The Mystical Realm of Bolivia's Kallawaya Healers
by Lorry Heverly
I've never called a psychic hotline, don't listen to New Age music, and I'm not particularly fascinated by the unknown side of life. However, I was intrigued by the mystical places and the ancient wisdom of the Bolivian culture.
Which is how I found myself airborne on approach to La Paz, the highest runway on earth. The plane tipped its wing in a reverent salute to the majestic, snow-capped pinnacles crowning the Bolivian city. It is this sacred Andean mountain range that the Kallawaya--Bolivian healers and masters of natural medicine--worship as the gods themselves.
Hailing from the northern regions of Lake Titicaca, these medicine men have for centuries lived in harmony with nature and drawn on the secrets of Mother Earth (Pachamama) to balance lives, promote inner peace and maintain good health. The Kallawaya are said to receive their healing powers from the soul of a snow-capped peak in the Andes. Traveling with Crillon Tours, I would have the rare opportunity to participate in a Kallawaya sacred ritual and learn more about these ancient natural healers.
The respected Kallawaya, Tata Lorenzo, lives in the village of Huatajata, an hour outside of La Paz. Inviting me to join him for a sunset ceremony, he prepared for his daily trip to the top of the mountain, where he would pray for balance and harmony on earth while showing his respect for Pachamama.
As we ventured by van up the mountain, Tata directed the driver up the treacherous slope, mystically drawn to a special place on the mountain. Suddenly, the 80-something healer leapt from the van and proclaimed the spot satisfactory to begin his ritual.
With determination, Tata then built a fire--despite the brisk, chilling wind whipping across the mountaintop. Tata called to each of the surrounding mountain peaks by their sacred names as I knelt by the fire.
In the ancient language of Aymaran, he blessed an assortment of amulets and herbs, dousing the sacraments with alcohol. Reverently, he placed the bundle on the blazing fire, invoking his prayers to the howling wind. He pointed at me, handing me a cup of clear liquid, and motioned for me to toss it onto the fire.
Suddenly, it seemed that the winds died down, and the sun peeked out from behind a cloud. I felt a calmness pass over the mountain and reflected on this wise man dressed in a flowing woolen poncho and chullo, a knit cap with flaps covering his ears. He prayed in a strange tongue for simple rains, a good harvest, respect of all mankind and the return of balance on earth.
Afterwards, Tata hugged me, the driver and my translator, thanking us for joining him and paying our respects to Pachamama. I felt very honored... in fact, I was moved by this thoughtful gesture, yet saddened, thinking that someday the mountain will miss his daily visits.
When Tata dies, all his knowledge of healing and harmony will be taken with him to the grave. The secrets of the Kallawaya healers are handed down from father to son through the generations, my translator explained. But Tata Lorenzo's grandson believes that the world has drastically changed and there is no place in the future for the Kallawayas. He will not continue the traditions.
Historically, the Kallawaya were the first to use penicillin, streptomycin and quinine, and recognized over 200 plants and natural products to aid in healing. Fortunately for visitors to Bolivia today, many educational artifacts of the Kallawaya are displayed at The Mystical World of the Kallawayas museum at the Inca Utama Hotel in Huatajata.
Here, guests pass through a maze of tunnels filled with exhibits of herbs, remedies and ancient healing methods of the medicine men. For example, the mysterious coca leaf (used for thousands of years) settles the stomach, helps in altitude adjustment and is used for skin treatments. To heal a deep cut, a lizard is applied like a plaster on the wound.
A most unusual diagnostic instrument is a guinea pig or rabbit, which is passed over the afflicted person's body. The animal is cut open and is believed to manifest symptoms of whatever is wrong with the ill person so the healer can make a diagnosis.
"What if nothing is wrong with the person?" asked a concerned guest. Our guide explained that the animal would communicate this to the healer and would not be harmed.
At the end of the maze, Tata Lorenzo reads coca leaves for guests in a candle-lit cave. The Kallawaya believe that in order to heal the body, they must first heal the mind and soul, using sacred coca leaves. While Tata does not exactly tell fortunes, he provides direction for those seeking advice or knowledge.
The coca leaves are thrown on a colorful cloth and the patterns are read to answer the guest's question. Several visitors inquired about their health, loved ones, the direction of their lives, and of those who had passed away. It was obvious that nearly all of those who asked questions were surprisingly affected by Tata Lorenzo's advice.
Guarded by a distant circle of snow-capped mountains in the center of the high plateau, Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world. Many consider the lake to be the central vortex of cosmic and positive energy.
On Sun Island in the lake, I llama-trekked along an ancient Inca trail at 13,000 feet above sea level. The trail connects the ruins of two ceremonial sites with a sacred spring believed to grant eternal youth and happiness to those who drink its water.
Also in the area, the pre-Incan ruins of Tiahuanacu encompass a mysterious monolith, temples and pyramids dating from 1580 B.C. This city is considered to be the most highly-developed and largest of its time.
In the middle of its Kalasasaya temple, a large flat stone is reputed to have the power to release negative energy. Along with several visitors, I lay down on the stone. Though we had a few laughs, we all agreed that we felt better afterwards.
When I passed through a row of stone columns on top of the Akapana pyramid, the hairs on my arms literally stood up. I was told that sensitive people absorb positive energy here, while people with unpleasant vibes develop splitting headaches.
Since the days of pre-Inca civilization, those who live at the mercy of the mountains pay respect to Pachamama... even today. At the witch's market in La Paz, I saw ordinary local people purchasing llama fetuses to safeguard their homes or selecting hand-carved amulets for luck, love or good travels.
Religions sometimes fuse here, too. I took a journey through the spectacular Yungas Valley, where the climate dramatically changes from snow-capped glaciers to a tropical jungle valley. Before we headed over the mountain pass, my driver stopped on the roadside. Under a large statue of Christ, he made an offering to Pachamama, spilling alcohol and emptying a bag of coca leaves on the ground. He then stood in front of the Christ statue, made the sign of the cross and said a prayer.
Today, many scoff at ancient ways and the power of the mountain gods. But it is easy to believe that the people who dwell in the shadows of these soaring peaks, the Kallawaya, possess a better understanding of forces greater than themselves.
Crillon Tours offers itineraries in many regions of Bolivia. Programs include comfortable vans, hydrofoils on Lake Titicaca, knowledgeable bilingual guides, and superior hotels. Phone: (888)TITICACA. Website: http://www.titicaca.com. Lloyd Areo Boliviano has daily direct flights from Miami to Santa Cruz, with convenient connections to La Paz.
For information about additional programs and tour operators, see the Geographical Index under "Bolivia."