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]

What You Need To Know To Successfully Hike The Inca Trail


machu picchu


For those looking to hike the Inca Trail in Peru, there is a lot of conflicting information when you search the web. To help you prepare and do it right, here is a guide on how to successfully hike the Inca Trail.

Why Hike To Machu Picchu

If you’re just looking to see Machu Picchu, you don’t necessarily have to hike, as there are also bus and train options. That being said, I personally recommend hiking to it if you are physically able to do so. By hiking the Inca Trail, you’re immersing yourself in the world of the Incas that much more by traversing the same path they did hundreds of years ago. You’ll visit numerous other ruins along the way, making the information your guides give you more visual. And, the sense of pride you’ll feel once you reach Machu Picchu on foot will be well worth any of the harder sections of the trek.

Getting In

Fly into Cuzco, Peru. This is where tour companies leave from, and where you’ll have your orientation the night before the trek.When To Book

While I’m usually a bit of a slacker when it comes to booking in advance, believing tour companies just advise you to book in advance to lock you in, this is not one of those times. When I did my trek in June, I booked in November. A friend of mine who wanted to join me attempted to book the same trip in February, but it was already filled up. As soon as you know your dates, make a reservation.

The reason for this is regulations allow only 500 permits to be given per day. This covers about 200 tourists and 300 guides/porters. They’re issued on a first-come, first-serve basis until all permits have been sold out. If you’re trying to go in June through August, book six months in advance. For those looking to go April through May or September through October, four to five months in advance should be good. Even during the low season it’s still best to try to get your permit three to four months in advance as to not risk missing out.


dead woman's pass


Who To Go With

Hikers are not permitted to do the trek on their own and must go with a licensed tour company. Important things to consider when booking include how knowledgeable their tour guides are, if they’re bilingual (if you don’t speak Spanish), how they treat their porters, their stance on environment issues, how well they feed the hikers and group size. While price may be a concern, make sure to really consider why a company is so much cheaper than others. If it’s because they don’t give their porters proper gear or skimp on food, opt for the more expensive company.

I went with Llama Path, and would highly recommend them. The guides had both gone for special schooling to allow them to work in Peru’s tourism industry, and there wasn’t a question they couldn’t answer on Inca history. While informative, they were friendly with the hikers as well as the porters. The porters were treated well, having special uniforms, eating adequate meals and being made to feel like part of the group, despite the fact they didn’t hike with us during the day. As for food for the hikers, expect to eat a lot. Because you’ll be trekking almost non-stop, you’ll be constantly hungry. Each day we received a snack bag, as well as three buffet-style meals and a before-dinner tea time with hot drinks and snacks. And in the morning, you’ll be woken up with a cup of hot tea and a hot towel brought to your tent.

Another reason this company really stands out is how on the last day they made us wake up at 3:00 a.m. to get to the Sun Gate before any other group. While that may sound torturous, being the only group at Machu Picchu and having the awe-inspiring site all to ourselves was an unreal experience.

If you’re the backpacker type, you may want to look into doing a group tour with GAdventures. While I didn’t personally participate in their Inca Trail experience, their group was directly ahead of mine the entire time. I spoke with the hikers in their group – all of whom seemed to be in the young 20s to early 30s hostel crowd. They all seemed to be having a great time, loved their guides and were being well fed.

Physical Preparations

The hike is moderate, and if you’re in decent physical condition you should be able to do it. That being said, the trek reaches heights of 13,600 feet, and everyone is affected by altitude differently. Make sure to arrive into Cuzco a few days earlier to acclimate, get plenty of rest and avoid alcohol on the days leading up to the trek.

Additionally, the trail is about 30 miles total with some very challenging sections, particularly day two. First thing in the morning you trek two hours straight uphill, followed by two hours straight down, break for lunch, then continue hiking. If you’re not in shape – or even if you are – it can be quite difficult. While you don’t need to be a marathon runner, I’d suggest hitting the gym to get your endurance up beforehand.


inca trail


Packing Tips

While your company will most likely give you a packing list the night before your trek, you’ll probably want to know what you need beforehand so you’re not scrambling around.

  • To enter the Inca Trail, you’ll need your passport, which they’ll stamp for you at the entrance.
  • Bring cash with you, not only to tip your porters and guides, but to purchase snacks at some of the small villages you pass along the way.
  • Make sure to bring some waterproof clothing, shoes, a poncho and a rain jacket, as the weather can be unpredictable and you do not want to be hiking for hours in wet clothing.
  • A four-season or below 10-degree sleeping bag will keep you much warmer during chilly nights than a regular one will.
  • You’ll want to dress in layers, as your body temperature will be changing from hot to cold frequently. Additionally, warm clothing and accessories at night are a must.
  • Pack some plastic bags to ensure your clothing stays dry.
  • Don’t forget your insect repellent.
  • You’ll be reaching high altitudes and spending hours in the sun, so sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat can help protect your skin.
  • Bring medications and basic toiletries only. You probably won’t be showering unless you opt to use the cold non-complimentary showers on the third day.
  • Pack your camera, and make sure to bring spare batteries. You won’t have electricity for four days, and you’ll be taking hundreds of photos.
  • Bring toilet paper and antiseptic hand gel, as you’ll be using the “Inca toilet,” also known as the bushes, quite a bit. When there is a real toilet, it will be of the squat variety.
  • Once you’re done hiking, you’re going to want sandals to rest your feet in.
  • At night you’re going to need a flashlight. Better yet, a headlamp allows you to successfully complete the hike at dawn on the final day.
  • Your tour company will supply boiled water for you to drink, but make sure to bring a water bottle to put it in.
  • While I tried to be tough and not bring the recommended walking sticks, I will admit I wish I had them. Luckily, one girl shared hers with me and the hike was much more enjoyable.
  • If you’ll be going swimming in the hot pools in the town of Aguas Calientes bring a swimsuit. Towels can be rented there.
  • While you’ll be fed a lot as long as you go with a reputable company, I would still recommend bringing extra snacks. With all the hiking you’ll be doing, constant hunger is inevitable.

I would recommend not renting gear through your tour company, as rental shops like Speedy Gonzalez at 393 Procuradores in Cuzco are cheaper.


inca trail


What To Expect On The Trail

Machu Picchu isn’t the only Inca site you’ll see when doing the Inca Trail. You’ll pass sites like Q’entimarka (shown above), Sayaqmarka, Phuyupatamarca and Winaywayna, some of which are surprisingly developed and each of which had specific purposes for the Incas. Expect tough yet scenic sections of trekking as well as alternating climates mixed with stops at ruins and historical discussions. For example, along the way our group learned how the Incas survived longer than other cultures. This was mainly due to their ability to predict natural disasters by finding strange seashells not common in Peru. Additionally, we talked about how at first the Incas believed the Spaniards were the gods they had been waiting for and were friendly toward them until they started killing off their people. We also discussed the Incas informal language system, which incorporated colored strings, knots and sounds made by shells.

Inca Trail Alternatives

If you didn’t book the Inca Trail early enough to reserve a spot but still want to hike to Machu Pichu, some worthwhile alternatives are the Salkantay Trek, Lares Trek and Ancascocha Trek. These hikes will take you past Inca ruins and beautiful scenery, while also allowing you the sense of accomplishment when you reach Machu Picchu on the final day. Wait until you arrive in Cuzco to book these alternative treks, as you can save more than 50%.

[Images via Jessie on a Journey]

Hiking, Drugs And Inca History In Cajas National Park, Ecuador

cajas national park Cajas National Park outside of Cuenca, Ecuador, is an idyllic and peaceful park with five ecosystems, over 150 bird species and many exceptional features. For example, Cajas has one of the highest densities of lakes in the world, and is also home to the Quinoa Forest, the world’s highest woodland at 13,124 feet. This area is also full of legends and myths from Inca times. Likewise, the park is a perfect example of an ice age park, as the area was created by glaciers. Cajas National Park is such a unique natural place, it is currently a candidate to be named a World Heritage Natural Site by UNESCO.

During a tour with Gray Line Ecuador, I got the chance to explore the park’s primary cloud forest, the lowest elevation area of the park at 10,171 feet and the Quinoa Forest. I also got to learn about Andean medicine and drugs, trace Inca history and take in great views of jagged mountains and crystal lakes.

For a better idea of the experience, check out the gallery below.

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I was robbed in Quito and all I got was this poo stained t-shirt

It began like any other day in the life of a travel writer – gingerly exposing my limbs, one at a time, to the arctic water gurgling out of my hostel’s shower head. It was Tuesday morning, and I had just arrived in Quito. My research had left me in a state of premature love with this UNESCO heritage city almost 10,000 feet up in the Andes. While hyperventilating in the relentlessly cold stream, I decided that I would open my Quito story with an interesting historical anecdote.

The original inhabitants, the Incan tribe of Quitu, settled the city now known as Quito in roughly 2000 BC. This makes Quito one of the oldest continually inhabited places in the world. In the 16th century, the conquering Spanish forces decided to take the ancient city, but the Incans were not willing to give it up. The Incan warrior Rumiñahui threw the Quitu treasures into a volcano, killed the temple virgins, and burned the city to dust. The Incans could not bear to see their city wasted on the Spanish invaders.It was the ultimate middle finger to the colonial outsider. Razing your own town to deny the conquering forces its completeness is a twisted breed of poetic justice. But what really makes a city? As I took to the cobbled colonial streets and pastel Spanish structures of Quito, I thought about the irony of this all. The Spaniards rebuilt Quito to their own standards. It is not the treasures or buildings that make a place what it is, but rather the people. The people are still here, and later that Tuesday, they robbed me.

After spending the morning photographing Quito, I sat at an outdoor cafe on a huge open plaza, gorging myself on crispy cheese empanadas and locro soup with maize tortillas. An epic bare knuckle boxing match broke out just meters from my lonely table. These men beat the living hell out of each other. In one corner was a short fat man with messy childlike hair. He wore a tight orange shirt that held up his bulging belly like a rubbery girdle. He swung at a tall droopy man with a disheveled beard and crusty stains on his gray slacks. A group of security guards and cops watched the fight, laughing. They winced and turned, grabbing each others’ shoulders when the taller man appeared to knock out the combatant in the orange corner. But it was not to be. The proverbial David stood up tall and tackled the man in the stained pants. After beating his pudgy fists into his downed opponents head, the guards finally intervened and broke up the fight. Both men went back to sitting on their benches, idling in the Ecuadorian sun.

I thought to myself – Ecuador is going to be awesome.

I finished my late lunch and returned to my Lonely Planet “Old Town Walking Tour.” As I turned up Venezuela street, the heavenly Basilica del Voto Nacional came into view. Unlike its similar Spanish counterparts, the towering Gothic marvel is adorned with iguanas, armadillos, and tortoises in the place of gargoyles and saints. I stood there, thinking about how awesome it will be to get some sweeping HDR panoramas from the soaring tower of the old church. It was around this moment that someone from the roof of a charming colonial building dumped a bucket of shit on my head.

It startled me immensely. I ducked into a doorway and assessed the damage. My Nikon d700 was covered in what appeared to be diarrhea. My hair was damp with the same disgusting brown liquid. My backpack was mostly spared with just a light sprinkling here and there. If you have never had a bucket of fecal matter dumped on you from above, then congratulations, your life is less demeaning than mine.

It is a functional part of the robbery. Appeal to the senses, get the mark to focus on something close, make them nearsighted, shock them away from their natural balance, and then take what they have. Governments utilize this approach to push through agendas during times of crisis when the populace sees in only the short term. Crooks behave similarly. Like focusing a camera on something near, the background fades to a blurry bokeh, and you can only see the crap on the hand you just ran through your hair. This is when the muggers come for you.

About 10 seconds into my shitty assessment, two Ecuadorian men rushed me. One went for my backpack and the other went for my camera. Preparation and travel IQ go out the window if someone wants what you have bad enough. They roughed me around a bit as I shouted something pathetic along the lines of “Nooooo…not my camera.” Luckily, I held on to my backpack tight. They only made off with my prized camera rig. Each man took off in separate directions.

It happened so fast that I could not even tell which one stole my camera. A gaggle of Ecuadorians were shouting and pointing in one direction, so I took off at a full sprint. I caught up to one of my assailants and noticed that he did not have my camera. My mind reeled through the possibilities of what I could accomplish by tackling or tripping this man. I slowed down.

The police presence in Quito is excessively robust. It is one of those places where there are so many cops that it makes you feel more nervous than reassured. Within minutes, several members of the police force had arrived at the scene of the crime, flashing toothy smiles and nodding in confusion at my English explanations. I ineptly described the circumstances of the robbery. They spoke no English. It was like tossing a dinner roll at a wall and expecting it to stick. After questioning several witnesses and inspecting my hair and backpack, they sent me off to the Quito police station.

As I sat in the police station, reeking of shit and explaining the robbery with mutant Spanish inelegance, I could feel myself settle at a new personal traveling nadir. At this moment, as I watched several other westerners solemnly file into the station with their own tales of stolen belongings, I decided that I did not deserve Quito, and Quito did not deserve me. I phoned Grant, the super-editor of Gadling, and he put me on the next flight home.

Risk and reward is an inherent component to nearly every arrangement of our lives, and walking around any large Latin American city with thousands of dollars in camera equipment is a risky proposition. I understand this completely. This is why I carry insurance. Traveling can be risky, but one thing to remember is they cannot take from you what you do not have. There is a lot to be said about traveling simply and traveling in groups. If I had been a part of a large group or did not have a nice camera, then I would have been left alone. It is easy to minimize the risk of traveling without sacrificing the reward of visiting new lands.

Latin America is as dangerous as you make it. While the large cities possess a certain breed of desperation that has always worried me, the countryside is a beautiful place filled with kind strangers, dramatic jungles, and breezy beaches. If there is one thing to be gleaned from my story it is this – travel safely and watch for falling shit. The last time I came to Latin America I met my future wife, so it is not all bad.

Also, buy insurance. World Nomads is great for general travel insurance with $500 of electronics coverage included with a medical policy. If you carry expensive equipment, then take out a valuable personal property policy. I carry my policy with USAA, and I was fully reimbursed for my stolen gear within three days.

All photography by Justin Delaney