Bolivia & The Coca Leaf


My first morning (at 12,000 feet above sea level) in Bolivia greeted me with altitude sickness. Altitude sickness is caused by low oxygen levels at high altitudes. It’s been quite some time since I have had this sensation and it’s really quite unpleasant. After spending much of the morning sick and in bed, my husband went to a local pharmacy and purchased Sorojchi pills, a local medicine infused with the same ingredients as asprin with a dose of caffeine. These helpful tablets are produced for the purpose of lessening the symptoms of altitude sickness. It was suggested that I take one capsule every 12 hours and drink coca tea throughout the day. About an hour after my first dosage, I suddenly felt 99% better!

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When most people hear the words “coca leaf“, the first thing that comes to mind is cocaine. While cocaine is the most popular, not to mention destructive product of this little leaf, there are many other coca products that are used for medicinal and religious practices. In fact, for centuries people have ignorantly tried to ban it since they wrongly believe that coca and cocaine are one and the same.

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Despite all the safety and legal regulations for coca, it is also used to produce a wide variety of medicine.

  • People chew coca leaves to relieve hunger, fatigue, and to increase physical performance.
  • Coca extracts are used to stimulate stomach function
  • Coca derivatives can cause sedation
  • Coca can be used as a treatment for the common cold as well as asthma
  • Coca can be processed into a prescription ointment that can be applied to the skin to shrink blood vessels and relieve pain in the ears, eyes, nose and throat
  • Coca can be used (with the cocaine removed ) to flavor cola beverages
  • Coca tea is used to treat altitude sickness in the Peruvian Andes, Bolivia and elsewhere

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How does it work? 

The cocaine found in the coca leaves can cause an increase in brain activity as well as a numbing effect. Cocaine is highly addictive and should never be confused with the many other functions of coca.

Who discovered the uses of coca?

  • Approximately 3000 BCE the ancient Incas that dwelled in the Andes would chew dried coca leaves in order to increase their heart rates and breathing so that they could cope with life in high altitudes.
  • Native Pan Andean people chewed coca leaves during religious ceremonies, special occasions and for health purposes. It is essential to all parts of economic, social,and religious life.
  • In 1859 Albert Niemann, a German chemist extracted cocaine from coca leaves.
  • Cocaine became popular in the medical community around the late 1880s.
  • In 1886 John Pemberton included coca leaves as an ingredient in his new soft drink-Coca-Cola.
  • In the 1850’s-early 1900’s cocaine was popularly used in “magical elixirs”.
  • In 1903 coca was removed from coca-cola due to the newfound craze of the “magical elixirs”.
  • In the late 1970’s Hollywood popularized cocaine and drug cartels set up an elaborate system to supply it.


For centuries there have been major debates about whether or not to ban coca. Some Spanish conquistadors sought to completely ban coca because they believed that coca leaves were a conduit for paganism. Others believed that it should be allowed, reasoning that if G-D allowed coca to grow so plentifully in a particular land, that the natives must have a need for it.

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In conclusion, the coca leaf is an integral part of Andean life. Despite centuries of debate it’s alive and well today. Locals and tourists enjoy and benefit from its cultural and medicinal qualities. Before products such as coca are banned people should be sensitive and consider the negative / positive results and how it will effect all parties involved.





Zoe Green

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