The Magic of the Coca Leaf
It may come as a surprise and sound a little strange at first, but every hotel you encounter during your adventure to Machu Picchu will almost certainly offer you a hot cup of mate de coca, tea made from coca leaves (yes, the very same leaves that cocaine comes from, but the tea is non-addictive). The tea can be made by steeping the leaves directly in hot water, and it also comes prepackaged in tea bags. It’s a light green-yellow color, just like green tea, and has a slightly bitter taste to it. You’ll also see the loose coca leaves for sale at just about every market and cafe, and locals and guides chew big wads of the leaves just like chewing tobacco.
Coca leaves were considered sacred to the Incas and were believed to have many medicinal benefits. Even today they are a huge part of everyday life in Peru. One major benefit of these leaves is their ability to help alleviate the effects of the high altitude of the region, which varies from about 7,000 feet at its lowest point in the Sacred Valley to over 11,000 feet in Cuzco. Besides drinking plenty of water and taking it slow your first couple days, this is a very popular and effective way of curing the fatigue that comes along with altitude sickness.
These leaves are also still used today as offerings to the deities of the Andean culture. During my trip to Machu Picchu, I clutched three loose coca leaves in my hand that my guide had given me right before beginning the hike to the top of Machu Picchu mountain, and as I reached the top of the peak, overlooking the ruins themselves, I left them in the dirt as he had instructed, arranged into a 3-leaf fan shape, and set an intention for Pachamanca, the earth mother.
You can buy boxes of mate de coca and even coca candy in shops and markets all over Peru, but remember, to bring it back to the US it must be decocainized (similar to the way coffee can be decaffeinated). Maybe it will be your new pick-me-up of choice!