The Incas and Coca
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The sacred Coca Leaf of the Incas

Your trip to Machu Picchu will give you the opportunity to learn more about the coca leaf. This plant was sacred to the Incas who used it in religious ceremonies. Today, this leaf is marketed in Cusco and other Andean cities in its natural presentation as well as infusions, extracts, creams, candies and even chocolates, liquors and capsules.


The coca leaf was considered sacred by the Incas. However, not everyone could consume it. Only the Inca royalty controlled the production and consumption of this leaf. After the fall of the Incas, the leaf was consumed by all the people. Today, the inhabitants of Cusco continue to consume the sacred leaf.


What is coca leaf?

  • The coca leaf is a plant native to South America, especially in the subtropical regions of the Andes mountain range.
  • The scientific name of this plant is ‘Erythoroxilium coca’. It measures approximately 2.5 meters high. It has white flowers and ovoid leaves.
  • There are records of the use of this leaf in pre-Inca cultures up to 8 thousand years before our era. The Incas used it for its anesthetic properties that stabilize fatigue and stress.
Coca leaves
Coca leaves

Is coca the same as cocaine?

  • Coca leaves contain alkaloids, which are used as a base to make the famous cocaine. Lime, salt, water, gasoline, sulfuric acid, ammonia, hydrochloric acid and more are also used in the process.
  • The commercialization of cocaine is prohibited while the coca leaf is legal in Cusco and Peru.
  • The main problem of the coca leaf is that many farmers grow this leaf not for the daily consumption of the population but for the production of cocaine, which offers better income.

The coca leaf and the Incas

  • The Incas inherited the consumption of coca leaf by cultures that already cultivated and consumed this plant.
  • For the Incas, the coca leaf was sacred. However, it could only be consumed by the Inca nobility.
  • The only exceptions were the chasquis (people who ran through the mountains transmitting the message of the Incas), children who would be sacrificed in the capacocha ritual or in exceptional cases of famine in the population.
  • After the fall of the Inca empire, the population took possession of coca leaf consumption. The Spanish considered it a diabolical plant but could not disappear its consumption.
  • Coca leaves are still chewed by the Aymara and Quechua cultures of Peru, Bolivia and other Andean countries.

Inca ceremonies with coca leaf

  • Inca ceremonies of land payments included the use of coca leaf. These were offered to the land that supplied the world with different agricultural products.
  • Due to the sacred nature of the coca leaf, it was held with reverence following a strict ritual that, in some cases, is still practiced today.
  • This ritual consisted of holding three coca leaves, joining them with two hands and offering them at high altitude.
  • Then the leaves are blown as a sign of respect for the gods of nature such as the sun, the mountains, the lagoons, the earth, etc.
  • Only after performing this ceremony, the Incas proceeded to introduce the coca leaf to the mouth.
  • At all times, the person shows a solemn attitude and respect for this sacred ceremony.

The coca leaf in Cusco currently

  • In Cusco, farmers, miners, ranchers and other people consume coca leaf. This helps reduce the feeling of tiredness and hunger. In addition to providing them with strength and endurance; helping them withstand long hours of heavy work.
  • However, of the total coca leaf production, most of it is destined to the manufacture of cocaine. Peru is one of the main exporters of cocaine in the world.
  • During the mystical tourism tours of Cusco the coca leaf is used. For example, in the Inca ceremonies of payment to the land or ayahuasca this plant is usually used.
  • During the hiking trails to Machu Picchu, coca leaves are used to reduce symptoms of altitude sickness or fatigue. The most popular routes are the Inca Trail and the Salkantay Trek.

How is the coca leaf chewed?

  • You should put a portion of coca leaf and chew them until they secrete all their nutrients. The leaf is retained in the mouth while gently chewing, trying not to crush them completely.

What are the effects of coca leaf?

  • A few moments after chewing some coca leaves, an anesthetic effect occurs on the cheeks, throat and tongue. Sometimes the intestinal tract is also numbed.
  • With the passing of the hours after consuming coca leaf, the person can reduce the symptoms of headaches, teeth and intestinal cramps.
  • It also reduces the feeling of hunger, thirst and fatigue.

More information about the coca leaf

  • The coca leaf has a characteristic bitter taste.
  • Coca leaf also has an important nutritional value such as vitamins B1, B2, B3, A, C, E, calcium, iron, potassium, zinc, sodium, proteins and more.
  • After Colombia, Peru is the main producer of coca leaf. Unfortunately, much of the production is destined to the manufacture of coca leaf.
  • In Cusco it is common to find products derived from coca such as: candies, cookies and, above all, infusions. Coca leaf can be easily bought in the main markets of the city.
  • According to various studies, the consumption of coca leaf in the South American Andes is a habit and not an addiction. Most people consume coca leaf as an ancestral tradition. In Cusco it is common to watch people chew this plant, especially at the farm site.
  • Tourists can buy coca leaves during their trip to Cusco in the markets of San Pedro, San Blas or Cascaparo.

 

By Ticket Machu Picchu – Last updated, December 12, 2019