REPORT / Mariann G. Wizard : ‘La Vida Coca’ in Bolivia and Peru / 3

Coroico is the administrative capital of Bolivia’s Nor Yungas province. The town hall façade features the coca leaf and coffee bean of local agriculture in addition to the exotic bird of tourism, the area’s main economic activities. All photos by Mariann G. Wizard / The Rag Blog, unless otherwise credited.

La Vida Coca /3: 
Currents in traditional coca 
use in Bolivia and Peru

Regular tours of the area include coca ‘plantations.’ Almost all of the other travelers we met in Coroico and Copacabana were interested in trying and discussing coca.

By Mariann G. Wizard | The Rag Blog | May 22, 2013

Part three of three.

(Rag Blog Contributing Editor Wizard recently visited Peru and Bolivia with former fellow Ragstaffer Richard Lee. Wizard says the whole thing was Lee’s idea, although she did the heavy lifting of writing this report of their experiences, while lifting copiously from conversations they shared and short reports Richard wrote on the spot.)

After being in Coroico about a week, we asked a woman we’d met on our first day there if she knew any cocaleros who might be willing to talk with us about the crop. A hard-working, intelligent person who was extremely patient with our often halting Spanish, she laughed, ducked her head, and said, “Soy una cocalera.” (“I am a coca grower.”)[1]

She isn’t a commercial grower. She and her family tend a few plants, along with abundant fruit trees and vegetables. Over coffee and cake, she described carefully sprouting the small red seeds, transplanting them into pots, then into the field. She showed us the growth pattern of the plants and told us that the growth tips are never touched. We heard about cutting plants off near the base, then regrowing them; regeneration can occur several times, giving plants a life span of 20 years or more.

Most of what we learned I’ve since confirmed online, but there’s nothing like hearing it from a passionate gardener! Her cupped hands as she demonstrated transplanting seedlings, her expertise in how to tell by touch when the hojas are dry enough for storage, reminded me of every other master gardener I know: pride, respect, and love make things grow. Richard, green thumb tingling, was also in his element!

Still, we wanted to see large coca fields. A couple we’d met recommended a local taxista who knew the area well, and we took an agricultural tour of greater Coroico. Tramping up and down steep, muddy jungle slopes before breakfast, swarmed by aroused mosquitoes, we weren’t so much in our element as over cake and coffee! But we kept on chewing hojas and drinking water, and keeping on, until we saw what we came to see: well-tended, mature cocal, up close and personal.

Like many Bolivian towns, Coroico is surrounded by a network of rural villages (villas). I liked this “bewitching” signpost.
Here, several distinct cocal fields are seen on the hillside. We were told that each plot is owned by an individual or family; adjoining plots may be owned by close relatives or grown children. Photo by Richard Lee / The Rag Blog.
This small, well-tended cocal field near the road was easy for us to access.
Here you can see that the plant in front center has been cut off just above the ground and regenerated to its present height.
Small red seeds (see inset for enlargement) from tiny white flowers. Seeds are planted soon after falling off the parent plant. PVC pipes bring water for irrigation and for workers to drink. At high altitudes under a strong sun, hydration is vital.

Coca isn’t the only traditional herbal medicine in common use in Peru and Bolivia. Chamomile (manzanillo; Matricaria recutita syn. Chamomilla recutita) or anise teas, mint (yerba buena; Mentha viridis), lemon verbena (yerba luisa, cedrón; Aloysia citriodora), and West Indian lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus) were recommended and served to us by gardeners, restaurateurs, and/or friends.

Specific comments regarding manzanillo as a sleep aid, yerba buena to “balance” heavy foods, and yerba luisa as an overall tonic were noted. As in other indigenous cultures, many foods’ and condiments’ health effects are common knowledge, especially in traditional Quechua- and Áymara-speaking households.

After I had an allergic reaction to Coroico’s notorious mosquitoes, bringing up lovely big red welts on my arms, everyone we met told me about one or another traditional repellent. Rubbing whole limes (Citrus limonum) on the skin in the evening was the one most mentioned. To be fair, DEET also worked quite well; if only I’d thought to use it that first rainy day!

Dried spices, hojas de coca, peppers (Capsicum spp.), and other condiments at Coroico’s weekly market. Peppers, garlic (Allium sativum), and other spices are used in unique sauces, ajillos, by restaurants and at home; everyone seems to have a recipe for ají.

Both countries boast a wealth of fruits and vegetables — Bolivia has over 30 varieties of potatoes (papas; Solanum spp.)! — many not seen in the U.S., or seen infrequently, or in a processed state. While restaurants do not avail themselves much of this produce bounty (many serve French fries and rice at every meal!), a trip to the mercado brings delicious rewards. We recruited friends to cook papas lisas for us and enjoyed a fabulous traditional stew of the tiny potatoes, onion (Allium cepa), and alpaca rib meat – ¡que sabrosa!

Besides cattle, pigs, poultry, and sheep, two domestic camelid species, llamas and alpacas, are raised for meat, fiber, and as beasts of burden. (Wild vicuñas are protected.) Alpaca meat isn’t much different from grass-fed beef in flavor. Guinea pigs (cuy) are also a traditional Andean food. Richard ate cuy years ago in Ecuador; I’ll pass! However, some dishes I did have were equally odd, like this “chicken foot soup”:

Peru, with its extensive coastline — Bolivia is landlocked — offers a wide array of fresh seafood. Lake Titicaca, between the two nations, is home to delicious lake trout.

By the way, again from Wikipedia, “Raw coca leaves, chewed or consumed as tea or mate de coca, are rich in nutrition… Specifically, the coca plant contains essential minerals (calcium, potassium, phosphorus), vitamins (B1, B2, C, and E) [, and]… protein and fiber.”[2]

Abundant fruits and veggies in Coroico’s weekly market. Papas lisas are the small red and yellow potatoes at right center. I also ate papas negras, the purple ones at bottom right and center, cooked whole in oil — ¡muy rico!

Not all traditional medicine in the region is herbal or food-based. Good luck rituals and tokens abound, like the brightly-colored fetishes below, in La Paz’ Mercado de Hechicería (Witches’ Market). Arriving during Carnavál, we also saw cars, taxis, and buses decorated and prayed over as a blessing; and good luck icons by the score, such as miniatures of items the buyer hopes to obtain: money, cars, televisions, etc.[3] All of the shops in the Hechicería had coca. Some Andean shamans use hojas to divine the future.

In the Mercado de Hechicería, dried llama fetuses (hanging) of various sizes are sold. These are buried for good luck in new enterprises, especially those involving construction. Well-to-do traditional people are expected to sacrifice a live animal.

While our inquiries had been fruitful, we had questions our local informants couldn’t readily answer. For example, other than for rapid drainage, and where the terrain consists of steep slopes, is it necessary to plant at such challenging angles? Also, can cocal be grown at lower altitudes than Coroico’s 5000 feet above sea level, and if so, would this affect its strength or efficacy?

Lest you think we must have stood out for our unusual interest in coca, rest assured, we did not. Regular tours of the area include coca “plantations.” Almost all of the other travelers we met in Coroico and Copacabana — people of all ages from Switzerland, Belgium, New Zealand, Chile, Brazil, Germany, France, Australia, and Japan — were interested in trying and discussing coca. Bolivians from other parts of the country were interested in comparing the local product with coca from their area.

Our “where’s Waldo?” moment: a day after our field trip, strolling across Coroico’s plaza for perhaps the 50th time that week, we finally recognized the healthy if somewhat untended stand of cocal growing there among the palms and hibiscus (Hibiscus sabdariffa). Since this is about the only flat spot in Nor Yungas, it seemed to settle whether cocal must be grown on a slope! (The question of altitude remains open.)

The public cocal patch in Coroico’s main plaza.. Photo by Richard Lee / The Rag Blog.
Andean music on the plaza draws a crowd. Traditional women from the Afro-Bolivian community (seated, right front) are said to be prolific coca users.
The Sanjuanitos wowed us with John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Richard later wrote, “Lennon could have imagined this…”

It is in the plaza that matters of interest are discussed before and after cocalero meetings at the roofed “polyfunctional” sports court down the hill. Bolivia’s future is being shaped by astute agriculturalists who value tradition but want the benefits of modernity. Change, like the new cell phone technology that has reportedly made rural life safer, is weighed and measured before adoption.

In this small plaza and others all over Bolivia and Peru, citizens talk and relax at the end of the day or the week, after school or at lunch time. Taxis come and go; buses disgorge weary travelers. Children and dogs run free and everyone sees that the soccer ball doesn’t bowl over any old folks. Young couples promenade hand in hand in the evening, while the ice cream man, and the chicken sandwich lady, and the elders sitting on stone or wooden benches smile in approval. Here, coca is at home.

[Rag Blog Contributing Editor Mariann G. Wizard, a Sixties radical activist and contributor to The Rag, Austin’s underground newspaper from the 60s and 70s, is a poet, a professional science writer specializing in natural health therapies, and a regular contributor to The Rag Blog. Read more poetry and articles by Mariann G. Wizard on The Rag Blog.]

[1]I’m not naming any Bolivian acquaintances, in order to protect their privacy. None of them live electronically.
[3]The fake lucky dinero, by the way, is from “El Banco de Buena Fortuna,” and Richard got taken for 50 Bolivianos (about $7.50 US) by making change in the dark. It’s a wonder what a photocopier can do, isn’t it?

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1 Response to REPORT / Mariann G. Wizard : ‘La Vida Coca’ in Bolivia and Peru / 3

  1. Gilleez says:

    Thanks for a look into another culture, notably one that endures much unwanted attention from our country. I am glad to see so much still remains, markets, small family crops, use of coca for all its values beyond simply cocaine.

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