Coca country

By Published On: April 23, 2006Categories: Travel3 Comments on Coca country

The two campesinos squinted towards the camera in the faded sepia photo. Behind them, I could make out several blurred donkeys loaded up with bags of coca ready for the five day trek from Chulumani to La Paz.

The owner of the the photos on the hacienda wall, a quietly erudite American woman called Tilby, explained that the photo had been taken before the road was built in 1940. The journey to Bolivia’s capital takes only five hours now, but as I gazed past the photos on the walls I could still make out a family picking coca leaves from neat rows on a slope cut out on the opposite valley wall. Their field made up a worn threadbare patchwork kilt that covered the hillsides right up to edge of a rainforest that swirled in misty rain.

"That side of the valley was all trees a few years ago," explained Tilby who had lived there with her Bolivian husband for 27 years. "But coca is the only reliable source of income here and is part of the history here. You can see Incas with mouths bulging with coca, the Spanish built this hacienda to farm coca. Now it enables these valleys to survive as campesinos can produce crops a few times a year for a good price, whereas the price for coffee is always going up and down."

"Of course, more is produced than is used for traditional purposes, but is that the farmers fault or the fault of those who convert it into cocaine?" she continued. 

Coca has been part of my life in Bolivia. I drink it as my pre-bedtime hot drink, I occasionally chew it with friends, I have scattered it in Aymaran religious ceremonies, I have written about the constant conflict it causes with the US administration, I smell its bitter-sharp tang on the breath of indigenous leaders during seminars. But here I was in the region where it was made. Coca Country.

The grand hacienda with its tall windows, walls bedecked with flowers and some wonderful home-made ice-cream was at the edge of the Apa Apa reserve, the only remaining sub-tropical rainforest  in the Yungas region. I chatted to Tilby before heading up (unbenownst to me with an arthritic Great Dane that decided I was its best and only friend) into the damp almost breathing forest.

I was with a rainyhair-matted Juliette who had joined me on a break over Easter together with friends Basilia, Bill, Ingrid and their 15 month ginger-haired baby Amaya.

The journey to Chulumani, by bus now rather than mule, involves a brief steep climb to a pass before picking your way gingerly down around u-bends hemmed in between two incredulously sheer lush-green cliffs.  In La Paz, I sometimes strangely forget that I am high up in the mountains and that the main way out is down. As we lost altitude we were soon peeling off layer after layer of clothes as humid heat rose up from roaring rivers, winding-creepered forests and dusty riverbank hamlets.

Then gradually the valleys opened up into rolling coca-country, the forests now dispersed with lines of coca fields, lorries piled high with tottering sacks of coca leaves, towns emitting a pungent bitter-leafy odour from cool dark storage rooms.

The countryside and life over four days had a numbing effect like the coca leaf. Time inched along.

We sat in the central square of Chulumani, heady on tropical flower scents watching teenagers (one in traditional dress of pollera, blouse and shawl arm-linked with a friend in a Nike tracksuit) indulge in adolescent flirtatious courting rituals.

We explored unlikely muddy paths, stumbling through chicken-scratched backyards and bumping into a drunk campesino couple who warmly welcomed us and apologised profusely for the state of the overgrown track: "It just won’t do, it just won’t do," she mumbled as she staggered off half-holding, half-collapsing onto her partner.

We attended an Easter Day service dominated by a black Jesus statue, where the priest failed to turn up. The local women bossily took charge making me wonder why we need priests. 

We sat one evening on a bench in the garden of the hotel watching mist uncurl from the treetops below as the light faded from the landscape.

We ate far too much fried chicken.

Then all too soon, it was back in the bus to La Paz with a bag of coca tucked into my rucksack.

I opened the bag today as I cleaned the flat. Its bitter-leafy smell unfurled scenes of damp forests, green pencil-lined fields, warm greetings from campesinos, a black Christ and absent priests, tired mules and centuries of bulging coca-cheeks.



  1. Agatta October 17, 2006 at 7:28 pm - Reply

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