Coca tea


John Malathronas follows in the footsteps of Pope John Paul II



Sucre is stereotypical Bolivia populated by photogenically attired Quechua folk. The men wear leather cowboy hats, ponchos with ornate scarves and carry coca bags from their belts. The women could have come from the 19th century with their felt bowler hats and pleated dresses; a large mantle on their backs carries their produce, their shopping, their animals or their babies – very often all together – like a permanent backpack.


As I was 2,750 metres up, I was light-headed because of the altitude and felt entitled to alleviate the symptoms with coca tea. Problem is I didn’t know how to go about it. Would I have to go to a seedy establishment and ask sotto-voce for a “cup of tea” – nudge-nudge?


I found a small cafe where I was the only client. I sat down, pretended to read the menu and wondered about the protocol. I mean, how do I ask for it? (And should I have cake as well?)


With my heart beating hard and with a trembling voice, I asked the waitress "Hay té con coca?"


The woman stepped back. “No,” she said with a look that screamed ‘gringo loco’. But I could see a lightbulb flash above her head.


“Pero tenemos mate de coca,” she replied.


The shock came when she brought me a cup of hot water and a teabag. I was gutted. A teabag of a coca tea brand called ‘Windsor’. I was doubly gutted. Remember Queen Victoria once decreed that Bolivia did not exist? That’s how they’re getting back at her family.


My experience was more authentic next day in the plazuela of San Francisco. The cafe there prepared coca tea from the raw leaves and offered you a half-litre glass decanter for a few dollars. Apparently you should leave the coca leaves to brew for at least ten minutes; the tea is ready to drink when they have sunk to the bottom.


So what about the tea ? Yellow-green and refreshing, like any other tonic. And did I get high? Well, it did work for the altitude sickness, but there are fourteen different alkaloids in the coca leaf – as well as other minerals and vitamins – and only one is distilled to produce the chlorohydrate derivative we know as cocaine. Its amount in a cup of tea is minimal.


In Bolivia and Peru there are state monopoly companies that buy the leaves from registered farms. It’s the unregistered, illegal plantations that are the subject of US and international ire. About 3,000 tons of coca leaves are legally produced in Peru and another 2,000 in Bolivia; about 50 million teabags are produced for internal use. It’s absurd that these teabags are banned from export. It’s also stupid, because an export-led market might lead to a natural decrease of the acreage of criminal coca plantations and would stimulate the economies of the region.


The late Pope John Paul II and Spain’s Queen Sophia might well agree; they sampled coca tea as soon as they stepped out of their plane in El Alto during one of their visits. Purely for medicinal reasons, of course.


The altitude, you see


You can get Bolivia included as a stopover in the 4 Continent Explorer RTW or there are cheaper options via Latin America here have some great options in Bolivia and Lake Titicaca here