Arts + Culture

Mind–Altering Vacations

by Barbara Cleveland


The buzz: In the major coca-producing countries in South America, only the processed form of the leaf—i.e., cocaine or crack cocaine—is illegal. The coca leaf itself, which is held in the side of the cheek (much like chewing tobacco), is a huge part of quotidian life in the Andes. The mild high you receive is a far cry from the angry jolt of a rail of cocaine; there's a pleasant mouth-numbing, a sense of well-being, and a serious buzz that lasts all afternoon. Plus, it's a great way to alleviate altitude sickness in the mile-high terrain.

Where to score: Bolivian president Evo Morales is an incredibly vocal supporter of the people's right to profit from traditional uses of coca leaves, and the tourist-friendly country has largely avoided the violent, high-profile conflicts plaguing other producers like Colombia. A stroll down the street in the capital of La Paz will take you past numerous coca carts, where you can buy leaves by the handful (but you'll only want to put one or two in your mouth at a time).

Where to chill: You'll be dying to use your brain, so head over to the Museo de la Coca and learn something (be sure to bring a pen and paper for unexpected strokes of genius). The museum covers the social, economic, and agricultural history of Bolivia's most ubiquitous plant and is a fascinating window into a culture where coca is found in everything from toothpaste to soda.

Where to come down: Lake Titicaca, the largest freshwater lake in South America and the source of a considerable number of bad jokes, is only a bus ride away from La Paz and has some of the most striking scenery this side of Machu Picchu. Grab a ride on a minibus from outside the gates of El Viejo Cementerio in La Paz to Copacabana, where you can swim laps in Lake Titicaca until the coca wears off. Crash in the penthouse suite at the Hotel La Cupula overlooking the oceanlike lake for only $36 a night.

Next: Hash it out

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Information may have changed since date of publication. Please confirm details with individual establishments before planning your trip.



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