Travel in Peru on a coca leaf bus

The coca plant, Erythroxylum coca was taken on the Queros of Pilcopata communidad nativo land. (Photo by Jill Stansbury)

Peru and the coca plant

First a bit of background on the coca leaf. Coca is a controversial subject due to its obvious use in the production of cocaine and history of its sale funding various nefarious and terrorist organizations. The coca plant itself however is actually a wonderful medicine and fairly nourishing and something very different than the isolated and purified alkaloid cocaine. The use of coca leaves is not illegal in Peru and very important part of the culture in many locals. In some locales, the chewing of coca leaves is a personal R&R ritual, and no doubt much healthier for you than a drink or a smoke break.

In other locales, such as my home in the high Andes, coca chewing is more social and ritualized. My friends have sometimes searched through their entire bag of coca leaves to select the three most perfect leaves, which they have held in a little triad and offered to me with both hands. When traveling the islands of Lake Titicaca, I learned that the color and style of coca leaf bag all the men carried indicated their marital status.

The coca drying was spotted on a hike in the Pilcopata region. (Photo by Jill Stansbury)

Coca leaves are an important to the many subcultures of Peru and not something easily suppressed. The Peruvian government does attempt however to control the production and sale of coca. In theory, only approved entities, such as indigenous Amazonian families and communities are authorized to grow coca, thus helping to thwart cocaine production. Further, all coca grown is supposed to be sold to the government for sale and distribution, and also I suspect, as a method for the government to get their cut. It is not legal for someone to grow coca and sell it directly to hotels, markets, tea companies etc. It is to be sold to the government , who act as middle men and resell it to markets, hotels, manufacturers. Coca is a tropical plant, so Amazonian communities supply the Andes, coast and the rest of Peru with the staple stimulant.

On the bus

So back to my coca bus journey. I was returning from Pilcopata, where I have been studying medicinal plants with several indigenous communities for a number of years. I have made this journey many times before and it is always one wild and crazy bus ride in the best of circumstances. The bus typically leaves Pilcopata around 10 pm with the goal or arriving in Cusco a few hours before dawn. The bus, as always, was packed, and people seemed to have a very large amount of bundles and packages over which there seemed to be quite a lot of tending, checking, packing, repacking, and shuffling. Not that unusual.

What was unusual is that on three occasions during the 10 plus hour journey, the bus pulled over and all the shuffling and repacking was repeated with some amount of urgency and chaos. I realized what was going on when even the bus driver was helping to shuffle packages including taking the speaker covers off the and stuffing smaller items inside.

It seemed that every single adult passenger had multiple bags of dried coca leaves they were attempting to disguise as a diaper bag, a bag of bread, or a duffle full of clothes. About 20 to 30 minutes after each one of these unscheduled stops, police stopped our bus, boarded, and began inspecting packages. When coca was found, the people did not appear to be in any significant "trouble" but the coca was seized. (My bags were never searched. Apparently I do not fit the racial profile of a coca grower or smuggler.)

Because all of this shuffling and repacking occurred some 20 minutes or so prior to each police stop, people on the bus apparently either knew exactly where the checkpoints were to occur or someone was calling passengers’ cell phones to tip them off. Passengers attempted to hand me basketball sized bags of coca leaves to "hold" for them. Then around 3 a.m. we were stopped by a mudslide. The good news was that there was a backhoe on site, not men with shovels. The bad news was it was too dangerous to work in dark so the backhoe crew was waiting until first light.
The bus driver was stretched out in the front asleep on the floor, when I was awakened from my fitful sleep brought to consciousness by lack of motion. After an hour or so, in the predawn glow, the backhoe got back to work, and after another hour, a big mound of dirt was leveled such that we could drive cautiously atop. Passengers began getting off the bus at all manner of tiny towns and the occasional mysterious stop in the middle of nowhere where passengers sometimes request to be let off.

Family by family and couple by couple, all deboarded, such that by the time we returned to Cusco, the once over packed and cacophonous bus was empty, save for me and my companion. As we pulled into the still awakening town of Cusco the last shards of pink dawn faded into full daylight, and I had an amusing view of a bus littered with coca leaves — all down the aisles, under the seats, on the seats, here and there in the overhead bins was coca confetti. I reached down to grab my backpack stowed under my seat, and there was a bag of forgotten coca leaves underneath.

Read Jill Stansbury’s recent article "Five Peru plants and how to use them."