La Paz’s Museo De Coca: A Historical And Cultural Look At Bolivia’s Most Controversial Crop

coca leafHoja de coca no es droga.” “Coca no es cocaina.” You’ll see these sentiments, which are indeed accurate, on T-shirts displayed throughout La Paz’s tourist ghetto, which is centered on Calle Sagarnaga.

I should preface this post by saying I’m not a fan of recreational drugs (no judgement; I do live in Colorado, after all), so my recent trip to Bolivia had nothing to do with that. It’s unfortunate, however, that a certain type of traveler has made Bolivia a destination to obtain cheap coke, because it’s not doing the country any favors with regard to its reputation. But, if you know where to look, cocaine is available in abundance. If you know the right people, you’ll also find it’s the best-quality stuff available (sorry, Colombia). And yes, it’s illegal.

How do I know this if I don’t partake? Let’s just say that I’m a journalist, and I read a lot and talk to a lot of people. I’ve also spent enough time traveling in South America to understand the difference between coca leaf– the raw ingredient– and cocaine, the manufactured drug.

For thousands of years up until the present, coca leaf has been an integral part of the cultural, spiritual and economic psyches of Bolivia, Peru and Colombia. A member of the family Erythroxylaceae, coca is native to the Andean lowlands and highlands of western South America.

For aforementioned reasons, the plant is considered a high-value cash crop because it contains trace amounts of alkaloids, including cocaine. It’s important to note that ingesting the alkaloid is not the same as using the synthesized, concentrated form of the drug cocaine. Synthetic cocaine is, as we all know, a powerfully addictive stimulant that affects the central nervous system. Since this isn’t an article about “Just Say No,” let’s get back to coca leaf, shall we?museo de cocaThe indigenous peoples of the Andes (primarily the extinct Incas, and the Aymaras and Quechua) have historically relied about coca leaf as a means of alleviating altitude sickness, fatigue, hunger and thirst. It also acts as a mild analgesic, and has been used to treat everything from digestive issues to fractures. Macchu Picchu is said to have been impossible to build without the aid of coca leaf. South American miners and other laborers also rely heavily upon coca leaf to help get them through the long hours required for their jobs (in a forthcoming story, I’ll post photos of Bolivian miners in Potosi, cheeks bulging with acullicos, or quids).

Coca is traditionally consumed in two different ways. It may be brewed into tea called mate de coca. I drank a lot of mate while on a trek in the Cordillera Real; you just take large pinch of dried leaves pour hot water over them. The flavor is … very hay-like.

Alternatively, the leaves are compressed into a ball, and tucked into the cheek. A pinch of ilucta (quicklime or a quinoa ash mixture) is added, which helps facilitate the flow of salivia and make the leaves more palatable (I tried this in a market in Potosi, and in no way did it make things remotely palatable enough for my gringo taste buds). This is the delivery system by which the alkaloids are absorbed into the body. In Bolivia, the act of chewing coca is known as picchar.

In recent years, much has been made of the medicinal benefits of coca leaf. Bolivian president (and former cocalero, or grower, as well as union leader) Evo Morales began lobbying the UN in 2006 to legalize coca, which would be an economic boon to the country, South America’s poorest. And that, perhaps, is the best reason to visit the Museo de Coca in La Paz.

The museo is located in what looks to be a former apartment in an old, colonial-looking building. It’s in the Mercado de Hecheria, the heart of La Paz’s backpacker ghetto (coincidence? I think not). Regardless of your reasons for visiting the museum, its overriding purpose is to educate visitors about the cultural/historical use of coca leaf, the economic importance of its cultivation in Bolivia and medicinal benefits.
coca leaf
Photography is not permitted in the museum, but there are hundreds of vintage photos of cocaleros, indigenous peoples using coca leaf, the various species, and technical information on the chemical breakdown of the plants. There’s also a section dedicated to the manufacturing and history of cocaine, as well as the dangers of cocaine use (illustrated by some very dusty mannequins surrounded by gutter detritus). The museum patently goes to great lengths to distinguish the difference between plant and synthesized drug.

If you happen to be in La Paz, the Museo de Coca should be on your list of things to do. It’s highly informative and interesting (and sometimes, unintentionally entertaining), and more important, it’s a part of Bolivian culture and history that too often goes misunderstood.

The museo is open 10 a.m.-6 p.m., closed Sundays. Entry fee is about 10 bolivianos ($1.50). Calle Linares 906.

[Photo credits: tea, Flickr user MacJewell; sign and T-shirt, Laurel Miller]