If arriving from the Andean Plateau, the first sight of La Paz is unforgettable. The ground drops hundreds of feet, creating a wide amphitheatre surrounding the northern side of Mount Illimani, one of the highest in the Americas. "La Hoyada" (the hole) – as locals call it – is completely constructed of precarious brick and adobe houses clinging to cliffs at the most unexpected and dangerous places, especially in the remote areas. Every year, a few houses slide down during the rainy season.
Soon after arriving for the first time, I was looking for a market, always the best place for finding a local meal. Not that it was difficult, central La Paz is one huge market with stalls occupying the sidewalks. As in medieval cities, people and vehicles share the streets, seldom peacefully. Once in the market, I immediately noticed a sweetish smell, with leafy qualities in it. A sweetish lettuce? Its source was in huge bags. Old ladies strangely dressed – later I learned they call themselves "cholitas" – sat behind them with a strange solemnity. The bags were covered with a small cloth called "tari" which is a small version of the colorful "awayo." The last is used for carrying around children – and other weights - on the mothers’ back. Atop the tari were a few leaves, hinting what was the content of the whole structure. The leaves look like citrus, slightly rounded and with a deep, dark green upper side. "What’s that," I asked with my – back then – basic Spanish. "Coca" was the answer. Shocked, I left the market as fast as I could.
Mate de Coca
Later, I found locals often drink "mate de coca," an infusion prepared out of the leaves, without any other treatment. This last point was important. The point is that without chemical treatment, the leaves do not contain drugs. In Bolivia, the consumption of coca tea – or the chewing of the leaves – is perfectly legal; my scare in the market was undeserved. The almost immeasurable amounts of alkaloids in the blood after the consumption of tea are no high enough to cause addiction or any other of the effects caused by the dangerous chemicals derived from it. It must be considered the same way poppy seeds are seen in Western bakeries.
The tea is served with plentiful of leaves floating on the cup. When is it ready? When the leaves sink. A point to keep in mind is that the infusion has already a slightly sweet flavor; if you use little or no sugar for your regular drinks, there would be no need to add sugar.
Eventually, the moment arrives; most probably during a long trip to the countryside. A Bolivian would hand a dark green plastic bag to you and offer sharing coca. Dark green plastic bags are used for storing coca since the plastic was invented; no other color is good enough for the task. You may be a bit worried, but after all you have seen by now plenty of Bolivians chewing coca and obviously it isn’t harmful. You also want to be polite to your host. Hesitantly you pick a few leaves and a bit of "lejia." It’s coca-chewing time.
Since ancient times, the coca was chewed in the Andean Highlands – most notoriously by Inca messengers running up and down the mountains – since it suppresses hunger, thirst, pain, and fatigue. The last occurs only if it is chewed together with "lejia." The last promote a chemical reaction in the mouth that turns some of the alkaloids in the leaves active. Yet, these aren’t the infamously chemically derived drug.
Trekking and long-distances walking are sports that suit me. As such, any enhancing tools used by Inca messengers is of special interest. Their main such tool was the coca. They left a post with enough coca to reach the next one. Food and water were inconsequential. They run on the mountainous Andes without bothering to stop until the mission was accomplished.
Then, the tricky part comes. You can’t chew just the leaves; it would shred your gums. A lejia must be chosen (look at the pictures). There are sweet and salty varieties. Sometimes they are made of quinoa ashes – resulting in grey bars - others with "camote" (a sweetish, bright orange yam from the Altiplano), and shaped as black squares. Most foreigners would find both this flavors too strong. The natural alternative is quinoa bars flavored with stevia, a natural sweetener. Instead of being called "lejia," this one is called just "estevia."
A few leaves are wetted in the mouth; then a bit of the stevia bar is chewed together with them. The leaves texture seems to disintegrate immediately; a sweetish flavor follows the surprise. Then, the whole mouth becomes numb. The leaves are kept in the mouth, treated as a candy. For as long as the mouth is numb, hunger is suppressed. And the runner has all the mountains of the world waiting ahead.