When we last heard from Emily Mitterhuemer on her Sacred Land of the Incas trip, her favourite place was the Amazon. But now as she tackles the Lares Trek, maybe it’s more of a thing rather than a place that is her Peru favourite…
“Peruvians believe the coca leaf is the answer to all ills, and I am beginning to believe them. There is an annual marathon up the classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. This track is 45 kilometres long and rises to as high as 4200 metres above sea level. It takes most tourists 4 days to complete the track, battling with shortness of breath as the air gets thinner. During this race, a porter from the Sacred Valley area ran the track in under 3.5 hours. His secret? Coca leaves.
When you chew the leaves, you don’t feel hungry or thirsty, you feel alert and headaches and stomach ailments disappear. The leaf contains 15 alkaloids, one of which is cocaine and, in this case, I guess would be considered a performance enhancing drug, despite being in tiny doses.
Growing the plant is illegal everywhere except in Peru, Bolivia and Argentina, due to the fact that it is the base for the illicit drug. The Andean people have used this leaf for hundreds of years to sustain themselves when cultivating the land high up in the mountains. Traces of coca have been found in mummies that date back as far at 3000 years and to date addiction or adverse side effects from chewing leaves have not been documented.
I experienced the wonders of the coca leaf on the Lares trek which departed from the Sacred Valley. I am actually not sure I would have made it without chewing mouthfuls of the bitter leaves. We departed our second day early in the morning and were promised 4 hours of solid uphill. We got what we were promised. Not only was the hill steep but it got steeper the further we went. When we finally reached the spectacular summit, I actually cried. Don’t get me wrong, it was worth every step. The pass was 4600 meters high and cold but we looked down on a spectacular lake to one side and down the valley on the other side. When we arrived we placed our rocks, which we had carried as an offering to Pacha Mamma or mother earth, on a stack at the highest point. We also placed 3 coca leaves to represent the three lives the Incas believed in – the afterlife, the present life and the underworld, represented by the condor, the puma and the snake. It is little wonder the coca plant was considered sacred to the Incas, as it helped all of us to overcome headaches, stomach problems and exhaustion to make it to the top.
The coca plant was originally imported into the United States to make all matter of medicines and tonics during the 19th century. Coca-Cola was originally intended to be one of these. It originally contained coca leaves as a stimulant, but now uses only a coca leaf extract which comes from ‘spent’ leaves. Just as an aside, the caffeine in the drink comes from the Kola nut; hence the name Coca-Cola. Coca was outlawed in the US in 1904 after the addictive properties of cocaine were discovered.
In South America, in particular Peru, the coca leaf is still widely used. It can be chewed to help with altitude sickness among others things or can be consumed as a tea. Mate de Coca, or coca tea, is sold in every cafe and at every tourist attraction and I can vouch for the fact that it really does work!”