In the Mountains of Bolivia, Encounters With Magic

With a face as creased as a walnut shell and a smile as gleeful as it was toothless, 98-year-old Augustina Lamagril welcomed us into the small shop inside her adobe home. Rickety wooden shelves were stocked with sardines, cigarettes, beer, soda, kitchen utensils, light bulbs and other household goods. Beneath posters of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus, two metal-framed beds were heaped with blankets. From the ceiling — rice sacks that had been stapled together — the corpses of hummingbirds dangled from strings, drying.

In addition to being one of the few storekeepers in the village of Chaunaca, Augustina is one of the most highly regarded curanderas, or traditional healers, in the Cordillera de los Frailes, a serrated sub-range of the Andes in south-central Bolivia. Despite her remote location, the ill and the injured make their way to her door, traveling for hours or even days to get there. The dead birds were part of her natural pharmacy.

My girlfriend, Kelly; our 9-year-old son, Luke; and I, along with our guide and translator, Rogelio Mamani, were invited to sit on low stools. As a black and white cat padded around our feet, Augustina explained the uses of the plants and animal parts that she kept around the house. Speaking in Quechua, she said aloe was good for throat problems; rosemary could heal bones; rue was prescribed “when the wind makes you sick.” She held out an enamel pot half-full with beige powder — a combination of black corn, barley, wild herbs, frog and owl parts and bat blood. “Three drops of bat blood,” she said, “can cure heart problems.”

None of us required treatment, so we left the shop with bottles of water, a wool hat knit by Augustina, and a sense that we’d been very lucky to have had this encounter with a master of the old ways.

Chaunaca is on a well-established trekking route through the Cordillera de los Frailes, a jumbled geologic mass that rises just west of Sucre, Bolivia’s official capital, best known for its whitewashed Spanish colonial neighborhoods and universities. Though the edge of the mountains can be reached from the city in about an hour, the villages within them feel worlds away.

The scenery would have been enough to draw me to the cordillera, with its upthrust layers of multicolored sedimentary rock set around a crater that’s encircled by rugged river canyons. But I was equally intrigued by the indigenous Jal’qa people who live there and who are known for intricate weavings that represent a fantastical underworld filled with spirits and mythical animals. In the same way that a place like Varanasi exudes a distinctly Hindu aura, and Cairo is palpably Islamic, I wondered how it would feel to be in a place where the culture is strongly associated with strange, subterranean dreamscapes.

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Exploring the Cordillera de los Frailes in Bolivia

CreditMichael Benanav for The New York Times

Though I’ve trekked alone in remote regions around the world, I decided to go into the cordillera with a guide. If I hoped to talk to local people, I would need help from someone fluent in Quechua, the area’s native language. Additionally, I had heard that some Jal’qa were extremely reluctant to be photographed (I met one French couple who had stones thrown at them when they aimed their cameras at people), and I figured I would have a better chance of shooting pictures without upsetting anyone if I was accompanied by a guide who had local connections. It also sounded as if walking the entire route with a backpack would be a daunting prospect for a 9-year-old, so I wanted vehicle support.

When I asked around about trekking companies in Sucre, travelers and locals alike pointed me in the same direction: Condor Trekkers. Their guides were reputed to be top-notch, and the company’s profits support projects in the cordillera communities. To me, this meant that not only would my money be helping the villagers, but that the guides were likely to have positive relationships with them.

I found the Condor Trekkers office inside the Condor Cafe, a restaurant run by the by the same nonprofit that is a magnet for travelers to Sucre, thanks to its cheap and delicious vegetarian food. There, I met the director, Alan Flores. After he described the standard two-, three- and four-day treks that Condor offers, we decided that none of them were right for us. With typical days involving eight or nine hours of strenuous hiking, Alan agreed that it would be no fun for my son. Additionally, I wanted to add an extra day to the four-day itinerary, so we could stay two nights in one place.

Alan said it would be no problem — just a bit more expensive — to be accompanied by a vehicle, reducing our hiking to about three or four hours a day and eliminating the need to carry our backpacks.

In early November, Rogelio met us at our hostel in Sucre, along with our driver, Luis Ibarra, known as Lucho, who was behind the wheel of a green Mitsubishi Montero. Rogelio was born in a village in the cordillera, and is Jal’qa himself. He was studying tourism, English and French in Sucre, and was Condor’s most experienced guide, having been with the company since it started in 2008.

Before we hit the trail, we stopped at a roadside stand to pick up bags of coca leaves. A mild natural stimulant that’s normally chewed or brewed as tea, and from which cocaine is derived, it’s considered to be a gift from the Inca sun god, Inti, and is the essential social currency of the region. “With coca, anything is possible,” Rogelio said.


Juliana Choque weaves a traditional Jalq’a axsu, or tapestry.

Michael Benanav for The New York Times

We turned off the highway and followed a dirt road into the mountains, through pungent groves of pine and eucalyptus, until we reached a place called Chataquila, where a church sits atop the eastern ridge of the cordillera, at 11,800 feet above sea level. It was there, in 1781, that Tomas Katari, the leader of an indigenous rebellion against Spanish rule, was executed, adding to the spiritual and emotional potency of an important place of pilgrimage.

Local people flock there in August to make offerings of coca leaves, incense and alcohol to Pachamama — mother earth, in Andean religions — in a shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary. “We believe that if you feed Pachamama, she will feed you,” Rogelio explained.

From there, we began hiking into the heart of the cordillera, down the so-called Inca Trail, which is believed to have been built about 550 years ago (though may be much older) and was used during pre-Hispanic times for communication and trade. Paved with smooth stones, it descends some 2,300 feet, switchbacking down rocky slopes speckled with cactuses and shrubby trees, into the Rio Ravelo canyon. Skies were sunny, and temperatures were in the upper 70s.

In two hours, we reached Chaunaca. A patchwork of fields — some blanketed with purple potato flowers, others sprouting young corn stalks, and many barren and brown, waiting to be planted — terraced the hills and spread out on a plateau that overlooked the river about 25 feet below. Most of the villagers were campesinos, working small family plots, perhaps keeping goats and sheep along with rabbits, guinea pigs and cows.

After lunch at a nearby waterfall and an exploration of the grounds of a magnificently derelict adobe hacienda once owned by the 26th president of Bolivia, Gregorio Pacheco, we checked on a new project that Condor Trekkers was funding. Three men were trying to hoist one end of a black polyethylene pipe from the riverbank up to the plateau. Their goal was to span the canyon with a drinking water line that would run from the main village to households across the gorge. “The families over there haul their water from the river, and sometimes it makes them sick,” said Benigno Romero, one of the workers, who also happened to be Chaunaca’s mayor.

Condor bought the materials and the village supplied volunteer labor; other crews would dig a trench to the village’s main well and lay the pipe to the homes that needed water. Mr. Romero explained that being mayor was also an unpaid position, and that he saw it as a privilege. Jal’qa people, he said, work together for the good of the whole, and would not expect payment for doing so. It was just part of life.

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