Within Andean mythology, nature is hugely important as a representation of a Deity. This can be shown in the Andean peoples’ relationship with the landscape, including mountains, animals and plants. With some of these they attributed sacred meanings and established communication and intricate rituals and ceremonies that have stood the test of time and still exist today.
Many plants native to the Andean people that have this sacred meaning and exemplify this means of communication with the Andean “Mother Nature” and self-exploration is the San Pedro cactus, or Wachuma, the Amazonian Ayahuasca and of course, the coca leaf. One of the reasons for taking these plants was to explore one’s own direction and spiritual journey.
By far the most widely used of these three sacred plants is the coca leaf. Due to its energy-giving qualities and stimulants to the nervous system, these leaves were in use 5000 years ago to endure demanding physical work. Whilst in that time they knew nothing about its nutritional qualities, they knew it repressed the appetite and thus became a central part of the diet of an Andean man especially in times of famine. Now studies have shown these nutritional qualities to be calcium, vitamins and minerals. Over time, however, they did discover some medicinal qualities that the coca leaf holds. Curing muscle soreness, resistance to soroche (altitude sickness), regenerating bone tissue is all possible with coca leaves. Indeed, even brain tumors were treated by the oil from a coca leaf during the Inca period; such was the belief that this leave had sacred and powerful properties.
In today’s society, the coca leaf is also used in predicting the future, using the color, shape and position of the leaves. Wisdom and knowledge is shared in this way as well, and for this reason coca leaves feature heavily in offering ceremonies to Pachamama, the Andean “Mother Earth”. To many people of the Andes, the coca leaf represented the gold that the Inca Empire had to its name. Unlike the gold, however, the coca leaf has stood the test of time and remains as culturally significant now as it did then.
These days the Western world looks down upon the production of coca as a means to produce cocaine, the addictive drug which uses the coca leaf in its creation. Although the leaf is used in its production, it is mixed with many alkaloids and ingredients designed to cause addiction, a feature that is not mirrored in the plant. In the coca producing countries of Peru and Bolivia, no negative stigma is attached to those who use the coca leaf. In fact, it’s completely the opposite; “with the coca leaf you are never alone, you’re always with Pachamama”, it is said.
It is extremely important to learn about and respect the local culture, and along with respecting the countryside, is a key feature of responsible tourism. Dos Manos Latin America Travel Specialist is a company that firmly believes this and acts accordingly, dedicated to enriching experiences around Latin America. One will always get much more out of an experience when there is an understanding of the country and its culture. Travelling as an ambassador for the Western World, one can help communicate the cultural significance of this plant, to try and fight the misconceptions and prejudices that the ignorant outside world cling to.
Their supplementary travel agency in Cusco recommends drinking coca tea, or ‘mate,’ on arrival. Cusco sits at 3,400masl, and flying straight into the city from Lima can be extremely difficult on the body’s respiratory system, and coca tea can often alleviate the effects of the altitude. Many trips that the company operates, such as the Salkantay and Lares treks, reach heights of over 4,500masl. At that height altitude sickness can be a real problem without due acclimatization, so embrace the coca culture; try the tea and suck the sweets to give you a boost which could save you from any sickness whilst you can take in the beauty of the Andes!