The coca leaf, which contains the alkaloid used to make the Schedule I drug cocaine, has been chewed, brewed, and otherwise consumed in traditional Andean medicine for centuries to alleviate altitude sickness, high blood pressure, headaches, and even depression. Recently, though, some of its topical uses have been gaining in popularity for relief of muscle aches and to improve blood circulation. We'd seen coca leaf creams hocked on buses and in markets in much of northwestern South America for years as a panacea for aches and pains, but we've recently noticed high-end spas employing the coca leaf, such as the Spa at Cusco's Palacio del Inka, Spa Mayu Wilka at the Sacred Valley's Rio Sagrado Hotel, and Machu Picchu's Unu Spa at Inkaterra. But does it work?
"When massaged into the skin, the coca leaf can help boost blood circulation, help skin tone, and wipe away dead skin cells," says Ana Cecilia, spa director at Palacio del Inka, the newest spa in Cusco, Peru. "Since coca leaves are a natural stimulant and contain vitamins and minerals, Inkaterra uses them in their treatments to detoxify and improve the body's blood circulation," adds Luis Peñaloza, spa coordinator at the Unu Spa at the Inkaterra in Aguas Calientes. Without any real studies of the substance, it all sounded a little like snake oil to us. So after a recent trek through the Sacred Valley, we decided to give a coca-leaf massage its day in court at the Palacio del Inka. (You are unlikely to find coca used in American spas since processing the coca leaf is officially banned in the United States, unless you possess a license or prescription.)
The leaf is pulverized, then mixed with quinoa (cooked and cooled), which we learned is a gentle exfoliant that helps clear dead skin off your body. The mixture is massaged over the entire body, generating a light, tingling sensation – much like mentholated shampoos do – that supposedly stimulates blood circulation. Unlike chewing the coca leaf or drinking the tea made from brewing it – when you can briefly feel the stimulant at work – the cream doesn't have such an effect, leaving only a tingling sensation on the skin. It's hard to say what agent was actually creating this effect, since massages themselves also contribute to increased blood flow. But when the hour-and-a-half treatment was over, aches had been significantly reduced.