Monday, February 1, 2010

Drinks Around the World: Coca Tea (Peru)

Particularly popular in the highlands and Andes mountains of the travel wonder of Peru, coca tea provokes some controversy and reaction. Simply made by adding hot (but not boiling) water to a handful of coca leaves, the drink has the grassy botanical taste of many herbal teas with the slight bitterness of traditional green tea.

To listen to a local, the tea takes on the medicinal qualities of Tiger Balm soothing and salving any number of complaints and ailments. Many claim that it eases the headaches, improves sleep and reduces the other side effects of altitude sickness. Hardly robust scientific proof, but I drank it both crossing the high pass (4,800 metres) to Colca Canyon (while watched by a pet condor) and walking the Inca Trail, without any effects of altitude.

Similarly to mint tea in Morocco, it is a drink of welcome. I was offered a small cup at two different modest hotels and it is available both as bags of leaves and in tea bags (under the Inka brand, for one) in the various markets. According to other travellers, the US and European customs allow the tea bags to be bought into the country (Australia won't accept it on agricultural protection grounds).

In the villages of Peru and around Cusco, many of the local population chew coca leaves (similar to chewing tobacco, I guess), munching heartily on a wad of leaves. Several porters walking the Inca Trail indulged, spitting the exhausted leaves out before ingesting another handful from their pockets.

The cultivation of the leaves is controversial as the pharmacologically active ingredient in the leaves is (less than 0.2% in each leaf) used in the manufacture of cocaine. At best, consumed in a herbal tea, coca leaves are an extremely mild stimulant.

The selling of coca leaves is strongly debated across Peru with its strong historic, cultural and ceremonial heritage in contrast to the modern human toll that the drug cocaine has inflicted. The stigma associated with coca leaves has caused some issues when dealing with foreign powers, though Coca-Cola is reputed to continue to use coca leaves in their world famous drink.

In the vein of trying local products, I can recommend trying coca tea in a small Peruvian cafe. While the grassy taste is hardly exciting, it is a relaxing, warming and social drink polular throughout the Andes and it may even provide relief from the heights of this mountainous country.

Photo Source: dachalan

Previous Drinks Around the World include Mint Tea from Morocco, a French Vin Chaud, Bloody Caesar from Canada, a Pisco Sour from South America, Singapore Sling, Belgium's Chimay Beer, Scotland's smoky Talisker Scotch Whisky and the Czech Republic's Becherovka.


Sherry Ott said...

I chewed them for my Machu Picchu trek - I'm not sure if it was like a placebo or not - but it sure seemed like it helped. Maybe it just took my mind off my headache!
I also brought back the tea to the US - I thought it was great - yet it certainly is an acquired taste.
In Nepal they said that garlic soup was the altitude cure...I love how each country/region has something different - and the US just has drugs - Diamox!

BarbaraW said...

Oh boy - this is something I'm going to have to consider when I hike the Inca Trail soon. As a recovering addict (14 years sober), I don't think this would be wise practice for me.

Nomadic Matt said...

i bet that drink gives you a lot of energy..

Mark H said...

@sherry: I ciuldn't bring myself to muching on the leaves though I carried a bag full around and made tea occasionally on my travels through Peru. I think I'd rather coca tea than garlic soup!!

@BarbaraW: Interesting choice. 14 years of sobriety is seriously impressive - my compliemnts to you.

@nomadic matt: Better than Red Bull!!

Heather on her travels said...

My friend Joanne was offered some coca leaves when she was at Machu Picchu and it certainly put a spring in her step

Mark H said...

@heather: Love your photo of the cappucino. That alone is an invite for coca tea in Peru.

Anil said...

I'll have to give it a shot. Like a caffeine buzz or something more?

Mark H said...

@anil: It does to give you a bit of a lift. Maybe in the same sense as a caffeine shot.

Anonymous said...

I tried coca leaves for the 1st time while visiting Peru and thought they worked great! I lost weight on the trip too cuz i didn't really have much of an appetite as long as i was chewing the leaves :-D

The best prices I have found (still more expensive that Peru, but eh, what are u gonna do....) are @

pretty much half the price of other websites

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