Coca sacred plant of the Inca

A Coca plant in the cloud forest near Mindo, Ecuador

Coca is one of four plants in the family Erythroxylaceae, cultivated for their psychoactive properties.

Coca has a long history of cultivation, a much longer history than that of its highly processed product cocaine.  Coca has been cultivated since pre-columbian times in the Andes regions.  Generally it is chewed with lime (from powdered limestone or shells) which activates its psychoactive properties in the human body.  Coca has been used for energy and strength in activities such as running messages along the Andes.  Coca is also used by some as a natural remedy or help for altitude sickness in the Andes.  Coca’s use seems to have become more prevalent with Spanish forced labor on the natives.  Despite the fact that the Spanish missionaries hated Coca for its connection to indigenous belief systems, the natives found it made long days of forced labor more tolerable.

Today of course, Coca is most famous for its use in making cocaine and in conjunction with the war on drugs has been part of the cause of instability, violence, poverty in some of the Andean nations such as Colombia and Bolivia.  In my opinion however the main problem is an American problem of consumption; not a South American problem of Coca which had been grown with no major problems for centuries when the first Spanish set foot in the new world.  If you want to read more about Coca and its history One River by Wade Davis is an excellent book on ethnobotany in South America and has a bit of good information on Coca specifically.  Then again, I have had few interactions with Coca, besides taking the picture in this blog, I’ve only once purchased coca tea in Ecuador.  The tea is really unexciting, without the lime or the processing, Coca tea has about the same effect as most herbal teas, which is to say it feels warm and tastes vaguely tea-like.  Also a side note: Coca tea is entirely legal, in Ecuador and in the U.S. it’s the processed cocaine that’s illegal.

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