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Day 33 – Mostly Illegal

November 12, 2010

Location: La Paz, Bolivia

Date: Friday, November 12, 2010

South America is the land of the illicit cure. Whereas East Asia is known for its weird stuff (needles in face, tiger piss, heated cup massage, etc.). South America’s cures are mostly illegal. Think cocaine, San Pedro, and ayahuasca (a powerful hallucinogenic).

I say this because today I explored La Paz’s Coca Museum and its witches market. Actually, the Coca Museum should the called the “Coca Room.” That’s because it’s a space barely the size of a master bedroom crammed with lots of text and pictures. I spent my time reading through a binder filled with English translations of Spanish signs. There, I learned that coca has been part of the indigenous people’s culture for ages and that refined cocaine (as opposed to its dried leaf counterpart) is a Western invention. Seems that the local people treat chewing coca leaf like the West treats caffeine—a nice pick-me-up that helps one get through a hard workday.



Back in Spanish colonial times, the Spanish first demonized coca leaf use because they thought it was pagan. When they realized the indigenous people worked harder and longer chewing coca, they lobbied the Catholic Church to change its position, which it did.

And so the story goes. Over time, coca and its derivatives have waxed and waned between demon, pagan drug to miracle cure and soda pop additive. Today, we all know where it stands. An illicit drug produced by brown people for their Western brothers.





Same goes for San Pedro, a derivative of a type of cactus that produces feelings of euphoria. It has been a part of South American culture for centuries but has been banned in the West as a narcotic. In the witches market, you can find the cactus stacked to the stillborn llama fetuses that the locals bury at the corner of their new houses for good luck. San Pedro, the “male” counterpart to the “female” ayahuasca was used by both sexes to get closer to god. Think of it as communion wine, but with a bit of a kick.

I have a feeling that part of the reason that we in the West have to ban the stuff is that, as a culture, we just can’t handle things in moderation. Just take a look at the size of the average American, the portions we serve at Claim Jumper, and binge drinking on weekends. We can take the most temperate Italian that drinks a glass of vino at every meal and give him license to become a wino. We are the land of the free.

GALLERY: Click through to see bonus pics of La Paz’s streets.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. November 18, 2010 6:20 pm

    This post has inspired some awesome google ads!

    • November 20, 2010 1:56 pm

      For some reason I can´t see them. I will have to use my imagination.

      • November 20, 2010 2:59 pm

        I’m not seeing any ads, either…..

  2. November 18, 2010 10:12 pm

    We first hit the “witches’ market” in northern coastal Peru…..the llama fetuses are spooky!

    When we lived in Cochabamba, we got pretty used to coca leaves – they were ubiquitous, and almost all the indigenous folks were chewing them….the working ones, anyhow. Big wad of leaves and then some “lime” to release the drug, then entire bolus shoved over into the cheek, leaving them looking like a really addicted baseball player with his “chew”…… No one gets high, but it does make a bleak existence a little easier to withstand…..

    I think that Americans get into drug abuse because their lives are too good to make settling for alleviating misery very attractive….they want a “high” – something BETTER than reality. It’s a delusion, of course, but when has that ever stopped us?

    • November 20, 2010 2:02 pm

      I get high and crash by eating loads of meat. See: Lima In My Mouth and the subsequent Recovery.

      Maybe I´ve been on the road too long, but the llama fetuses didn´t even phase me. Word is the llamas have to be stillborn on their on, not artificially aborted, otherwise they lose their effect. Who knows how many actually weren´t hand made.

      Again, being a bit of a libertarian, I usually don´t suffer people have their stimulants and downers. People deal with their lives however they need to: coca leaves, religion, exercise, travel, Diet Cokes. Just don´t crash your car into mine or kill kids and we´re all good.

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