The Cordillera Apolobamba is home to Bolivia’s smallest and most mysterious ethnic group: the Kallawayas. Inhabiting half a dozen villages in the Upper Charazani Valley, the Kallawayas are a secretive caste of traditional herbal medicine practitioners, thought to number just a few hundred, who are famous throughout the Andes for their healing powers – even more so since UNESCO declared their “Andean cosmovision” (ie the totality of their belief system, encompassing every aspect of life) a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2003. The enormous ecological diversity of the Cordillera Apolobamba means the Kallawayas have a vast natural pharmacy of plants to draw on, while the region’s proximity to the tropical lowlands has also given them access to the vast medicinal resources of Amazonian shamanism. Individual Kallawayas may know the medical properties of over nine hundred different plant species, a knowledge that is passed from father to son. Some historical sources credit the Kallawayas with being the first to use the dried bark of the cinchona tree, the source of quinine, to prevent and cure malaria; taken to Europe by the Jesuits, quinine remains to this day the basis for most treatments of the disease. More recently, scientists have studied chemicals derived from herbs used by the Kallawayas as possible treatments for HIV.
For many centuries the Kallawayas have wandered through the Andes collecting herbs and bringing their specialist medical skills to local people. Individual healers roamed huge distances, often on foot, travelling to Peru, Chile, Argentina and as far as Panama during the construction of the canal, as well as the length and breadth of Bolivia. Most Kallawayas are also powerful ritual specialists, combining their skills as herbalists with the supposed ability to predict the future and diagnose illness by reading coca leaves. Although the main language spoken in their communities is Quechua, and many also speak some Aymara or Spanish, the Kallawaya medicine men famously speak a secret tongue known as Machaj Juyay, which is used only in healing rituals and other ceremonies. Some researchers believe Machaj Juyay is related to the secret language spoken in private by the Inca ruling elite. Certainly, the earliest post-conquest chroniclers linked the Kallawayas to the Incas. One wrote that the Kallawayas were brought to Cusco to act as herbalists and carry out important religious ceremonies and divination rituals for the Inca rulers; another claimed they had been charged with carrying the litter of the Inca himself. Other evidence suggests that the Kallawayas date back far into Andean prehistory: in 1970 archeologists uncovered a skeleton in the Charazani valley which had been buried with recognizable Kallawaya paraphernalia – this was carbon-dated to between 800 and 1000 BC, two thousand years before the rise of the Inca Empire.
These days the Kallawayas no longer wander as far and wide as they used to, and their numbers are thought to be dwindling, as fewer sons acquire their fathers’ knowledge. However, a growing number are now resident in La Paz, where their skills remain in high demand.