Something that may surprise you, but that you will most certainly encounter on your visit to Cusco, is the open sale of coca leaves and coca tea (mate) in markets, cafes and even supermarkets.
More importantly, though Coca leaves are indeed the basic ingredient for cocaine, they are NOT in any way addictive (unless you were to consume them by the ton!) or bad for your health. A good analogy is that coca leaves are to cocaine what poppies are to heroin.
Coca leaves were sacred to the Incas, and since then have been used as a natural remedy for many ailments, including headache, sore throat and stomach upsets. Today, the coca leaf is a vital part of the Peruvian national identity.
It isn’t uncommon to see people walking the streets of Cusco with a slight bulge in their cheeks. Fear not, they aren’t making some rude facial gesture (we hope!), they are simply chewing coca leaves (this is done in similar fashion to chewing tobacco).
Many Peruvians, especially the indigenous, chew coca leaves or drink coca tea in the same way that you might drink your morning coffee to get the day going. Mate de coca is similar in looks and taste to green tea, slightly bitter with some sweetness. Much like caffeine, the effects of coca include increased energy levels (very useful if you’re schedule is jam-packed full of sightseeing, shopping or trekking!) and increased alertness.
Where coca leaves really come in handy, however, is for the treatment of altitude sickness, something that many visitors to Cusco will experience. The benign properties of the plant are somewhat of a ‘miracle medicine’, and are highly effective at treating the symptoms of altitude sickness, or ‘soroche’.
If you’re still slightly wary of trying out coca leaves or drinking mate, just remember that it is NOT cocaine. It is not addictive, nor will it get get you ‘high’, and it can be a godsend when dealing with the high altitude of the Andes and the resulting queasiness and low energy levels. Most hotels offer complimentary coca tea 24 hours a day to help guests acclimatise to the high altitude and trust us it works!