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Peru: Swapping Coca Leaves for Cocoa Trees

Peruvian cocoa has a unique history, one that is closely intertwined with the country’s other famous crop: the coca leaf. But what exactly links these two crops? And what makes consuming Peruvian chocolate not only especially delicious, but impactful?

A Puzzling Past

Machu Pichu, Peru

The Peruvian jungle (along with Ecuador’s) is where Theobroma cacao (aka the cocoa tree) is believed to have first fruited. 

Yet whilst we can date the human consumption of cocoa (in the form of a drink) back to 4,500 BCE in Ecuador, it is far harder to trace the history of cocoa in Peru. On the other hand, we can trace back the chewing of the coca leaf in Peru to around 6,000 BCE.

A parallel puzzle is that whilst Ecuador is deservedly famous for its distinctive Arriba Nacional bean, Peru has a far more diverse range of cocoa varietals. Unlike the typical bright berry notes of Madagascan beans or Ecuador’s green and vegetal flavours, there really isn’t a single “leitmotiv” of flavours for Peru.  

Why is the Coca Leaf so significant? 

An intriguing way to explain both the relative lack of early history and superabundance of cocoa varieties in Peru is that for a long time it was the coca leaf, rather than the cocoa plant, that indigenous people turned to for energy and seemingly some religious rituals.

Sidenote: the coca leaf was (and is) NOT used by local tribes in Peru as an intoxicant or recreational narcotic.  Instead it has many other applications including being used as an appetite suppressant, source of energy, painkiller, means to fight altitude sickness, etc. 

It is this focus on the coca leaf that may have led to the different varieties of Peruvian cocoa being left alone and allowed to flourish. 

Swapping Coca Leaves for Cocoa Trees 

Local drug enforcement agencies, the UN, USAID and many other development agencies have been encouraging the farming of cocoa rather than the coca leaf in Peru. 

Initially there was concern that this would lead to the replacing of heirloom cocoa trees with fast growing, but foul tasting, cocoa varietals like CCN-51.  However, recently there have been more encouraging signs with the likes of the UN financing educational programmes on fermentation so farmers can showcase the amazing potential of the beans growing throughout Peru.

See our bars below if you want to delve into the wide range of Peruvian flavours, and even some wonderful Peruvian craft drinking chocolate.

Further reading:

The Double Life of Coca

Coca Leaves first chewed 8,000 years ago

Coca: The History and Medical Significance of an Ancient Andean Tradition

How chocolate saved a community and a protected area from the drug trade

Coca: The plant that feeds Peru

US anti-cocaine push embitters Peru chocolate makers

Our range of Peruvian bars:

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