If you are traveling to Peru, chances are you’ve heard about coca, coca leaves, and coca tea. If you are like me, you are probably wondering what coca is, how it works, and why you can’t find it in the United States.
Coca tea is made with the raw leaves of the coca plant. I usually found coca tea made with fresh leaves, but you can find it in tea bag form as well. The earthy yellow-ish tea tastes like a gentler version of green tea. I am not a huge tea drinker, but I loved the taste of the coca.
Coca tea is part of the daily life of the Andean people and is purported to have many medicinal benefits. Coca tea can give you a boost in energy (like caffeine); contains alkaloids that may help promote weight loss; strengthens the immune system with vitamins A, B-2, B-6, C and E; and helps with digestion and altitude sickness.
I can’t vouch for these myslef as I could not feel any effects that I could discern. However, it is possible that it helped with altitude sickness without me being aware of it. I had several cups of the tea during my visit and even chewed some of the leaves during my Rainbow Mountain hike (elevation 16,502ft/5,030m).
Cocaine can be made from just one of the coca leaf’s 14 alkaloids. Therefore, it is illegal to bring coca leaves into the U.S. for any purpose, including to use for brewing tea or for chewing. The same is true in the UK, Australia, the Netherlands, and other countries. I do not know whether coca candy (or other coca products) are legal in the U.S., but you should consult an attorney (not me—this is not legal advice) before attempting to bring it into the country. I did not want the risk or hassle, so I left that souvenir in the shop. That said, it is my understanding that decocainized coca tea is legal in the U.S. but I have not found any here.
But, coca tea really isn’t what you are thinking. Essentially, coca tea is to cocaine as Sudafed is to meth. One can be used to make the other, but they are far from the same product. I never even had a cafffeine buzz.
If you are still skeptical about coca or have questions about its medicinal effects, just consult your doctor. I asked my doctor about coca leaves during a pre-travel visit and his opinion was that it was no big deal and I shouldn’t have any concerns (this is also not medical advice—don’t sue me).
If you want to take the plunge, coca tea is available in every cafe in Cusco and there is a good chance your hotel will offer you a cup before you even make it to your room. You can also visit the Museo de la Coca in Cusco and learn everything about the plant you could ever want to know.