After being in Northern Argentina for a few days we started noticing everyone with big cheek-fuls of coca leaves. Most of the men in the area looked like old-time baseball players or chipmunks packing away nuts for the winter.
Chewing coca leaves is a big part of the culture here in Northern Argentina as well as in many other indigenous communities across the central Andean region in South America. Particularly in places like the highlands of Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru.
Many people believe chewing the leaves (really more like sucking on them) will extract chemicals to help with living in such high altitudes. It is said that when chewed, coca acts as a mild stimulant and suppresses hunger, thirst, pain, and fatigue. However, it doesn’t cause the euphoric and psychoactive effects associated with use of the drug version – cocaine. I’l let you decide if that’s good or bad.
Obviously because of the drug game, it’s illegal to grow and cultivate coca leaves in Argentina. However it IS legal to sell or have in your possession, the raw coca leaves (until a certain amount). Although it’s illegal to grow here, there definitely isn’t a shortage of it, I guess they have Bolivia to thank for that. You can purchase a bag of coca leaves at pretty much any kiosko (convenient store) or market around the Jujuy provence.
Curious to see what all the hype was about, we purchased a bag for $10 pesos at the central market in Tilcara before we headed off to Iruya. On the trek through the mountains Rocio and I got our coquear on (the activity of chewing coca). While she wasn’t a fan at all, I rather enjoyed it. It made my cheek numb and it seemed to keep me focused on the road. There wasn’t any crazy side affects or anything but after the trip I didn’t have a headache so I guess we can chalk that up to the leaves.
All-in-all it seems more like tradition than anything else, but I’ll let you be the judge. I’m going to bring a few bags of raw coca leaves back to the States with me for everyone to try. The people in customs at JFK will understand right?