Fun facts about La Paz:
1) There is no heating. Anywhere.
2) You can eat a four-course meal for 3 USD.
3) They have actual zebras on the zebra crossing.
La Paz did not exactly show me its best side – it was very cold and wet, which made it super slippery on the steep cobbled streets and prevented me from doing any outdoor activities. But I did go to the Coca Museum.
At high altitudes in particular, coca leaves are standard fare here. Locals will chew the leaves, as for example on both the Inca Trail in Peru and on the salt plains of Bolivia, where our guides carried a big bag from which they would pick leaves as you would crisps. The first evidence of chewing coca leaves has been found in mummies from 2,500 BC. When the Spaniards came, the Catholic Church forbade the habit. But when they discovered how much more productive the miners would be with the effects of coca, they allowed it again, though subjecting it to a tax and restricting its distribution.
Experiments have shown that coca reduces the amount of oxygen that your body consumes, while it made the miners mentally more willing to go down into the mines, and able to work longer without feeling exhausted. (Still today, boys in towns like Potosí, one of the highest cities in the world, will start working in the mines in their early teens, and rarely make it to middle age.) It was used commercially in the form of coca wine and various tonics, with posters advocating its stimulating effects and various health benefits. One of those products, of course, was Coca-Cola. These products became illegal when the addictive and apparently mentally retarding effects of cocaine were made public.
The locals tout the nutritional benefits of coca: the leaves contain high levels of calcium, potassium, and phosphorous, as well as vitamins, protein and fibre. Cocaine, of course, is a different matter. The museum in La Paz brings the effects of cocaine addiction to life with a mannequin of an 80s drug addict and various photos of its victims. But coca leaves, although illegal outside of South America, gives nothing like the high of cocaine – the leaves have less than 1% of the active alkaloid. Inside South America, coca can be found everywhere – in the form of leaves to chew (beware, it makes your teeth green), tea (weaker and more palatable, a standard part of any hotel breakfast), or sweets (even tastier when the first ingredient is sugar). You just have to remember to use it all up before you take that plane back home…