Okay, so maybe I overreacted. But it sure sounded like one!
We arrived in Cusco and headed straight for the hotel; not because we were tired, but because located at 3400 meters of altitude, the only way to combat the effects of altitude sickness are with rest and coca. The symptoms can range from migraines to nausea, and I was determined to avoid these at all costs. So a short nap and four cups of coca tea later, I was feeling adjusted and ready to explore!
We were sitting in our room debating what to do next, when the drumming sound began. I looked at my mom and two sisters, “Do you guys hear that?”
“That banging noise, listen.”
Boom. Boom. Ba-boom.
We stared at each other as we tried to identify its origins. Was it a knock down the hall? Construction workers? Loud telenovelas? “Yeah, someone’s probably watching television,” they reassured me, “it’s nothing.”
Well, to me it sounded like an angry mob. Maybe my university lectures on Latin American politics were getting to my head, but this I imagined, is what a coup d’état sounds like.
But Cusco is just a small town up in the Andes Mountains. What reason is there for a revolt?
Ahhh! The answer, my friend, is coca.
My mother and I ventured out to the street, not just out of curiosity, but because we needed to secure tickets to Machu Picchu, and sure enough an upset crowd was gathered on the street. Close to a hundred people had blocked Avenida El Sol. The group consisted of mostly men, though a few women were also standing in the sidelines. From a second-story balcony a man was addressing the people whose livelihood was being threatened.
The banging noise we’d heard from our hotel room was the combination of drums, pots and pans, being used by the locals taking part in this demonstration.
Many indigenous in Cusco earn a substantial portion of their living growing coca. This plant serves both religious and medicinal purposes. Coca is like the Energizer bunny. It is what keeps the Cusqueños going at such high altitudes, and what prevents tourists from dropping like potato sacks. Cusco’s altitude can be dizzying, but roll a wad of coca leaves into the side of your mouth and suck on its juices and it will work wonders!
So what’s the problem? Well, coca leaves are also used to obtain cocaine. The crowd was upset because international corporations were pressuring for a decrease in the production of coca. Their reasoning: if less coca is produced, less cocaine will make it to their city streets. But then what becomes of this indigenous way of life?
I can’t say I have any answers to this dilemma, but those coca leaves sure did come in handy during my travels through Cusco. Without coca, I doubt I would have been able to trek mountains, hike through ruins, and discover the beauty Peru has to offer.
*This narrative about cultural travel in Latin America for Pure Travel & Geographical Magazine 2010 Travel Writing Competition.