Coca leaves come from a shrub that grows on the Eastern slopes of the Andes. Though controversial today because of international politics, it was the sacred plant of the Incas and still holds great importance for the people of Cuzco. It is widely consumed in the countryside as well as in the city of Cuzco.
Chewing the leaves of the plant is said to help with the digestion of food. The leaves are still sacred and are used to make offerings to the Pachamama, the Earth Mother, called pagos (payments) as well as to the Apus, the mountains. It is also used to ask permission from the Apus and has value in fighting sorocche, altitude sickness.
When tourists first arrive in Cuzco they are offered a cup of coca tea made by infusing the leaves in hot water. The tea and its warmth are soothing, but they also expand the capillaries allowing for the better flow of blood and oxygen throughout the body, thus helping avoid the effects of sudden movement to high altitude.
Of course, they can also just pop a few leaves in their mouth and lightly chew them to form a wad that they let sit next to the lips, as if chewing tobacco. That helps with altitude more directly and immediately.
Chewing coca, called picchu, is a tradition among the people of Cuzco. In the countryside, while working the field people will take a break and chew coca. It removes their tiredness and soothe their sore muscles, at the same time it encourages them to talk and laugh with each other.
Some people in the city also chew coca for similar reasons. But today there are many derivatives of coca that have made their way into the market. There are tea bags, candies, cookies, panetones, etc. all prepared from coca.
The leaves of this holy plant are also used to see and predict the times, climatic changes, and to announce bad times.
If one opens the earth to garden or farm coca is very important as an offering to ask for good production and thank the Pachamama for her good favor. Before working the fields, campesinos will also toss coca leaves on a cloth so they can see if it is an auspicious time for working the fields.
The juice of the coca (liquid derive from it) is very important. It can be used in a cream to massage parts of the body when they are sore. Women, for example, will massage it into their knees and legs to strengthen them to support them during the long walks that they must do in the countryside.
It is also used to cure wounds in the hands of young people from hard work in the fields. The juice of the coca is mixed with urine and is place on wounds and blisters to heal them.
People in rural areas consume coca far more frequently than people in the city because it gives them a lot of energy that helps them put up with the arduous physical labor required to grow food. As we noted, they chew them in the picchus, which become breaks when the workers can talk about all kinds of things, including the fields and crops. They do a picchu three times a day. The first is around ten in the morning, the second is after lunch, and the third comes at four in the afternoon. They do the picchusin order to slake the body’s pains and tiredness as well as to obtain energy so they can work. It also pushes hunger to the side and lets them do their work.
Coca leaves are also utilized for making k’intus, three leaves together held between the thumb and forefingers for devotion, for the production of papa, corn, and other crops. This is a very ancient tradition coming from the Incas and before. With the k’intus people will greet the Apus, the high mountains considered Lords, by blowing across them. They will ask the Apus for a good harvest. And once they have obtained the harvest such as of corn, they make a k’intu. They get three of the largest and best ears and the best leaves of coca. The coca leaves are tied to the corn ears with sheep’s wool yarn. Then they are laid out in the marca, the storage bin) as the first products. Then the rest of the harvest can be brought in .
The coca also is often chewed with what is called its caramelo (its sweet.) This is llipt’a. People will break off a small part of the llipt’a and chew it with the coca leave. It is a sweetener and also allows ore of the alkaloids to be released from the leaves so people can derive greater benefit from chewing coca. People say it also is useful to eliminate any microbe that might be on the coca leaves and that it is important to aid digestion.
There are many varieties of llipt’a, depending on the place. For example in Puno on the high altiplano, llipt’a is made from the stems of quinoa, kiwicha, or cañiwa. In the jungle it is made from cacao shells or banana trees. All of these plants are appropriate for making llipt’a.
The stems and shells are burned in a receptacle. They are left over night and then one gets what is called the cal de la ceniza, the lime of the ashes. All of this lime is kept in the receptacle and a little water is added as well as a little coffee with sugar. It is boiled until a dough results. Then that is emptied into small molds and left to dry for five days. That then is the llipt’a, the paste or caramel, that accompanies coca.
Though some are opposed to coca use, it still is traditional and very important in day to day life in Cuzco. And anyway, nothing helps remove altitude sickness better than coca tea or a few leaves. Coca is Cuzco.