The Aymara people are the second-largest indigenous linguistic group of South America (after the Quechua). The culture flourished around Lake Titicaca and spread throughout the high-plain region, known as the altiplano, of what is now Bolivia, Peru and Chile. Today there are around three million Aymara scattered through these three countries, with the Chilean Aymara forming the smallest group, totalling some forty thousand people. Following the big migrations from the highlands to the coast that took place in the 1960s, most of the Aymara people of Chile now live and work in the coastal cities of Arica and Iquique. At least thirteen thousand Aymara, however, remain in the altiplano of northern Chile, where their lifestyle is still firmly rooted in the traditions of the past thousand years. The main economic activities are llama and sheep herding and the cultivation of crops such as potatoes and barley.
Traditionally, the Aymara live in small communities, called ayllu, based on extended family kinship. Their houses are made of stone and mud with rough thatched roofs, and most villages have a square and a small whitewashed church with a separate bell tower – often dating from the seventeenth century when Spanish missionaries evangelized the region.
Nowadays many of the smaller villages, such as Isluga, are left abandoned for most of the year, the houses securely locked up while their owners make their living down in the city or in the larger cordillera towns like Putre. Known as “ceremonial villages” they’re shaken from their slumber and burst into life when people return for important religious festivals or funerals. Andean fiestas are based on a fascinating blend of Catholic and indigenous rites. At the centre of Aymara culture is respect for the life-giving Mother Earth, known as pachamama, and traditional ceremonies – involving singing and dancing – are still carried out in some communities at sowing and harvest time.
The Aymara also believe that the tallest mountains looming over their villages contain spirits, or mallku, that guard over them, protecting their animals and crops. Once a year, on May 3 – Cruz de Mayo – the most traditional communities climb up the sacred mountains, where a village elder speaks to the mallku, which appears in the form of a condor. Today’s young Aymara go to local state schools and speak Spanish as their main language, and while traditional lifestyles continue in the altiplano, it’s with increasingly closer links with mainstream Chilean life.