The Coca leafs in Cusco is controversial, but misunderstood. Cocaine is to coca as ivory is to elephants: a derivative, and very different from the whole beast. Cocaine is obtained by chemically extracting the principal alkaloid from the coca leaf, and dumping all the rest. Most cocaine users are abusers, and the effects are then toxic and addictive. Coca leaf, however, contains a complex of fourteen alkaloids, significant amounts of vitamins A & E, plus iron, potassium, calcium (lots of sodium, too, incidentally), and various other minerals in trace amounts (source: The Incredible Leaf—Cochabamba, 1992). it helps maintain blood sugar levels when protein intake is low, which is one of the reasons for its popularity among the highland Indians.
It is also said to help regulate the heart rate during the drastic changes in altitude that one undergoes during a trek through the Andes. It certainly does act to counter the effects of high altitude, and, being a stimulant (not a narcotic), it gives a lift when the going gets tough. The effect is not powerful enough to overtax a normally healthy body. Coca chewing also dulls the appetite, which can be helpful when your rations are necessarily limited. It shows no signs of being addictive, and does not get you high unless you chew an awful lot.
Coca is a vitally important element in Andean religion and society. It has been used in the Andes for millennia, and is woven into the very fabric of life, featuring in every traditional ritual, every social and economic exchange, besides its many medicinal uses.
The US Government has announced amid fanfare that it is close to perfecting a fungus genetically modified to attack coca plants, which it intends to spread in coca-producing nations—calling it a “silver bullet” in the drug war. The issues of Peruvian sovereignty and the effects of this fungus on coca plantations which supply leaves for legitimate indigenous use were not mentioned.
Coca can be purchased, still legally (may it always be sol), by the main market in Cusco, two or three blocks downhill from the railroad station on the righthand side. If you do chew coca, don’t forget the “llibta”, a small block of lime-rich substance that activates the various alkaloids in the leaf. Bicarbon-ate of soda works even better and is not caustic.