The Veneration of Pachamama in Bolivia


I can’t recall how many times I heard Pachamama mentioned in my travels through Peru and Bolivia. I read a little about her before the trip, but afterward it was obvious that she is without doubt the most important deity in the Andean pantheon of gods. The veneration of Pachamama is hugely important in the daily lives of Bolivians (and Peruvians), even if the vast majority profess to be Catholic. The church has never been successful in eliminating indigenous beliefs and practices, in Bolivia or anywhere else in Latin America. It’s generally recognized that the people observe a symbiotic religious life, one that involves an interesting, contradictory coexistence between two religious systems.

Pachamama, which literally translates to Mother Earth but has a deeper meaning (including a cosmological one), is important to all Andean indigenous peoples, from Ecuador to Argentina. Better thought of as a feminine energy, she is the goddess of fertility, agriculture, harvest, protection, nurturing, mountains—and earthquakes. The last realm highlights an important relationship with humankind, one of give and take, for it’s believed that if too much is taken from the earth and she is thus displeased, Pachamama will move and shake the foundations of the world.

President Evo Morales thanked Pachamama for his first election victory. He is a typical Bolivian indigeno, a Catholic and follower of ancient, pre-Hispanic beliefs. The word for it is syncretism. It isn’t unusual for Bolivians to go to mass on a Sunday and perform ancient blessing rituals hours later.

I only got glimpses of Pachamama veneration through our guide Gery over a two-day period. But it was enough to add a fascinating element to my travels, one I didn’t expect to think about as much as I did after my return to the States.

Ch’alla and the Coca Leaf

At a bustling, open-air market enroute to Tiwanaku, Gery bought a small plastic bottle of cane sugar moonshine.

“You wanna a little taste?” he asked.
“Is it OK to drink this stuff?”
“Sure.”

By ‘taste,’ I figured maybe a couple teaspoons, which I gulped without much hesitation. Big mistake. He probably meant an teentsy taste, as in a-few-drops-on-the-tip-of-your-tongue-sized taste. I heaved and hacked. It felt like fire was cauterizing my throat. W-O-O-O! was all that came out of my flame-throwing mouth, unable to say intelligible words. At 192 proof, it was little wonder it felt like someone poured sulfuric acid down my esophagus, which probably might’ve been smoother. Gery and the nearby vendors, including ladies in bowler hats, chuckled, probably because I was another in a long line of clueless tourists. Or, just as likely, another who fell for it.

Gery also bought a bagful of coca leaves. Back in the car, he demonstrated the proper way to ‘chew’ them. Take a big pinch between thumb and two fingers—and this is almost a fistful—and shove the wad in one cheek. Slowly work the leaves between your teeth, but don’t chew. Let the saliva moisten the leaves. I must’ve looked like I had massive novocaine injections. Next, he gave me a little black square of a chewy, chalky substance. “Make sure to get the leaves around it and don’t have it touch your mouth.” I’m supposed to perform some amazing oral gymnastics, I thought. He told me that it was a mixture of quinoa ash, stevia and bicarbonate of soda (baking soda), which more quickly releases coca’s active alkaloid compound. “Remember, don’t chew the leaves.” After a few minutes, I felt a numbing sensation. That’s when I was supposed to switch the leaves to the other cheek. You keep this up for as long as the leaves haven’t disintegrated.

The stories above do have a point. In Bolivia, offerings are made to Pachamama for blessings, good luck or good harvests. One of the ways is to offer her coca leaves and sprinkle a bit of alcohol (“spirits”) on them. Gery picked a dirt parking area, chosen for being the highest in altitude along the highway, to perform this abbreviated ch’alla ritual. Many ch’allas do involve chewing leaves. There were burn marks on the ground where other ceremonies to Pachamama were performed (see below). It is also common for Bolivians to sprinkle a few drops of beer or chicha on the ground before their first sips as a way to give thanks.

Feeding Pachamama with coca leaves and alcohol

Offering Pachamama coca leaves and spirits

From where we were standing, we got a magnificent panoramic view of the Andes, an unbroken chain for as far as the eye can see north to south. Pachamama’s realm. It’s incredible to realize that on the other side of the mountains lies the vast Amazon rain forest that continues eastward all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.

andes-pan

The Andes. On the other side is the Amazon rain forest. (Click to enlarge)

Witches’ Market

Pachamama not only receives coca leaves but something surprising, even startling to tourists. Desiccated llama fetuses. Buried under homes or new construction, they are an offering to the goddess for luck and protection, or buried in crop fields, for a good harvest. But, where to get the fetuses?

Gery took us to the Witches’ Market (Mercado de las Brujas), which happened to be only blocks from our hotel in La Paz and (ironically) Iglesia de San Francisco. It isn’t a market so much as a few stalls on cobblestone streets, Calles Linares and Jimenez. They sell not only the fetuses but powders, charms, religious objects, soapstone statues, amulets. If you wish ill on someone or a business, you can find stuff for that, too. Mostly, a ritual involves placing objects on a sheet of white paper that will make Pachamama happy and small plastic replicas or symbols of things you desire. Then, you burn the whole thing to the goddess. If you like, you can have the proprietor, a bon fide yatiri (community healer), assemble a bundle for you, depending on what you want.

Dessicated llama fetus

Desiccated llama fetus

Stall at Witches' Market

Stall at Witches’ Market

The offering of food—fruits, herbs, nuts, animal fat, llama fetuses, coca leaves, and more—is done to feed Pachamama in return for the bounty she will give or favors requested. In that sense, the ceremony is a reciprocal gesture that dictates the relationship humans must have with the earth. I left Bolivia with a better understanding of the reverence the Aymaras and Quechuas (and other indigenous peoples) have for the Earth Mother. Our tour guides all talked of her with esteem and appreciation, in both Bolivia and Peru. Pachamama.

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Getting High in Peru and Bolivia


One big caution for travel in Peru and Bolivia is altitude sickness. Symptoms include dizziness, headache, nausea, shortness of breath, fatigue. In more serious cases, weakness, confusion and other extreme symptoms can happen and need to be treated medically. I worried over being impaired in both countries because of hypobaropathy more than mosquito bites or untreated water. I didn’t want to take medication, such as acetazolamide. So, I was left with oxygen therapy or, as the locals do, chewing coca leaves.

These are the very leaves from which cocaine is made. Do you need to get high to get high? No. The active alkaloid concentration is too small. The leaves of the coca plant have been chewed for millenia by Andeans as a remedy for many ailments, including altitude sickness, but consumed casually as a way to boost energy and mood, much like caffeine.

The first I saw the leaves were at Cusco Airport on debarkation. There were no instructions, simply a small basket filled with them. I took a few leaves and started chewing, since Cusco sits at 11,000 ft (3,400 m). Every hotel I stayed at had the dried leaves available, along with tea bags to make infusions. The general advice was to chew the leaves or make the tea up until mid-afternoon, after which coca may make it difficult to fall asleep.

coca-leaves

My only symptom at high Peruvian towns was breathlessness, which I could easily overcome by hyperventilating. Almost always, bending down to tie my shoes was a bit laborious. It wasn’t until I got to 12,000 ft or more that I started getting headaches, which acetomenophen (paracetamol) cured.

I chewed and drank every day at breakfast. Did the coca leaves help? I can’t say for sure. Maybe they forestalled worse symptoms. I’m just glad that my body didn’t rebel against the altitudes and make me get low.