In the November, 1981 issue of High Times, Dr. Andrew Weil explored why yoco may be just the thing for java junkies to detox on.
All over the world people grow and use stimulant plants. Many of these plants owe their properties to caffeine or drugs closely related to caffeine. Europeans and Americans consume great amounts of coffee, tea, chocolate and cola. Argentines drink yerba mate, an infusion of leaves of a holly. In Brazil the pause that refreshes is more often guaraná than cola; the beverage comes from the seeds of a large woody vine (liana) of the Amazon basin and contains considerably more caffeine than does coffee.
The most obscure of these caffeine-containing plants is yoco, also an Amazonian liana, used by a few tribes of Indians of southern Colombia and adjacent regions of Peru and Ecuador. Yoco contains more caffeine than any other plant: from 3 to 4 percent up to 6 percent in the bark. But yoco is much less well known than guarana. Even in Colombia very few people have heard of it who have not lived with tribes that use it. Only a handful of written descriptions of yoco exist and almost no photographs.
Recently I returned from a trip to the Caquetá Territory of southwestern Colombia where I visited a group of Ingano Indians who take yoco as a morning stimulant. I had a chance to gather information on this practice, photograph the preparation of the drink and try it myself.
The Caquetá Territory is a large province of Colombia that is mostly steamy rain forest. In the past ten years the territory has seen intense colonization and development, marked by road building, destruction of forest, the growth of cattle ranching and the appearance of new frontier towns, along with guerrilla activity. The ecological devastation caused by this kind of progress is not pleasant to see. But one can still travel by river away from the roads and towns to areas where the forest is intact and indigenous peoples live in relatively traditional ways.
The Inganos, relatives of Incas, extend through much of this territory. Most of them live in the hot lowlands in small communities or isolated dwellings. They hunt and fish, grow staple crops such as yuca (cassava, Manihot esculenta Crantz) and, like many South American Indians, use drug plants, especially hallucinogens and stimulants.
I traveled to the Caquetá in January of 1979 in order to visit an Ingano shaman and healer skilled in the use of yagé (yah-HAY), the hallucinogenic drink of the Amazon. The shaman, Luis Nutumbahoy is a 56-year-old man living with his family in an isolated thatched house in a clearing, about three hours’ walk from the tiny port of Mayoyoque on the Caquetá River.
Yagé is a sacred plant, surrounded by taboos and ritual, used chiefly by shamans for divination and curing. The art of using it is learned through apprenticeship to other shamans. Luis has been conducting ceremonies with yagé for 22 years, having studied originally with masters from the Putamayo Territory to the southwest. At present he is passing his knowledge on to an apprentice of his own, an Ingano chief in his late 30s named Victor Mohomboy who has been studying with him for the past three years. It was Victor who introduced me to yoco.
Unlike yagé, yoco is a secular drug, not associated with ceremony magic or religion. It is simply a morning stimulant taken to suppress hunger and give energy for the day’s work. Victor referred to it as the tinto de los indios, or ”Indian coffee.”
Victor lives a half day from Luis by foot and canoe, and he comes regularly to participate in the yagé ceremonies. I met him when he arrived one afternoon with his sister and small son, also named Victor. He carried with him a long blowgun, some personal effects and a net bag lined with green banana leaves, containing freshly cut sections of yoco. I had read what little I could find on yoco years before but had never met it in the flesh. I could scarcely wait for Victor to prepare it, but he told me that it could only be used in early morning and that he would make it the following day.
At dawn, just as the sun was coming up, I was awakened by the sound of Victor scraping his yoco with a heavy knife, one of the characteristic morning sounds among Indians who use this plant. I got out of my hammock and watched. Victor sat on a low bench in a dark corner of the house. In one hand he held the cutting of yoco, a woody stem, which was about an inch and a half in diameter and a foot and a half long. The bark was rough and gray. The cut end of the stem showed a cross-sectional pattern of bundles of loose vascular tissue, typical of jungle lianas. With deft knife strokes, Victor removed and discarded the outer bark from the lower three inches of his piece of yoco, exposing reddish inner tissue. He referred to this as the “flesh” of the plant, the part used to prepare the drink, the light-colored interior of the stem being inactive.
Cupping his hand below the knife blade, Victor rasped this pigmented layer, collecting the thin shavings in his palm. When he had scraped off all of the colored tissue from one end of the stem, he set down the knife and put his handful of shavings in a bowl, or jícara (HEE-kah-rah), made from the fruit of a trumpet vine, Crescentia cujete L. To them he added about half a cup of cold water from a jug he had filled that morning in a nearby stream. He picked up the jícara and with a circular squeezing motion began kneading the shavings in the small amount of water. After a minute of this he rubbed the wet shavings vigorously between his palms to extract the liquid, then squeezed the plant material hard in one hand to get out the last drops. The result was a muddy brown liquid.
Victor offered the bowl of yoco to Luis, who had just got up. Luis drank it down. Then Victor prepared another bowl by working on the next few inches of the yoco stem. He gave this bowl, too, to Luis. Then he asked other members of Luis’s household if they wanted yoco. One of the children said yes, and Victor fixed a dose for him. Next, he prepared two bowls for himself. Finally he made one for me. After all this work, Victor’s hands were stained orange from the colored sap of the liana.
The yoco tasted bitter and astringent but not unpleasant. It left a refreshing sensation in the mouth. I drank a second jícara that Victor offered. Ten minutes later I felt butterflies in my stomach and experienced a laxative effect. Then I felt clearheaded, wakeful, energetic and decidedly unhungry. These sensations lasted for several hours.
The next afternoon was particularly hot and muggy and I became quite lethargic around 3 pm. It seemed to me that yoco was just what I needed. I asked Victor if he would make some. He looked embarrassed and shook his head. I kept asking him until finally he said to me, “No somos acostumbrado en eso.” We are not accustomed to that” or “That’s not the way we do things.” You only drink yoco just as the sun is coming up. Apparently you can have all you want then; I saw Victor and Luis each drain off four jícaras one morning. But once the sun is up and morning work begins, the yoco is put away until the next day.
The Inganos and their neighbors the Sionas and Kofanes get all their yoco from the wild. There is little or no cultivation of the liana. Since wild plants are scarce, Indians who like yoco often have to search large areas of the forest to find it and then have to fell large trees to bring the vines down. Victor told me he knew of some cultivated yoco, that it took eight to nine years to reach usable size. He also distinguished between two kinds of yoco: yoco colorado, the reddish kind we were drinking, and yoco blanco, with “more flesh,” a sweet taste and a milky sap that makes a cloudy white drink rather than a muddy brown one. But he said the two kinds have the same effect.
I asked Victor if yoco had any bad effects. He said he had seen a few persons become sick by drinking yoco all day in place of eating. Of course, he disapproved of this because it is not the right way to use the plant. Victor told me that he and his people try to carry yoco with them when they travel because it allays hunger and thirst, but they know it cannot replace food. He emphasized that yoco does not intoxicate; it simply takes away hunger and gives energy.
The agreeable sensation of energy that stimulant plants provide certainly accounts for their popularity. In my visits to the tropics of the Americas and Africa I have noted the tremendous acreage given over to stimulant crops, none of which, except for cacao, have any food value. Clearly human beings like to consume these natural drugs.
I have also observed that many users of stimulants misunderstand the source of the energy they feel and its relationship to the substance they take to feel it. Stimulants do not contain energy or bestow free gifts of energy upon us. They simply cause our nervous systems to release energy that has been stored in chemical form, usually as molecules of norepinephrine in the sympathetic nerves and central nervous system. Different stimulants effect this release by different mechanisms, but the principle is the same for all.
It may be useful and desirable to prod our nervous systems from time to time into giving up some of their chemically stored energy. But this self-modification of neurophysiology has one drawback: When the effect of the stimulant ends, we are left with a depletion of energy stores. We may experience this depletion as a letdown or feeling of physical and mental fatigue following the stimulation, and how we manage it determines our relationships with these drugs.
People who have free access to stimulants and who do not understand how they work can easily fall into the trap of taking them frequently in an attempt to iron out the troughs that follow the highs. The problem with this pattern of use is that it leads to dependence, to the need for increasing doses, and possibly to adverse effects on health. All of these problems can occur with excessive use of caffeine-containing plants.
In our own society, dependence on coffee is far from uncommon, although it is seldom discussed since most of us do not recognize coffee as a drug, let alone a strong drug that can lead to habituation and morbidity if not used wisely.
I meet many Americans who use coffee so frequently that they cannot function in the morning without it. To my mind this mental and motor incoordination qualifies as a withdrawal syndrome. Moreover, some of these people show signs and symptoms of irritation of various organ systems: hand tremors, chronic stomach complaints, urinary-bladder inflammation in females, and intestinal problems such as diarrhea or inability to move the bowels without coffee.
The Indians I saw using yoco in Colombia had no difficulty maintaining stable relationships with it over time and making it work for them.
In my studies of human interactions with drugs, I have seen again and again that people who grow or collect their own drug plants tend to be in better relationships with them than people who buy them. They tend to use them ritually and carefully, for example, perhaps because they have to work for them and regard them as special. Victor’s preparation of yoco was formal and very much a ritual, even though a purely secular one. That yoco must be prepared with some effort also encourages careful, moderate use. Refined stimulants, in the form of white powders that can easily be introduced into the body, lack this requirement for work and are much more liable to abuse.
I would like to see more interest in yoco. It is a curious plant, not at all well studied, surrounded by colorful custom. Yoco’s particular ability to suppress hunger might be helpful in supervised programs of weight reduction. The drink might be much less irritating to the gastrointestinal and urinary systems than coffee. Development of yoco as an economic crop in areas of Colombia otherwise unsuited to agriculture is a real possibility.
Traditional Indian life in this threatened region of the Amazon basin will not go on forever, and I fear that knowledge and use of yoco may vanish with it. Before then, I hope students of ethnobotany and ethnopharmacology will turn their attention to it and gather what information they can.