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Coca Versus Cocaine - Bolivia - by Becky Blake

Coca Versus Cocaine – Sniffing Out the Difference in Bolivia

By Becky Blake


When my boyfriend and I arrive in La Paz, we’ve already been travelling at high altitudes for several weeks. Even so, I can feel the tightening in my chest. La Paz is the highest capital city in the world. Altitude sickness is so common here that our hotel offers oxygen tanks to help with the headaches and breathlessness. Before resorting to the gas, I decide to try a more traditional remedy—a tea brewed from coca leaves that locals have been using to treat this problem for thousands of years.

After a couple of cups, the tightness around my lungs begins to loosen. “I want to bring some of this tea home with us for next time we’re in the mountains,” I say to my boyfriend.

“Hmm…” He frowns. “Probably not a good idea. You don’t want to end up in San Pedro, do you?”

His mention of San Pedro, La Paz’s infamous prison, reminds me that coca leaves are illegal  outside of the Andes. They can, after all, be made into cocaine. To find out more about this process, we make a trip to the Coca Museum where a circuit of displays informs us of the leaf’s history, including its emergence as a drug within the pharmaceutical and soda pop industries. Our tour ends with a surprising exhibit showing exactly how to make cocaine. According to the brochure, the museum views education as a good deterrent, but this display seems a little too encouraging to me. Near the exit, a group of Bolivian school children are giggling and pointing at a freaked-out looking mannequin. A sign at his feet reads: “What a Cocaine Addict Looks Like.”

After leaving the museum, my boyfriend and I stroll through The Witches’ Market, a street lined with carts full of everything a good Bolivian needs to keep the spirit world at bay: herbs, powders, amulets, dried llama fetuses.

“Is there anyone you want to put a curse on?” asks my boyfriend.

I consider for a moment, then shake my head. It’s far too hot to be dreaming up revenge plots. Instead, we buy some coca leaves from one of the stalls. We’ve been told it’s a good idea to leave them as offerings in places of ceremony, or when starting a trek. Coca leaves are also welcomed as tips. Many Bolivians chew them like tobacco.

After just one day in La Paz, we’ve already encountered so many traditional uses for coca that it’s hard to imagine the growth of this plant will ever be eradicated. There’s no denying the plant has a dark side, though. The next afternoon we walk down to the guarded perimeter of San Pedro where many of the inmates are serving time for drug-related offenses. The prison is unique because there are no guards inside its walls, no cells, and no uniforms. Instead, the prisoners exist in a sort of micro-economy, the rich living quite comfortably while the poor don’t fare so well. Rumour has it that the purest cocaine can be purchased from inside the prison.

A sketchy man approaches us, claiming he can get us inside for a tour. Strangely, he’s a dead-ringer for the freaked-out mannequin at the museum. After a second’s hesitation, we decline. A nearby woman wearing colourful traditional clothing nods at us in approval; we’ve made the right choice.

Exploring the distinction between coca and cocaine has given me some quick insight into La Paz, a city where indigenous and modern ways of life are forced to co-exist. On our walk back to the hotel, I feel ready to weigh in on the subject in true tourist fashion. The t-shirt I purchase has a picture of a harmless-looking leaf on it. “La hoja de coca no es droga,” it says. The leaf of the coca plant isn’t a drug.

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Extra Info from Becky:

The location and hours of The Coca Museum can be found online in English.

Hotel Rosario, near The Witches’ Market and The Coca Museum, is a mid-range, friendly hotel in downtown La Paz that offers both oxygen and coca tea to travellers struggling with the altitude.

Bio: Becky Blake is a Toronto writer who has worked as a journalist, a travel writer, an advice columnist, a script consultant and a playwright. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing and is currently working on a novel about pickpockets in Barcelona. See more here - www.beckyblake.ca

 Becky's local recommendation on Leap's website was for Women on Tour, an all-female tour company, in Barcelona, Spain.