Every morning, between 9 and 10 in La Paz and the rest of the Altiplano, the vast majority of indigenous Bolivians — primarily Aymara and Quechua — eat a hearty bowl of chanka or fricasé, then pour out a mound of dried green leaves onto a woven cloth called a tari. This is the moment for a precious ritual practiced here for thousands of years: the akulliko. Each person seated around the cloth picks through the leaves to find the smallest ones, for they are the youngest and contain the highest concentrations of one of the world’s most notorious alkaloids: cocaine. With great care, the chewer snaps off the prickly stems and arranges 30 or 40 of the leaves into a pile in his hands. Then, with a bit of baking soda or lime ash, he places it on the inside of his cheek and begins to masticate it like a wad of bubble gum. This action, in Aymara, is called pischar.
The taste of coca is best described by the word evergreen, with perhaps a hint of licorice. The effect of continued mastication is subtle: the chewer becomes quiet, reflective, melancholy, philosophical. The baking soda or lime ash leaches out the cocaine and numbs the cheeks, lips and mouth. As La Paz sits at 12,500 feet above sea level, the akulliko helps the body to absorb the scarce supply of oxygen; even tourists know that coca is the best antidote to soroche, the local word for altitude sickness.
As coca leaves are a Schedule II narcotic in the United States, and the cultivation of coca has been curtailed by United Nations resolution, it is not possible for Americans to take part in an akulliko…unless they travel to Bolivia or Peru.
12,000 feet below the Altiplano, in the flatlands of Paraguay and Argentina, live the Guaraní, a proud nation who welcomed the Spanish when the Jesuits conquered their territory in the 17th century. In most ways, they could not be more different from their indigenous siblings occupying the Andean highlands. Strangely, though, in the land of the Guaraní, a similar custom takes place every morning at about the same time as the akulliko. The leaves of Ilex paraguariensis, carefully heated, aged and ground, are poured into a hollowed-out gourd commonly known throughout the world by the Quechua word mate. Drinking mate through a silver straw is not to satisfy thirst, but to be reflective and philosophical, solitary, or hospitable and gregarious. Two different plants — coca on the one hand, yerba mate on the other — have yielded two analogous customs in two radically different regions of South America, regions which were linked once by the Spanish colonizers’ trail from the port of Buenos Aires to the silver mines and gold sources of the Altiplano and now by the Revelation of Anakum.