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Coca is Not Cocaine

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The U.S. government is trying to eradicate coca plantations as part of its ongoing "War on Drugs." Of course I'd heard of cocaine and crack and all these different things that Western Industrialized society has figured out how to make out of the coca leaf—but the coca plant itself, I had no idea. So my friends in Bolivia are teaching me. Did you know that for thousands of years coca has been the sacred leaf of the Andean Cosmovision?

Coca is not cocaine.

Coca are little green leaves that elderly grandmothers in traditional dress and never-cut braids moisten with their saliva then stick on their temples to treat headaches. (Works great for me! Sucks the pain right out.)

Coca leaves are what Machu Picchu tourists in five-star hotels are served steeping in boiling water to help alleviate their altitude sickness.

Coca are sacred leaves that Kallawayas, herbal healers in the highlands of Bolivia, use for diagnosing physical ailments. (There is a great story of a Kallawaya and coca leaves in chapter four of my novel, Lucy Plays Panpipes for Peace, so I won't tell it again, here.)

Coca are leaves that people chew in ceremonies called "ch'alla" or "pago a la Pachamama" (offering for the Pachamama – mother earth and the space-time continuum). And some people call the ceremony a "q'oa."

One of my favorite q'oas was in Oruro, Bolivia with a bunch of tax collectors in their office in city hall.

When a friend invited me to attend, she explained that on the first Friday of every month just about everyone in town has a q'oa in their home. But she and all her coworkers wanted to have one together at work. So they have two a month. One for the family on the first Friday and another on the last Friday at work.

That night at 7 PM I met her at her office. She and her coworkers were all in office attire – nylons, red painted nails, business suits – and sitting around a large wooden conference table. Off to the side, a man was lighting a fire in a small brazier on the office floor. The smoke rose past the computers and telephones and danced around the fluorescent light fixtures hanging from the high adobe colonial-style ceiling.

(I had my camcorder with me, so you can see some of the tax collectors fanning the flames of the fire and chewing coca leaves in my music video, Nam myoho renge kyo). 

In the center of the table lay the mesa. "Mesa" literally means "table" in Spanish, but in these ceremonies the "mesa" means the grouping of offerings. The mesa is a piece of paper that holds objects that represent your hopes and desires. Little sugar sculptures – brightly colored – symbols of your home, your work, your health, your love, and family. Little bits of llama wool, dyed in brilliant colors, encircle the offerings. Little bits of confetti sprinkled on. And, of course, coca leaves.

The workers from other departments were leaving, casually saying "See ya Monday!" as they walked by our conference table and smoky fire.

"Yeah, see ya!"

The boss portioned out the coca leaves, cigarettes, and beer. 

They taught me that over the course of the evening we would each consume three small glasses of beer, three cigarettes and three handfuls of coca leaves. Well, you don't consume the coca leaves, you chew them. Well, you don't really chew them, you pixcha. Pixcha is a Quechua word, an Inka word. It might also be an Aymara word. My friend taught me her way to pixchar coca.

First you nip off the stems and put the leaves in your left cheek and you let them sit there for about five minutes. You think good thoughts for the happiness and wishes of everyone around you in the ceremony. Then you give it a couple of little chews and tuck it into your right cheek, and think good thoughts for your own desires and happiness. Then you split the wad and put half in one cheek and half in the other and think good thoughts for the happiness and desires of yourself and everyone with you, and contemplate how we are all one. Then after 15 or 20 minutes you spit the wad out. And you put some more in.

The feeling of chewing coca was very subtle. A big cup of strong coffee gives me way more of a jolt. I hardly noticed anything, except that hours went by and I was still not tired.

As we sat at the conference table consuming our ritualistic three handfuls of coca leaves, three glasses of beer, and smoking three cigarettes (the ritual cigarette with the smoke carrying our prayers into the invisible realm) over the course of five hours – we talked.

At first people just chatted and told jokes. The boss joked in Quechua. Very informal. After about three hours or so, slowly the talk came round to the concerns and uncomfortablenesses of the last month of being a tax collector. It came out in such an accepting environment of warmth and loving oneness. I thought, "O my gosh! This is healing!"

When the time felt right, the boss and his right hand man carefully lifted the mesa and moved it over to the floor next to the fire. We stood around in a circle. Starting with the boss and ending with me, we each sprinkled alcohol in the four corners of the mesa, offering our prayers for the happiness of everyone in the group. 

Then they placed the mesa on the glowing coals of palo santo. Holy Wood. It has a beautiful scent like sandalwood. It is so resinous you just hold a lit match to it and it will ignite and burn down to ashes. It's amazing.

We stood around in the circle, watching the mesa burn. The fire was transforming our prayers – our hopes and desires – into scent and smoke that rose and entered another realm. It felt like a type of purification.

Whether your prayer is answered depends on how the fire burns. If the fire goes out before it has consumed everything, well, better luck next time. 

But if it burns nice and even and all the way down, you gave a good prayer, you made a good determination. You are going to accomplish your goals.

To me this is analogous to making a firm decision and taking considered action with all the details each moment along the way. In the Buddhism of Nichiren Daishonin there is a related concept called "simultaneity from beginning to end." In other words, how you do the process is reflected in the outcome.

At midnight, after the ceremony was over, I told my friend, "You know, I've attended a lot of meetings in my life and this meeting was the most amazing meeting of all."

There was no Robert's Rules of Order. But everything got talked about. Everything got decided. And everyone was at peace. 

This is what the tax collectors in Oruro do every month.

In this Bolivia's first indigenous president, Evo Morales, pictured, received a traditional ceremonial staff from an Indian wise man at the sacred place of Tiwanaku.

For more information on coca, you can view a video of an unedited interview with Bolivian President Evo Morales, declared “World Hero of Mother Earth” by the General Assembly of the United Nations. There he shares some of his thoughts (in Spanish) on the sacred coca leaf and First World cocaine demand.

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About Lynette Yetter

Lynette Yetter is the author of the books "72 Money Saving Tips for the 99%" and "Lucy Plays Panpipes for Peace, a novel." Lynette is a permanent resident of Bolivia and a graduate student in the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies Program at Reed College.
  • Here is a comment that came to me via email, that I am sharing with you all here –

    “Congratulations, dear Lynette! I loved the article! It was very descriptive and informative, and you also have a very clear, persuasive style of writing!

    It’s about time we stop “waging war” against coca and try to understand its medicinal, nutritional and spiritual benefits, as well as its sacred and important role in Native Andean cultures. Thanks for clearing up some of the misconceptions we have in Western cultures about the use of coca!

    (I would have added my comment to your blog, but I tried every which way, and I couldn’t figure out how to do it! Thank goodness I have my students to help me out with technology! LOL 🙂

    Tukuy sunquywan,


  • Hello Bruce,

    Thank you so much for reading my writings and sharing some of them with friends. 🙂 Thank you for sharing some of your coca experiences in Bolivia with the readers here.

    Your friend Joyce sounds like a wonderful person doing valuable work.

    I am in La Paz, about 12 hours or so from Sucre. Here in La Paz, a lot of foreign volunteers connect with Diane Bellomy of Artesanias Orata to work with deaf children.

    Bruce, you are such a positive force on the planet, linking people together.

    Keep shining your light and illuminating humanity! 🙂

    Un abrazo,

  • Bruce Mitchell

    Thank you so much for your e-cards and messages of good will, Lynette! I’ve been sharing by passing them along to others.

    I well remember arriving at the airport to La Paz in 1991 and feeling the sudden onset of a massive headache that plagued me for 3 days. Medication dispensed by a doctor for altitude sickness did nothing for me, but the coca tea made by hotel staffers worked wonders! I only wished I had tried it sooner. And that I could have brought home a package of coca leaves, but I had been warned against doing so.

    During that 3 month trip I hired a multi-lingual bellboy at the hotel as my assistant, who educated me as to the importance of coca in Andean societies and cultures. How it inures one to cold, increases stamina and suppresses appetite, how useful it can be to maintaining overall good health.

    Right now a friend, Joyce Major, is living and working for a few months in Sucre. She’s working with kids and at a radio station, polishing her Spanish and staying with a local family. Are you anywhere near Sucre, Lynette?

    Joyce is a wonderful person who works at and teaches low-cost ‘volunteerism’ and has published a wonderful book about her adventures: “Smiling at the World” and also has a website by the same name: SmilingAtTheWorld.com – for travelers with a purpose.

    How I long to re-visit Bolivia and the Andes! Thanks again for all your kind thoughts and good wishes.

  • Hola Gaspard,

    Muchisimas gracias por tu comentario. Por favor, manda me tu email y con mucho gusto vamos a estar en comunicacion sobre tus trabajos.


  • gaspard

    hola lynette.. como estas?? muy bien el articulo. realize varios trabajos sobre la coca y cocaina en Bolivia. Uno en frances y los otros en castellano.. mandame un e-mail si te interesan, y te los mando.. un abrazo muy grende desde tarija.

  • Hello everyone,

    A Peruvian reader just sent me this lovely response (in Spanish), so I am sharing it with you.

    Hola Lynette,
    Felicitaciones!, por tu excelente articulo acerca de la coca , soy peruana, naci en Lima, mis abuelos y mis padres son de Jauja una hermosa ciudad capital de Junin, localizado en un valle de los Andes. Mi familia se reunia y realizaban el ritual de la coca, hablaban acerca de problemas cotidianos, laborales, academicos y de lo que les deparaba el futuro. Yo tenia cerca de 5 anos, lo que percibi de esta reunion fue la paz, que emanaba del dialogo armonioso de la familia.
    Ahora conozco Nam Moho Rengue Kyo que puede cambiar un futuro malo por uno mejor, soy totalmente feliz
    Que sigas teniendo mucho exito!
    Con todo mi aprecio!

  • Hola Ruthy, Kristy, Carolina and Titi,

    Thank you so much for reading Coca is Not Cocaine and posting your feedback.

    Ruthy, thank you for your encouragement as we educate people about the wisdom of the Andean cosmovision and how it is in harmony with Nichiren Buddhism.

    Kristy, like you, I would like to participate in this ceremony every month.

    Carolina, thank you for your beautiful words. 🙂
    For me, dialog is preferable to war on anyone, but I get your meaning and sincere heart, amiga mia. 🙂

    Titi, enjoy your coca leaves in Paris! 🙂 To answer your question – I think that Editor’s Pick means that the editor really likes this article and chose (picked) it as a favorite.

    Un abrazo (a hug),

  • Titi Dauner

    Dear beautiful Lynette,
    Thanks for your song and the informations about coca leaves. I brought a bag of them back in Paris.
    What is an editor’picks?
    Baisers de Paris.

  • Carolina

    Beautiful Bodhisattva Leonette!!!

    The world needs to know this. Perhaps it is possible to deconstruct the stigma on the coca plant, and declare war on cocaine makers instead;)

  • Kristy

    That was interesting! the ceremony is one that I wish I was part of once a month. Sounds like a great way to decompress>

  • ruthy

    Great Lynette!
    This is correct: Coca is not cocaine!
    You help educate people actually.

  • Thank you, Mark. It is a surprise and an honor for this article to be chosen as an Editor’s Pick.

  • Mark

    Nice work.