Posted on | January 11, 2012 | 4 Comments
Peru is full of gastronomic treats and cultural treasures, and you can experience both in a single cup of tea.
Coca tea, also called mate de coca, is a wonderfully simple drink indigenous to the Andes. At its most basic, the drink follows a simple formula: pour hot water over dried coca leaves. Thanks to commercialization the tea is now also found in processed tea bags sold in supermarkets across the country. Both forms result in a natural taste similar to green tea.
So the tasty part is pretty evident, but where’s the culture?
Cultivation of coca leaves dates back 4,000 years, long before the Incas were about. Ancient Andean cultures primarily chewed the leaves (rather than brewing them) to alleviate altitude sickness and to act as a stimulant, which allowed them to work harder and longer. The coca plant contains alkaloids similar to those found in caffeine, resulting in an energy boost felt most strongly when consumed directly.
Perhaps because of its importance and prevalence in daily life, the coca leaf became sacred among these cultures. The Incas, in particular, treasured this “divine plant” and used it in rituals and religious ceremonies. They began large-scale coca cultivation but the practice was curtailed by the arrival of the Spanish, who decried coca consumption as “an agent of idolatry and sorcery.” This anti-coca position was partially reversed when the conquerors of the Incan Empire realized the benefits of allowing their “laborers” to chew coca to increase work performance, and the ruling class ended up taxing the trade of coca rather than completely outlawing it.
Today, coca is still chewed in indigenous cultures, although the tea form is much more prevalent. A steaming cup is presented to tourists upon arrival in most Cuzco hotels, a welcoming cultural gesture and way to keep guests from zonking out due to the city’s soaring altitude.
Though the drink is enjoyed throughout Peru, even in lower altitude cities like Lima, taking the tea outside the country is often illegal. Demonized due to it distant relation to cocaine, which also originates from the coca plant, many countries consider consumption of any part of the plant illegal. According to the US State Department: “Possession of these tea bags, which are sold in most Peruvian supermarkets, is illegal in the United States.”
Controversy aside, coca tea is a quaint drink that encompasses Peru’s unique environment, culture, and history. Most Machu Picchu tours touch upon ancient customs and modern culture, but for a more in-depth history of Peru and its ancient cultures, consider Peru luxury tours that feature multiple destinations.
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