Tag: Coca

Coca Isn’t All Bad

The coca plant is a highly utilized and hotly debated substance in Peru and Bolivia (and I’m sure Colombia as well). Of course, it is the raw product that is the basis for cocaine production, a problem that plagues these countries nationally and internationally. However, the coca plant in raw form has many legitimate and legal uses for the indigenous Andean cultures. In addition to being used in religious and cultural ceremonies, it is chewed by many workers as a way to sustain energy and keep awake. It is also known to help curb the effects of altitude sickness. We were often offered coca tea for breakfast which is essentially a couple leaves and some hot water.

The effects of chewing raw coca are nothing like those of taking the highly processed drug. Chewing coca leaves is like drinking coffee or coca-cola, only the effects are sustained for a much longer period of time. It also helps to curb hunger. Miners, for instance, are known to rely on coca leaves to endure the 24+ hour shifts they often work.

The problem surrounding coca is that it’s hard for the government to distinguish what coca is produced for legal purposes, and what coca is produced for illegal purposes. The Bolivian government is currently run by Evo Morales, a former coca farmer himself, and his policies for regulating coca production are much leaner than, say, the US Drug Enforcement Agency would prefer. But, even under his lenient policies, there are conflicts within the country about the right to produce the plant. During our time in La Paz, we were unable to reach a few of our desired activities because the local coca farmers were protesting and blocking major roadways in response to Morales’ recent ban of low-quality coca production (coca that would have gone to produce cocaine).

There is no doubt that Bolivia (and Peru to a lesser extent) needs to improve their fight against the cocaine production and exportation problem. But somehow, they need to do so without eliminating access to the legal and legitimate forms of the coca plant. When we’re on overnight buses going too fast along unmaintained roads that border steep cliffs, I want that bus driver chewing coca.

The Highest Capital in the World

La Paz is intense – in a good way. You can’t help but be blown away before even getting off the bus because you enter the city from above and wind your way down into the massive valley where the heart of the city is located, underneath the shadow of the 21,122 ft. Illimani Volcano.

Before you arrive, the guidebooks and a few travelers scare you with stories of complex scams (fake tourist police demanding to see/steal your passport), nasty distractions (someone spilling ketchup or spitting on you and then relieving you of your wallet as you clean yourself up), and corrupt taxi drivers (picking up additional passengers and then “kidnapping” you to an ATM and demanding you remove money). Needless to say, we were a little cautious when we arrived into the craziness that is La Paz.

I’m convinced that no one from La Paz would be overwhelmed by downtown Manhattan because the semi-organized chaos of La Paz’s streets and sidewalks would have them more than prepared. You constantly have to watch where you are going so as not to run down an old woman or get hit by a car or step in a hole in the sidewalk. But at the same time you want to look anywhere and everywhere all at once. There are people on the side of the streets selling anything from spices, to children’s bath toys, to toilet seats (which are pathetically underused in this country). There are markets that take up blocks and blocks that include practical items such a clothes as well as a witch’s market where you can buy an alpaca fetus, among other items to bring you luck or others harm.

Not only is the city a buzzing and fascinating place, it is surprisingly walkable. We spent several days exploring on foot and could have easily wandered more. We were also looking forward to doing some day trips and trekking in the nearby mountains, but our plans were foiled! One of the most popular day trips to do out of La Paz is to mountain bike the “world’s most dangerous road”. However, when we inquired about the trip in a travel office on our first day in the city, we learn that the access road to both the bike trip and other popular trekking was currently blocked by protesting coca farmers. The government had made an unpopular decision and the result was a road block for an interminable amount of time. Well then!

As it turns out, we had several contacts and friends of friends to look up in La Paz. Estefania is our friend who lives in Denver and as she is Bolivian, she has lots of friends and family that live here. She put us in touch with her cousin Ale who was an amazing and generous host. Ted and I got to explore parts of the city that folks don’t always venture off to see and we were even invited to brunch with Ale (and Estefania’s) extended family and friends to celebrate her younger sister’s first communion.

Ale and Estafania’s mom (via helpful emails!) also recommended we go see a pena in the city. Penas feature traditional dances and music from local Andean culture. The performance was vibrant and interactive, with the dancers pulling us up on stage, and musicians playing songs from the home country of each visitor (we got an Elvis tune sung for us). Though there were definitely other tourists there, I was surprised that nearly half was room was people from La Paz who had come to see the show.

A huge thanks to Estefania for the introduction, to Ale for taking the time to show us around La Paz and to her family for making us feel welcome!

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