The coca leaf is one of the most important Andean plants, used by indigenous people across the Americas for thousands of years. As such, if you’re looking for a way to connect with this sacred leaf, here are ways on how to use coca leaves.
The first thing you might want to do after arriving to the high Andes is to find yourself some coca leaves (hoja de coca) in order to get rid of altitude sickness.
If you’re in Cusco, the best place to go in order to do this is the San Pedro Market. Go to any of the ‘mamitas,’ an endearing term for female market vendors in Peru, and simply ask them for hoja de coca.
You will find that most vendors either have bags of coca leaves to sell, or they can point you the way to somebody who is selling them. Depending on the size of the bag, it should cost you 2-3 soles.
You may be asked if you want to also buy some yipta, or a ball of condensed ash, which is used as an activator by some while chewing coca leaves.
Yipta is made from a variety of plants, including plantain, cacao (cocoa), mint, quinoa, and stevia. Rest assured that although the grey/black chunks look a bit sketchy, most of them are organic materials.
If it is your first time trying it, we recommend that you try the plantain or stevia as they are sweeter and more agreeable. Quinoa and cacao yiptas are very bitter and strong. Your mouth might go numb shortly while chewing coca with these kinds of yipta.
Once you are more experienced at chewing the coca leaf, you’ll probably be interested in trying the other forms.
So, to chew the coca leaf, simply take a handful of leaves from your bag, put them in your mouth, and chew them into a soft pulp. Then, tuck the pulp into your cheek, and let it sit there for a half hour or so.
If you choose to use yipta, remove a dab of this paste no larger than your fingernail. Wrap it around several leaves. Then, chew them softly, and tuck them into your cheek. Within several minutes, you should feel a slight numbness on your cheeks and tongue, and you’ll probably also notice a boost of energy.
If you try chewing them and don’t like the experience, then try making a tea by putting a handful of leaves into a cup of hot water. Let it steep for a few moments until the water takes on a mysterious green color. Enjoy!
If you want to deeply explore the history and context of the coca leaf and its cultural importance in the Andes, make sure to visit the Cusco Coca Museum.
Here you can learn about how the coca leaf has been used by indigenous people of the Andes, the science behind its medicinal value, its relationship to cocaine (as well as why the leaf itself has nothing to do with the drug), and more.
After a little bit of time in the Andes, if you are ready, maybe you will also have the chance to take part in a despacho, or offering to Pachamama, Mother Earth.
This will require that you have a clear mind and that you’re ready to offer gratitude and set intentions in order to participate in a traditional Andean ceremony that indigenous people have held for many thousands of years.
Though it is possible to connect with the spirit of the coca leaf on your own, I recommend that you take advantage of the opportunity to work with an Andean elder.
This will allow you to have a greater understanding – through engagement – about what a traditional ceremony with coca leaves is like.
Though it’s ideal to work with the coca leaf alongside Andean elders, this might not be an option for everybody. If this is the case, there’s no reason why you can’t open a relationship with the coca leaf on your own terms.
Before chewing the leaf, it is a tradition in the Andes to first make an offering of coca leaves to Mother Earth.
Start this process by selecting the most perfect leaves you can find, then turning yourself to each of the four cardinal directions. Take a few moments to arrive from a place of gratitude and set an intention.
From this inner space, and for each of the four directions, offer several breaths (known as soplos) to the coca leaves, and then hold them to the sky.
After you have spent a few moments with the coca leaves, offer them back to the earth, either by placing them under a stone, throwing them into the wind, or setting them into a stream.
We want to be the first to let you know that there is no “right way” to make an offering. It’s okay to open a relationship with the coca leaf in a way that feels genuine to you.
Just remember that coca leaves are sacred, connected with all aspects of life in the Andes. Use them with reverence and respect with your most wholesome intentions.
We think that the most important thing is that you connect with the coca leaf by simply doing what feels right. By slowing down and arriving from a place of gratitude and presence, figuring out how to use the coca leaf in a personal offering is possible.
This article has been revised and updated from its original publication on February 22, 2019.
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