The Holy Leaf

When you visit northwest Argentina, you may notice some people in the street have cheeks as fat as a hamster preparing for hibernation.

 

They’re chewing coca, following an age-old ritual in the Andean region used to combat fatigue, hunger and altitude sickness.

 

When the Spanish invaded five centuries ago, the practice was so integral to the religious traditions of indigenous tribes, particularly the Inca who ruled from Colombia down to Mendoza in Argentina, that the Catholic church tried to ban it as idolatrous.

 

Luckily, in this particular battle, commerce won out, the mine owners realising their workers could labour for many hours without a break thanks to the magical properties of the coca leaf.

Coca, or khoka which simply means “tree” in Quechua or Aymara, the principal languages of Peru and Bolivia respectively, has acquired a bad reputation in respectable circles because each leaf contains a tiny quantity (0.4%) of the alkaloid cocaine.

 

Indeed, it contains more minerals than my old school’s chemistry lab: magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, flavonoids, fibre and iron, not to forget vitamins C and D.

 

It’s an excellent source of calcium, a particularly vital component to the Andean non-dairy diet (as cows didn’t exist in South America until the Spanish invaders brought them over).

 

Mariana Orieta, curator of the Museo del Patrimonio Intangible de la Quebrada de Humahuaca said: “Coca is a sacred leaf which has nothing to do with drugs or cocaine, it comes from our ancestors and is important to indigenous culture. It’s indispensable for the workers in the countryside and the Puna, it’s like sugar and salt to them: it’s energy.”

 

As Dominic Streatfeild notes in his excellent Cocaine: an Unauthorised Biography, “Coca chewing keeps the Andes on the go the way coffee keeps the rest of the world on the go.”

It would take a hell of a lot of leaf chewing to get high: but when you masticate at altitude, or when you’re particularly tired, you’ll certainly notice it gives you a lift.

 

When guests on one of our Poncho Tours visit Argentina we recommend trying coca, chewing it in the traditional way, or mixing leaves with boiling water to make a coca tea.

 

It’s ideal when you’re travelling at altitude, and you’ll be tapping into an ancient tradition so the locals will be impressed!

 

You can read more about the traditions of coca in Argentina’s Andean north west here in an article I wrote for the Buenos Aires Times.

Duration
2 days
Group Size
1 to 4

Essential Humahuaca

Combine the highlights of the colourful Quebrada de Humahuaca with the other-wordly Salinas Grandes salt flats in the Argentina Altiplano.

Rich in indigenous culture and colonial history, the old trade route from Buenos Aires to Lima features the Seven Coloured Hill of Purmamarca, and Hornocal's lesser known sierra of Fourteen Colours.

A side-trip to appreciate the immensity of the Salinas Grandes salt flats makes this one of the most diverse two day trips available from Salta or San Salvador de Jujuy.

Click here to view map route.

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$250
Duration
6 days
Group Size
1 to 3

Footsteps of the Conquistadores

A high altitude 4x4 adventure along the old colonial mining route: this Altiplano tour brings you into close contact with the mountain plateau wildlife of vicuña, flamingoes, and rhea.

This excursion combines the must-see highlights of the UNESCO-protected Quebrada de Humahuaca with little-explored sections of the Argentine mountain plateau.

Far from artificial light, enjoy the breathtaking night sky in remote hamlets places like Yavi and Santa Catalina, close to the border with Bolivia.

Click here to view map route.

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$900
Duration
4 days
Group Size
1 to 4

Fourteen Colours & Cloud Forest

Hike Argentina’s Inca trail, linking two completely different eco-systems, the dry canyon of Humahuaca and the Cloud Forest of Calilegua.

We take a narrow mountain road which was only finally completed in October 2019, tracing the footsteps of Inca explorers of northwest Argentina from the 15th century.

This trip can be extended to include a visit to the gorgeous mountain town of Iruya and the historic settlement of Yavi on the Bolivian frontier.

Available April to November.

Click here to view map route.

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$500
Duration
6 days
Group Size
Up to 4

Mountains to Cloud Forest trekking

This is one of our most challenging north west Argentina hiking trips, recommended only for experienced trekkers: covering 58km over four days, we climb to an altitude of 4,200m, gradually descending to 1,325m, following the contours of mountain tracks along the way.

This hike offers a complete change in eco-system during four days: starting in the mountains which enfold the Quebrada de Humahuaca, we descend into the Yungas Cloud Forest of the east, following the trail of indigenous traders who travelled between the salt flats and the sub-tropical jungle.

There is an extraordinary range of landscape in these four days, and a warm welcome for modern hikers from the families in the refuges where we sleep overnight.

Available April to November.