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]

Paraguay Makes It Easier To Obtain Tourist Visas

paraguayPlanning a trip to Paraguay? Don’t know where Paraguay is? Haven’t heard of it? I feel you; it’s not the most well known destination (psst, it’s in South America). But I’m headed there in a few weeks for Gadling, and until yesterday, the biggest stressor in my life was obtaining my Paraguayan visa.

For the intrepid few who venture to Paraguay, the rewards are many– rich indigenous culture and cuisine; a sub- to tropical climate and virgin rainforest; amazing biodiversity; gorgeous campo (countryside; Paraguay has a strong ranching heritage); generous people; inexpensive everything; exquisite handicrafts; remote national parks; and Jesuit missions. Until last month, however, getting a visa (required for U.S. citizens, among others) was a bitch.

According to the Paraguayan Embassy & Consulates website, in order for me to enter the country, I had to cough up $100 (money order or cash, por favor), and two copies each of a utility bill with my current address, proof of “financial solvency (oh shit) or company letter, and round-trip tickets – this in addition to the usual passport/visa photos/pre-paid, SASE. Paraguay may be the poorest country in South America, but they sure don’t want you setting up shop there.

After several calls to my “local” consulate in Los Angeles, I was told that I could have my visa back within a week. This was all well and good, but my tickets were delayed due to a processing glitch until several days ago, and I leave on March 17. Experienced travelers know better than to expect their passports or visas to arrive in a timely fashion, especially when coming from a Latin American consulate (I’m not trying to be a jerk; it’s simply a cultural difference with regard to the concept of time). By yesterday morning, having returned the previous night from a three-day backcountry ski trip, I was seriously wondering if I was going to make it to Paraguay.

Since the L.A. Consulate had apparently decided to take a long siesta (no one ever picked up the phone, despite my calling them obsessively since late last week), I finally got ahold of someone who spoke fluent English in the New York office. And guess what I found out? You can now get a Paraguayan visa in-country, right at the Asuncion airport, for $160!

Weeks of anxiety melted away. I went to the bank, had them shred my money order, and tucked a crisp Benjamin into my passport holder. Stay tuned for my upcoming adventures in South America’s most under-rated country.

[Photo credit: Flickr user marissa_strinste]

How To Not Look Like A Tourist In Santa Fe

santa feAlthough I was 26 before I visited New Mexico, I’ve always felt a strange kinship with the state. I suspect it’s because much of my childhood was spent traveling to see my grandparents in Arizona (where my dad grew up). We’d attend pow-wows, visit local museums, and explore the high desert landscape, and I always yearned to cross the state line, and delve deeper into the Southwest.

On my first visit, I spent several days in Santa Fe, and it was love at first sight. Since then, I’ve made many trips to New Mexico, but I always try to spend time in Santa Fe. Hordes of tourists flock there for a reason: its cultural, historical, architectural, scenic, and culinary charms make it one of America’s most alluring small cities.

I recently spent a weekend in Santa Fe, as it’s an enjoyable, six-hour drive from my home in Boulder. As I wandered the city each day, I was repeatedly asked for directions by befuddled visitors. I dislike looking like a tourist, and the upside of being a bit of a dirtbag is that I’m often mistaken for a local when I travel domestically. I’m secretly delighted when tourists ask me for intel, even if I don’t know the answer.

In Santa Fe, however, it’s easy to tell the natives from the tourists if you know what to look for. I’ve compiled a handy list, so that when you visit, you, too, can fake it. Native Santa Feans, please know that these observations come from a deep place of affection … and that there’s a reason I’m not telling you the location of my hometown.

How to look like a Santa Fean

Wear natural fibers.

Smile. Say hello. Mean it.

Know the meaning of “Christmas.”ristraHave your own, strongly held beliefs on where the best chiles come from, and be prepared to defend them to the death.

Know how to correctly pronounce and use the following words: acequia; luminaria; viga; portales; ristra; sopapilla; adovada, posole.

Wearing lots of turquoise and silver jewelry is good, as long as it doesn’t look new.

Know where Canyon Road is.

Own well-worn cowboy boots and hat. Quality counts.

Get your gossip on at the farmers market.

Rock a hairstyle 20 to 30 years out of date, regardless of your gender. Males should ideally have hair that reaches at least the shoulders, even if balding on top; pony-tail optional.

Food: the spicier, the better.

Heels or a tie for dinner at a restaurant? Nah.

Drive an old pickup.

Breakfast: posole, green chile, or a burrito.

Leathery, sun-burnished skin trumps a spray tan, any day.

[Photo credit: Flickr user kenkopal]

Outside magazine’s inaugural ‘Travel Awards’ winners

travel awardsWith twenty-three categories and every continent up for consideration, the competition is fierce, but today Outside magazine released its picks for its new Outside Travel Awards. The winners include everything from travel companies and locales to cameras, suitcases, hotels, and apps, road-tested by those in the know (you know, those people).

Amongst the chosen is Seattle-based Mountain Madness, a mountain adventure guide service and mountaineering school, for its new Tsum Valley trek in Nepal, named “Best Trip in the Himalayas.” Known in sacred Buddhist texts as the “Hidden Valley of Happiness,” the Tsum Valley lies on the edge of the more visited Manaslu Conservation Area, which opened just three years ago to tourism.

Best travel company Geographic Expeditions (GeoEx) has “consistently taken travelers to the most remote regions of the world, from Everest’s north side to Patagonia’s glaciers to the far reaches of Papua New Guinea. This year its trailblazing new terrain with a 27-day trek to the north face of K2 ($11,450).” Bonus: “the price of every GeoEx trip includes medical assistance and evacuation coverage from Global Rescue and medical-expense insurance through Travel Guard.” Not too shabby.

Also making the list: Myanmar is the “Best New Frontier;” Canon Powershot G-12 makes the “Best Camera;” the “Best New Adventure Lodge” is the Singular, outside of Puerto Natales, Patagonia, Chile; and the “Best Eco-Lodge” is the architectural marvel, The Mashpi in Ecuador.

[Photo credit: Flickr user tarotastic]

Rome’s Vatican Museums host rare Aboriginal art exhibition

Aboriginal artNo one can ever accuse the Vatican of acting impulsively. In 1925, over 300 artworks and relics were sent to Rome by Aboriginal Australians, for a papal show. Since that time, the items have been squirreled away, despite being one of the world’s finest collections of Aboriginal art and artifacts, according to a recent New York Times article.

Fortunately, these treasures are now on public display, thanks in part to Missionary Ethnological Museum curator Father Nicola Mapelli. Last summer, Mapelli flew to Australia and visited Aboriginal communities to request permission to display the collection. His objective was to “reconnect with a living culture, not to create a museum of dead objects.” His goal is accomplished in the exhibition, “Rituals of Life,” which is focused on northern and Western Australian art from the turn of the 20th century. Despite the fairly contemporary theme of the exhibition, Aboriginal culture is the oldest surviving culture on earth, dating back for what is believed to be over 60,000 years.

The items include ochre paintings done on slate, objects and tools used for hunting, fishing, and gathering, a didgeridoo, and carved funeral poles of a type still used by Tiwi Islanders for pukamani ceremonies. The collection also includes items from Oceania, including Papua New Guinea and Easter Island (Rapa Nui).

The collection was originally sent to Rome because it represents the spiritual meaning everyday objects possess in Aboriginal culture (each clan, or group, believes in different dieties that are usually depicted in a tangible form, such as plants or animals). The items were housed, along with other indigenous artifacts from all over the world, and stored at the Missionary Ethnological Museum, which is part of the Vatican Museums.

“Rituals of Life” is the first exhibition following extensive building renovations and art restoration. The museum will continue to reopen in stages, with the Aboriginal art on display through December, 2011.

For an exhibition audio transcript, image gallery, and video feature from ABC Radio National’s “Encounter,” click here. The Australian series “explores the connections between religion and life.”

[Photo credit: Flickr user testpatern]