It is said that they are the last direct descendants of the Tiwanaku lords of whose language they still speak, the Pukina. They are also, and above all, the last knowledge holders of the powerful plants of the Altiplano.
In 1959, in his book the Naked Lunch, Burroughs wrote this about the Kallawayas: "By the way, there is in Bolivia a region of high-altitude where all psychosis are unknown. It is believed that the minds of these mountain people are just as sound as that of a new born child. I sure would like to go there myself..."
Chaupi Orkho: el. 6 040 m.a.s.l. (first ascent in 1961)
Palomani: el. 5 920 m.a.s.l.
Cololo: el. 5 916 m.a.s.l. (first ascent in 1957)
In its totality, the Kallawaya ethnic group doesn’t count more than 8000 to 10 000 soul. Charazani, the capital of the province, cradle of the Kallawaya culture, is a small village of 700 to 800 inhabitants. It is located at about 3500 meters above sea level, which we may as well call the valley, considering that the area is dominated by the Apolobamba Cordillera where reign, at an altitude exceeding 6000 meters, the sacred mountain of the kallawayas: Tata Akamani.
The traveling medicine men are at origin of the name of the Kallawaya population: Kallawaya, in Quechua, means “the one who carries plants on his back”.
Kallawaya doctors ("médicos Kallawaya"), are known as the naturopathic healers of Inca kings and as keepers of science knowledge, principally the pharmaceutical properties of vegetables, animals and minerals. Most Kallawaya healers understand how to use 300 herbs, while specialists are familiar with 600 herbs. Kallawaya women are often midwives, treat gynecological disorders, and pediatric patients Kallawaya healers travel through northwestern Bolivia and parts of Argentina, Chile, Ecuador, Panama, and Peru. Often they are on foot, walking ancient Inca trails, through the tropics, mountain valleys and highland plateaus, while looking for traditional herbs.
Kallawayas, like most Bolivians of indigenous descent, are deeply in tune with nature and their physical surroundings. They live according to the Andean cosmovisión, an all-encompassing view of humankind and its place in the universe based on veneration of the Pachamama, or Mother Earth. They believe that every mountain has its own resident deity that protects those who live around it from any possible misfortune and that human beings should respect and live in harmony with their environment.
The story of the exploration of the Apolobamba region started with Jesuit’s incursions during the Spanish colonization. Their objective was the quest for the “Paititi”, the Incas treasure supposedly buried somewhere in High Peru. Instead of the Paititi, the adventurers discovered gold loaded rivers.
It is interesting to see that the searches for gold as well as for the legendary Paititi are still going on today!
This area completely off-the-beaten-track will surely fulfill the most demanding trekker regarding encounters (miners, Indian healers, etc…) and Andean open spaces. This region located between 4000 and 5000 meters above sea level, is difficult to access and therefore very seldom visited. The way is bordered on the West side by eternal glaciers and on the East side by deep valleys leading directly to the Amazon.
The delight of the scenic beauty and the particular atmosphere of the kallawayas lands (frenetic gold rush, Indian medicine) will largely outweigh the trouble of your efforts. Bellow the hillsides on which we progress, the Amazon stretches as far as the eye can see. We only have to loose a little elevation and we enter in pour Madidi Park, starting here and finishing a lot lower, near Rurrenabaque.
The nomadic medicine man of Bolivia
Kallawayas in Bolivia still heal the sick with traditional herbs and rituals that date back to pre-Incan times. Their holistic approach involves a lengthy discussion with the patient concerning the illness and an examination of the physical surroundings. A kallawaya is received with respect and an awareness that his knowledge is based on long years of training and that he acts according to a strict code of religious and moral values. Faith and patience are vital for a kallawaya cure to be effective.
At some point in their life, some 80 percent-or over 6 million-of all Bolivians have called on a natural healer, and according to the National Institute of Statistics, 40 percent of Bolivians practice only traditional medicine.
Holistic practices, such as aromatherapy and herbal treatments, have been used for thousands of years in India and China for the relief of a variety of physical and emotional disorders. Yet only during the past three decades has Western medicine gradually and reluctantly begun to grant validity to certain principles of traditional holistic medicine and allow greater tolerance for forms of health care other than those officially sanctioned by modern science and technology.
Bolivia, because of its high altitude, rugged landscape, isolated pockets of human settlement, and pervasive ethnological remnants of ancient civilizations, has been called the Tibet of the Americas. This unique topography and rich cultural legacy have conspired to make the country a veritable human laboratory in which modern and ancient medical wisdom do not so much collide as peacefully coexist.
Some kallawayas find a home in the major cities, where an urban clientele composed of people calls on them. But most return to Bautista Saavedra. Today, about a hundred authentic kallawayas live here, a number that is dwindling as fewer sons of kallawayas learn their fathers’ skills.
Bautista Saavedra is one of the poorest areas in Bolivia-the second-poorest country in the Americas. Locals, including the kalla-wayas themselves, earn a meager living by growing potatoes, corn, wheat, and oca and raising sheep and llamas. The minimum monthly wage in Bolivia is US$ 45 per month, but farmers in Bautista Saavedra earn less than a quarter of that. Almost everything they grow and raise is for home consumption.
But the province is blessed with a rich variety of plant and herb species found on three ecological terrains: the tropics, mountain valleys, and highland plateaus. Plants are said to grow with greater aroma and purity in Bautista Saavedra’s pristine environment. And if a certain plant doesn’t grow there, it most likely grows in the subtropical Yungas, a six-to-eight-day walk to the east.
Living in this earthly Garden of Eden has allowed the kallawayas to amass an encyclopedic knowledge of wild plants and their therapeutic uses, and enticed them to travel to the four corners of the once-powerful Incan empire in search of many more.
High Prices, Poor Access
In remote areas throughout Bolivia, when a person becomes ill, he or she most likely will turn to traditional remedies. The reason is a practical one: traditional remedies are affordable, and the costs of modern health services often are not. For most subsistence farmers, paying a doctor’s fees or even purchasing aspirin is simply beyond their means. On the other hand, a typical kallawaya prescription may be the preparation of a tea infusion made from plants the farmer probably already has on hand. The most common compensation for a kallawaya’s treatment is the exchange of goods or other services.
But even more important than the cost issue is that of accessibility. In rural Bolivian villages, there often are no doctors, nurses or medical posts. Townspeople rarely have a choice-the only health interventions available are those offered by traditional healers.
"Public health services do not reach that far into the countryside," says Dr. Carlos Linger, who heads Bolivia’s office of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) in La Paz. "The presence of the kallawayas and their medicine provides people with a feasible alternative."
Alipio Barrera, a youthful kallawaya of 25, would agree. "Doctors really don’t go where we do. We set out several times a year, for one to four months at a time, trying to visit as many communities as we can. We almost never come across doctors in these places."
The kallawayas continue to travel on foot, just as they did centuries ago, despite modern means of transportation. "The roads are getting better now," says Suxo, "but when you’re out looking for people who might be sick, it is always better to go from place to place on foot."
The sight of a kallawaya medicine man, wearing a brightly colored hand-woven poncho of vicuña and his lluchu (knit cap), wending his way along the crooked path with his walking stick, is a common one in the Bolivian highlands. "They spot our clothes from far away and know that the kallawayas are coming," Barrera says.
By Debbie K. Becht
A Kallawaya Medical Primer
Some historical sources cite the kallawayas as the first to use the dried bark of the cinchona tree, the source of quinine, used for many years to prevent and control malaria and other tropical diseases. Similarly, the main alkaloid of the coca plant, cocaine, was one of the first effective topical anesthetics used by the kallawayas and later adopted by medical science. Among the other plants found in the Bautista Saavedra province and the illnesses they have been used to treat are:
- The kantuta, Bolivia’s national red, yellow, and green bell-shaped flower, which grows in the high valleys and Los Yungas. The leaves, fresh or dried, are boiled in water and then used as a poultice over an abscess or tumor. Also, after the fresh flowers are soaked in clear water for three or four hours, the liquid may be used to wash tired, inflamed eyes.
- The espino (Colletia spinosissima), a type of thistle bush that grows in the high valleys of the Charazani and Chajaya regions. The fresh stalks are ground with three other plants-copal from the tropical region of Caranavi, incienso (from the tropical burseaceae family of trees and shrubs, from which incense is derived), and wairuru from the Santa Cruz region-to make a plaster for immobilizing fractures and lesions. The boiled bark is used in the preparation of a sweat bath to alleviate rheumatic pain in the joints. When crushed and soaked in liquor, the bark is used as a tonic to help cope with anemia.
- The perlilla (Dalea weberbaueri), which grows in the high valleys of the Charazani and Cruzpata regions. The boiled leaves, fresh or dried, have been used against smallpox and measles. Finely crushed and mixed with pig grease without salt, they are used to burn warts.
- The dandelion, which grows in all humid areas of the high valleys. An infusion of the fresh leaves is used to cure heartburn. The fresh leaves, stems, and roots are used as a diuretic. The dry, scraped roots are applied to wounds to heal them.