Terra Bolivia » Cordillera Apolobamba

Cordillera Apolobamba, on the territory of Kallawayas

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 as a consequence little 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.


It is said that they are the last direct descendants of the Tiwanaku lords whose language they still speak is the Pukina. They are also, and above all, the last knowledge holders of the powerful plants of the Altiplano. Principal summits: Chaupi Orkho: el. 6 040 m.a.s.l. (first ascent in 1961), Palomani: el. 5 920 m.a.s.l. and Cololo: el. 5 916 m.a.s.l. (first ascent in 1957).

The Kallawaya and the Eiffel Tower

Researchers of the 19th century do not recognize a Kallawaya language and question them about their knowledge in botanical pharmacopoeia in a dominant language of the highlands, the Aymara. The Kallawaya master it to communicate with more patients and expand their scope of activity.

In order to publish a list of medicinal plants of an industrial nature and to present it at the Universal Exhibition of 1889, during which the Eiffel Tower was built in Paris, the Bolivian scientists and officials ask the Kallawaya to describe in Aymara the properties of more than a hundred plants brought to France on the occasion of this great « festival of civilization ». The idea that the Kallawaya are Aymara is spreading at that time.

It will take a little more than half a century for Kallawaya to be accepted as a specific group with its own language and forms of expression. The Machaj Juyai-Kallawaya language will be heard by researchers in ceremonial or curative contexts, and it will be proven that it also serves, to a large extent, as a language of communication within the group.

By the middle of the 20th century, there was renewed interest in the Kallawaya language as an expression of their knowledge. For some, machaj juyai-kallawaya is a secret language of the Inca kings and their closest associates.

Other experts try in vain to establish parallels between the machaj juyai and the old puquina tongue or uru of the Andean highlands. Some people think of a possible relationship with languages ​​of the Amazon jungle, where the Kallawaya have circulated in search of plant, animal and mineral resources to prevent and cure diseases. The role of the latter as intermediaries between the Incas and the populations of the Amazon has been able to influence their language.

Chronicle of a death announced

Obviously, the language of the Kallawaya was influenced by Quechua, which was the instrument of their forced conversion to Catholicism. The Kallawaya elites were persecuted in the 17th century during the struggle of the Catholic Church known as the « extirpation of idolatries ».

Children were separated from adults, to be raised by Spaniards or Quechua Catholic priests. In the 19th century, Quechua again exerted an influence on the Kallawaya, when they emigrated massively to Peru, where they found a large clientele, and even became, at the beginning of the 20th century, the doctors appointed by President Augusto Bernardino Leguía .

On their own territory, the Kallawaya also suffered demographic pressure from nearby Quechua-speaking ayllus. This is why the juyai-kallawaya machaj has today integrated almost all the phonology and grammar of Quechua.

Closer to home, the vitality of the juyai-kallawaya machaj has been severely tested in two historic events. The first was the Chaco War (1932-1935) between Bolivia and Paraguay.

The Kallawaya were mobilized as auxiliaries to the doctors responsible for treating the enormous indigenous Bolivian contingent of Aimara and Quechua. Many Kallawaya lost their lives, which had serious consequences for their subsequent demographic development.

The second was the Revolution of 1952, led by the National Revolutionary Movement (MNR), which gave rise to structural social change: universal suffrage, nationalization of the largest mining companies, redistribution of the country’s lands. The traditional nomadism of the Kallawaya gave way to their settlement in cities, where they became herbalists or jewelers.

It is in this urban environment that the idea of ​​sending medical school studies to young Kallawaya, in order to avoid their indictment for the practice of indigenous medical arts, sanctioned by Bolivian law, arises. This created a space of struggle for the decriminalization of indigenous medicine in Bolivia.

The Kallawaya are professionalizing themselves in the framework of western academic knowledge to obtain the legal recognition of their identity, but this is done to the detriment of a fundamental cultural dimension: the language machaj juyai-kallawaya. Currently, a large majority of Kallawaya are trilingual (Castilian, Aymara and Quechua) and few of them speak their native language fluently.

In the 2001 census conducted by the Bolivian state, the existence of the Kallawaya ethnic group and its language was not recognized. The proclamation by UNESCO of the Kallawaya cosmovision as a masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity does not benefit from legal recognition either.


Currently, the Kallawaya are taking steps to recognize their legal existence and language by the Bolivian Parliament. The new Constitution (currently being drafted) could prove them right.

Text by Carmen Beatriz Loza, researcher at the Bolivian Institute of Kallawaya Traditional Medicine (El Alto, La Paz, Bolivia)