La Paz: Pope Francis is due to arrive in Bolivia next month, and has already stirred up plenty of interest in his visit. The pontiff apparently expressed his desire to chew coca leaf while in the country, a local custom that stretches back centuries.
For those like me who were initially shocked to hear this news, it’s actually quite benign – coca leaf, despite being a raw ingredient used in the product of cocaine, is fairly harmless in leaf format. The plant receives government protection in Bolivia given its role in the nation’s cultural heritage, and most visitors to the country will sample some. While the leaf is still a stimulant even while raw, it also can lower hunger or thirst, and has some other medicinal properties. One of the biggest reasons for chewing coca, though, is the fact that it can help with altitude sickness, and with La Paz one of the highest cities in the world at 3,640 m above sea level, that’s reason enough for anyone to have a chew.