Exhausted from 20 hours of flying but eager to start exploring, we were both in need of a little pick-me-up. When we arrived at our hotel, our hostess offered us some "coca." Expecting Coca Cola, I cheerfully accepted. Instead, she brought us hot water steeped in coca leaves- yes, the same leaves that turn white and more powdery on their journey north. In this purer, legal, and less stimulating form, coca has sustained the Incas for centuries, and remains a first-course treatment for altitude sickness.
Coca might not be the salt of Peruvian cuisine, but at times it comes close. If you seek it out, you can have it in nearly anything. Before long, we sampled coca chocolate, coca ice cream, and coca bread. In San Blas, we even came across a coca store. With a long pony tail and a full beard, the proprietor had the look of a happy pirate who had cleaned up his act and decided to make an honest living. He had a little twinkle in his eye, and pranced from one coca treat to another with seemingly inexhaustible energy.
"The creative uses of coca are endless!" he raved, holding a small bowl of ground leaves. I nodded, smiled, and pointed to my nose. I was joking; he was immediately mortified. "Oh no! I don't support that!" he exclaimed and quickly changed the subject. In retrospect I can understand why my joke wasn't taken lightly, as I'm sure many a gringo has come a-knockin for a more processed form of Peruvian marching powder. But with a name like "Coca Shop"- he might just be asking for it!