, the father and son, who give us love in the form of warmth so that our skin can breathe like the plants without asking for anything in return.  PACHAMAMA, Mother Earth, gives us love in the form of food to eat without asking for anything in return. WAYRA, the wind, gives us air to breathe without asking anything in return. YAKUMAMA UNA, water, gives us love in the form of water to calm our thirst without asking for anything in return. (This ceremony) is one of the many forms to give thanks to the MAMI, little mama, to give reciprocity without expecting anything in return, as does life itself.”

I asked Willco what he would say to someone resistant to coca leaves because of the negative stigma around processed cocaine. He said this stigma makes him very sad.

Physiological Benefits of Coca

Willko explains that coca leaves are a nutritional food. For centuries, people indigenous to the Andean region have brewed coca tea and chewed the leaves. In this way they ingest beneficial alkaloids, aiding in health. The coca leaves contain vitamins, minerals and fourteen different alkaloids, cocaine being only one of them. Yet cocaine is the most talked about, which is detrimental to the understanding of the coca plant’s benefits.

BENEFICIAL ALKALOIDS FOUND IN COCA LEAVES

– COCAINE

-METHYLECGONINE

-CINNAMATE

-BENZOYLECGONINE

-TRUXILINE

-HYDROXYTROPACOCAINE

-TROPACOCAINE

-ECGONINE

-CUSCOHYGRINE

-DYHYDROCUSCOHYGRINE

-NICOTINE

-HYGRINE

VITAMINS AND MINERALS FOUND IN COCA LEAVES

-CALCIUM

-MAGNESIUM

-PHOSPHORUS

-VITAMINS A, B1, B6, C and E

Sacred and Practical

Acullico is the traditional method of chewing coca leaves. An individual takes a few dried leaves with a small amount of an alkaline substance, to assist in extracting the alkaloids. The leaves are kept in a saliva-soaked ball (or bolus) in the corner of the mouth or inside the lip.  Beyond its spiritual uses, coca leaves can help suppress hunger, thirst, pain, and fatigue. People traveling to the Andes commonly use it for its ability to assist in acclimation to high altitudes, subsequently aiding in the avoidance of altitude sickness.

The chewing and brewing of coca leaves is performed by millions of people in the Andes. Doing so is considered sacred within the indigenous culture. Beyond coca’s indigenous region, coca has established a presence in many social classes; the use of coca flour as a food supplement has grown in popularity.

The coca plant grows in the Amazon portion of the Andes Mountains of South America. Growers cultivate it at altitudes between 500 and 2,000 meters above sea level in Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. 

Willko explains, “Today there are an immensity of products derived from coca leaves such as coca flour, extracts, energizers, candy, pastries, and various creams and ointments.”

I asked Willco what he would say to someone interested in trying coca leaves.

 “I would say go ahead and take some sacred leaves because they will not only fed your body but they will also feed your spirit.”

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