Colorfully-dressed Incas greet us with cups of hot tea as we enter the airport terminal. "¡Bienvenidos a Cusco!" A delightful welcome to the two-mile high Andean city, but the tea also serves an important purpose—the prevention of altitude sickness.
The tea we are offered at the airport, and again in our hotel lobby,
is mate de coca—brewed from leaves of the coca plant. Coca
is best known to North Americans as the source of the drug cocaine, which
is actually a highly processed derivative of the coca leaf. Because of
its association with the drug, coca is banned in the U.S.
In the Andes, where it is legal, coca is an age-old tonic and a remedy
for many ailments. It enhances mood, without dependency or toxicity;
is a natural energizer, similar to coffee; is rich in vitamins and minerals;
relieves dizziness, headaches and stomach problems; and aids in weight
loss and child-birth.
Coca leaves can be chewed, brewed, smoked, or made into candy and baked
goods. Shamans in the Andes smoke it for "magical" purposes—to
enter the spirit world and to prognosticate the future in the tea leaves.
In the Incan empire, coca was considered to be very special, sometimes
magical, and its use was controlled. After the conquest, the Catholic
Church tried to forbid it, because of its ties to the old religion, but
they found that in the high altitude without the coca, the natives had
trouble working the fields and mining the gold, so the church itself
cultivated the plants and distributed the leaves to the workers.
The world’s most popular coca product is Coca Cola™. Made
from the extract of coca leaves mixed with kola nuts, it was created
in 1885, and sold as a tonic. Coca Cola™ did contain cocaine
(commonly used in 19th century patent medicines) until 1929! When it
became known that cocaine was potentially harmful, the company had a
problem. If it removed the coca from its recipe, could it still call
its product Coca Cola™? On the other hand, if it did not
remove the cocaine, there could be a boycott of the drink. Their solution
was to devise an extraction process in which the coca leaves were ground,
mixed with sawdust, soaked in bicarbonate of soda, percolated with toluene,
and steam blasted. The result was then mixed with powdered kola nuts
and pasteurized—preserving the taste while eliminating the drug
effects. Pepsi™, by the way, does not use coca leaves in its recipe!
Today there are opponents and supporters of coca, but for visitors to
Peru and other Andean countries, the tasty coca tea is a harmless antidote
to the ills of altitude.
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