Coca tea – A traditional remedy from the Andes

By Tijana Radeska
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Coca tea
 
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Even though its use has been discouraged by Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the coca tea is a traditional drink from the Andes. However, it is still legal in Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Chile, and Argentina. People living in the high Andean elevations drink the tea from coca leaves for centuries.

These people don’t care about laws, the UN, or legislation of something they plant with love, primarily for medical reasons. The coca leaves help people breathe easily at high altitude.

Cusco: Mate de coca – Author: audrey_sel – CC BY-SA 2.0

The coca tea or also known as mate de coca is an herbal tea (infusion) of usually raw coca leaves or just a tea bag in hot water. Even though people in Peru and Bolivia call it mate, it hasn’t much in common with the popular yerba mate drink consumed in the Southeast of South America. As a matter of fact, in the south of Peru and Bolivia, every tea is called mate instead of the standard “tea.”

When dried, the coca leaves have greenish – yellow color. They can be chewed as well and have a mildly bitter flavor which is a bit similar to green tea, only sweeter. The tea has pretty much the same taste.

Coca tea bag from Peru- Author: Franke 1 – CC BY-SA 3.0

The leaves of the coca plant contain alkaloids which are the source for cocaine base when they are chemically extracted. But the amount of the alkaloid in the raw coca leaves is slight. One cup of coca tea made of one gram of coca leaves (or a tea bag) contains approximately 4.2 mg of organic coca alkaloid (while the derived paste usually contains between 20 and 30 milligrams).

A cup of coca tea served in Villazón, Bolivia – Author: Stevage – CC BY-SA 3.0

Because of the presence of these alkaloids, the coca tea is more likely to be compared to a strong cup of coffee or black tea for example. The alkaloids are a remedy for the respiratory system, especially in the high altitude when the lungs are struggling for breath. They relax and open the whole system so that the breathing is smoother.

Mate de coca – Author: Brian Holsclaw – CC BY-ND 2.0

But, unfortunately even though is low, the alkaloid presence can cause a positive result on a drug test for cocaine. So, the tea is illegal in the US except when it is decocainized.

Mate de coca – Author: discosour – CC BY-SA 2.0

Coca tea is always offered to the travelers in the Andes to prevent altitude sickness. It has also been used to help cocaine addicts off the drug.

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