In recent decades, poverty and the promise of a better life has not only led thousands of Peruvian peasants down the road of guerrilla warfare and bloody terror. Many of them, sometimes the same individuals, have also transformed the most sacred plant of the Incas into one of the world’s most commercial cash crops. Seen by many peasants as a road to fortune and freedom, for others cocaine is a scourge, bringing violence, the mobsters and deforestation in its wake.

The only people who make decent money engage in “cooking” cocaine . Illegal “kitchens”, makeshift coke refineries, have become the main means of livelihood for many ordinary peasant families, as the equipment is simple – oil drums, a few chemicals, paraffin and a fire. Bushels of coca leaves are dissolved in paraffin and hydrochloric acid, heated, and stirred, eventually producing the pasta, which is then washed in ether or acetone to yield powdery white cocaine.

Peru’s coca industry netted an estimated $3 billion in 1984 – twenty percent of the country’s gross national product. By the end of the 1980s this figure was much higher and the problem had become an issue of global dimensions. However, a combination of market saturation and political pressure from the USA, backed up by anti-cocaine money and hardware like police helicopters, seems to have changed the situation substantially. In 1996 the Peruvian price of cocaine had dropped by over fifty percent on the street, down to almost $4 a gram. Colombian drug cartels were buying less from Peru, having been hit hardest by US anti-cocaine policies, and the protection once afforded by Sendero Luminoso terrorists had turned into more of a liability than anything else. By the end of the twentieth century there was also increasing US intervention, including aerial patrols over the northern jungle border between Peru and Colombia firing on unmarked planes that refuse to identify themselves. Production of cocaine in Peru has dropped further while it has started to rise in Colombia, and these lower levels of supply have brought Peru’s internal price for cocaine back up to a street level of $10 a gram. It seems unlikely that cocaine production will be reduced much further, since there are always new export opportunities and a steady home market; but the basic crop – coca plants – no longer offers quite the relatively stable, safe and so much more remunerative option to small-time cash-croppers that it did just a couple of years ago.

Coca , the plant from which cocaine is derived, has travelled a long way since the Incas distributed this “divine plant” across fourteenth-century Andean Peru. Presented as a gift from the gods, coca was used to exploit slave labour under the Spanish rule: without it the Indians would never have worked in the gruelling conditions of colonial mines such as Potosi.

The isolation of the active ingredient in coca, cocaine , in 1859, began an era of intense medical experimentation. Its numbing effects have been appreciated by dental patients around the world, and even Pope Leo XIII enjoyed a bottle of the coca wine produced by an Italian physician, who amassed a great fortune from its sale in the nineteenth century. The literary world, too, was soon stimulated by this white powder: in 1885 Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde during six speedy days and nights while taking this “wonder drug” as a remedy for his tuberculosis, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, writing in the 1890s, used the character of Sherlock Holmes to defend the use of cocaine. On a more popular level, coca was one of the essential ingredients in Coca Cola until 1906. Today, cocaine is the most fashionable – and expensive – of drugs.

From its humble origins cocaine has become very big business. Unofficially, it may well be the biggest export for countries like Peru and Bolivia, where coca grows best in the Andes and along the edge of the jungle. While most mountain peasants always cultivated a little for personal use, many have now become dependent on it for obvious economic reasons: coca is still the most profitable cash crop and is readily bought by middlemen operating for extremely wealthy cocaine barons. A constant flow of semi-refined coca – pasta, the basic paste – leaves Peru aboard Amazon river boats or unmarked light aircraft heading for the big-time laboratories in Colombia. From here the pure stuff is shipped or flown out, mostly to the USA via Miami or Los Angeles. Much of the rest is refined in Peruvian cocaine “kitchens” in the ceja de selva or Lima, before finding its way into nostrils of wealthy Limeños, or going over the border into Brazil and further afield.

Few people care to look beyond the wall of illicit intrigue that surrounds this highly saleable contraband. In the same vein as coffee or chocolate, the demand for this product has become another means through which the privileged world controls the lives of those in the developing world, at the same time endangering the delicate environmental balance of the western edge of Amazonia. As Peruvian Indians follow world market trends by turning their hands to the growing and “cooking” of coca, more staple crops like cereals, tubers and beans are cultivated less and less.

It’s a change brought about partly by circumstance. Agricultural prices are state controlled, but manufactured goods and transport costs rise almost weekly, preventing the peasants from earning a decent living from their crops. Moreover, the soil is poor and crops grow unwillingly. Coca, on the other hand, grows readily and needs little attention

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