“Hualpay kusunchis,” Graciela says as she offers me three coca leaves held together in both her hands.” Loosely translated this means, “let us eat coca together.” I accept her gift with two hands and reply with the traditional words of thanks, “Urpichay sonqoy,” which translates as “You are a little heart, little dove.”

We’re sitting on the ground in a tiny Andean village above the tree line at 15,600 feet elevation overlooking an alpine lake and a scattering of single-room stone and mud brick houses that comprise her village. My husband and I have been meeting yearly with the people in the region since 2004 as representatives of Heart Walk Foundation. Our meetings always open with sharing the coca ritual.

Everyone present selects and offer three leaves to everyone else in the circle. With each bundle of leaves we receive, we say a personal prayer and blow our prayers to the majestic mountains above us. Soon, 20 people will be holding 60 coca leaves in their cheeks with many prayers flying in the air.

When Graciela says, “Let us eat coca together,” she is saying so much more. The ritual sharing of coca affirms that we are inter-dependent as a community of humans. Sharing coca reminds us that we are inter-dependent with the plants, animals, air, water, land and all the living spirits in the mountains, lakes, rivers, and skies. Sharing coca means that we belong to a great universe, together. These are the words unspoken but understood.

For the indigenous people of Peru, coca has been a central part of life, with spiritual, economic, medicinal, ceremonial, relationships, and childbirth significance. The leaf even provides some vitamins otherwise absent in the starch-heavy diet of the highland people. Read more about the medical properties of coca here.

Many tourists to the Cuzco region find that chewing the leaf or drinking coca tea helps reduce high altitude distress. The tourists do not get the “high” associated with cocaine use unless it is not mixed with lime, which releases the coca alkaloid. Experimental research explains the beneficial effects of coca for tourists.

Evidence shows that coca leaves have been chewed for 8000 years. The Q’ero people continue this ancient tradition, but access is not easy. Because the coca plant is an evergreen shrub found in warm, fertile valleys far from the cold Q’ero highlands, the people of Q’eros must purchase coca when they travel to a faraway town, usually by foot.

Heart Walk Foundation representatives always bring large bags of coca to share in meetings and ceremonies with the people. We gift all the remaining coca to each host community as we hike on to the next village.

In the spirit of sharing coca, let us affirm our shared humanity, our interdependence with all beings, and our relations with all of creation, my little hearts and little doves!

Hualpay kusunchis. Urpichay sonqoy.