For anyone who has ever heard about or looked into Peru, I’m sure you are aware of the coca leaf. If not it is the leaf of a coca tree and the raw product from which the drug cocaine is produced, and within the borders of Peru it is 100% legal. In leaf form I mean, and a packet of dried leaves can be purchased at any store for as little as 5 solos ($1.80 USD). And boy do the Peruvians love it! Everyone seems to be chewing it all day, evident by the visible lump which sits at the top of their cheek. Although they do insist that it is not a drug, claiming that they chew it (traditionally while working in the fields) as it gives them energy and suppresses their hunger – sounds like a certain drug to me. Tourists chew it, first and foremost because of the novelty and to try something new, but also it is ment to help with altitude sickness.
So here’s how it’s done:
Firstly, take three leaves and fan them out between your fingers and thumb and hold them to your lips, then towards the sky (and the gods) to offer thanks. Put those three in your mouth and chew with your back teeth on one side of your mouth. Don’t go crazy on it though, as you aren’t actually ment to ‘chew’ them. Instead, bite softly so that you barely break the skin of the leaf and suck the juice out of the leaves.
Inside every bag is a small rock of ash, produced from another tree (cannot remember this tree’s name and am finding it difficult to find on the internet, as most other blogs state that they used bicarb soda in place of this ash). This ash is pressed into what looks like a lump of concrete, yet can easily be broken into pieces.
Take a small lump as ash, about half the size of your pinky nail (this stuff is strong! One of the local Peruvians, Roland, said even he never used all the ash to one packet of leaves.) Put this ash on a leaf, fold it in half so that the ash is enclosed, and give it a rub to break it into a powder form. Put this in your mouth with the other leaves and give it a bit of a suck. The effect of this ash is a powerful one for something which looks so harmless. Basically, your entire mouth is going to go numb, if you take even more in one go, prepare for that feeling to take over your entire face. It is a strange feeling, especially if you aren’t expecting it!
After that, put as many of the remanding leaves in your mouth as you want, and continue to softy bite and suck out it’s juices. The expert way to do this is to form a ball of the moist leaves and leave at the back top of one of your cheeks, and occasionally give it a chew and suck. Locals will keep this ball in there for hours on end, although those passing through who just want to give it a go usually leave it there for less then an hour. Some people hate the taste, myself however, didn’t really mind it and could easily chew them for quite a while. Whether you like it or not, will do it again or never, at least now you can say you have chewed coca leaves!
One quick little, obvious, tip: remember to take them out of your luggage/bag/pants and/or jacket pockets before leaving the country! Remember, they are only legal within the borders of Peru. I do not have what you would call a particularly reliable memory, so it was announced for someone to remind me to take any of my remanding leaves out of my back pack before I left for the airport. And thank goodness someone did because arriving into Mexico City it is required for a sniffer dog to inspect every piece of luggage which is carried off the plane! Phew! That was a nervous 30 seconds while I stood there and watched the dogs head dig deep into my open bag…
A big thanks to Joe and Kim Balge, and Matthew Forsyth for the use of their pictures. An extra big thanks to Carolyn Dudek for allowing me to post her lovely, yet coca leaf filled face! Hopefully it brings back memories of a great day.