Updated on September 18th, 2023
While we can’t travel, sometimes you just need a fix of something different to break the monotony of lockdown! A few weeks ago, I went on a tour of Bolivia… from my living room. It was such a fantastic experience I wanted to share. If you fancy learning more about the fascinating culture of South America, feel like you have travelled when you can’t leave home & have a virtual fortune teller experience then read on!”
Me – at home in the UK and My tour – El Alto in Bolivia
We are now in our 3rd lockdown in the UK, travel outside our local area is currently against the law. Overseas travel is a way of life for me & I have now been at home for a year. I am climbing the walls! Therefore, when I received a message from my lovely tour guide in Bolivia telling me she had started doing virtual tours, my interest was piqued.
Her company, Intrepid have just launched Urban Adventures Online Experiences. Julia was offering a tour of her hometown & a visit to see an Amauta for a sacred Andean ceremony of live coca leaf reading. I will explain more about the role of the Amauta later, but she is basically a shaman or fortune teller & her gifts are much revered in Bolivia.
For me, it sounded like a fun & fascinating experience & a great opportunity to see Bolivia again. In addition, Julia’s livelihood has been severely impacted by COVID. Her last tour was in February 2020 & it looks unlikely that tourism in Bolivia will pick up within the next year. While we can’t travel it seemed a small way to support the industry I love & specifically Julia.
My first instinct was to sign myself up, but then I thought, wouldn’t it be great to do it with a few friends?
So last week, me & 3 friends went to Bolivia for the evening, while sitting in our living rooms & had a reading with a virtual fortune teller. I enjoyed the experience so much I decided to share in case you would like to take the opportunity to do it too!”
Although 95% of the Bolivian population are catholic, this sits side by side with a strong indigenous Andean culture. They believe in natural gods which date back to pre-Inca times. The most important figure is Pachamama, or Mother Earth & they make offerings to Pachamama to get her blessing with any big decision. In response, she sends abundant crops, luck & distributes wealth. Llama foetuses are regularly used & still buried under new constructions as an offering to Pachamama.
The Amauta – our virtual fortune teller
The blessings can only be sought by an Amauta (a shaman figure) who are held in great regard in Bolivia. When I visited in 2017, I discovered that when sick, the first port of call is to visit an Amauta for a natural remedy. Second comes the doctor & finally if all else fails, the hospital.
To become an Amauta is to be chosen by Pachamama, via a lightning strike. Another route is to be born a twin (this was the case for our virtual fortune teller, Gladys). If neither occurs & a person (male or female) feels in their heart that they want to help people, they go to consult the older Amauta’s in the mountains. The elders will inform them if it is their path. If they say no, then they need to look for another way to help people.
Coca Leaf Ceremony
The coca leaf is incredibly important for Bolivian culture & Mama Coca is one of the most important gods. Coca leaves have been used by the people of the Andes for over 5000 years. Amazingly, they were found in the tombs of the pharaohs in Egypt, indicating contact had been made by the two civilisations & sent as a gift.
Since ancient times, the coca leaves have been used as a messenger to communicate with the Gods, but only wise people are able to do this. Hence why you visit an Amauta for a reading.
The coca leaf is thought to have the power to guide, to heal and to channel Andean spirits. An Amauta is someone who interprets the leaves to reveal a person’s destiny.”
These coca leaf ceremonies are traditionally used by the Andean people to guide them in various aspects of their lives, including love, health, work and family. The Amauta invokes the spirit of the plant as well as the person who is having the reading, to uncover answers to their questions.
The other side of coca
The coca leaves are also used across the Andean region to chew. They are particularly useful to farmers & miners to stave off hunger & tiredness. I tried chewing coca leaves & experienced a numbing sensation in my cheek as it took effect. Coca in its less raw form is used extensively in tea & sweets as it is effective at combatting the effects of the altitude.
However, there is another side to the coca leaf, in the production of cocaine. Since 1971, the UN tried to ban the use of the leaf around the world. Within 10 years they had succeeded across most of South America & it is illegal to grow anywhere except Bolivia & Peru.
In these countries, Mama Coca is so entrenched in the culture & belief system that it was deemed impossible to banish. For example, the medicinal properties are used in tea to stave off stomach ache & 2 leaves applied to the temples is a great cure for a headache.”
So, now you have a bit of background, let’s move on to the tour…
El Alto Cable Car
We started the tour with Julia in her home city of El Alto, the world capital of the Aymará people. El Alto is only 8kms from La Paz & used to be one of the poorest cities in Bolivia. The city is growing very fast, at a rate of 10% per year & is currently home to 1.3 million people. El Alto sits at over 4000m, one of the highest cities in the world. We took the cable car 3 stops to start our journey.
The cable car ride was only 10 minutes, but it gave us an opportunity to see how & where the local people live. The buildings are full of both colour & character. You can use any design for your home in El Alto, hence we passed one which was decorated with an enormous ‘Ironman’ mask. Apparently elsewhere in the city, there is an obsession with ‘Transformers’!
El Alto Market
Every Thursday & Sunday, El Alto hosts one of the largest markets in the whole of South America. Prior to the pandemic, one day here could involve US$1.5 million changing hands. People come from across Bolivia & Peru to get their retail therapy & will happily spend 2 or 3 hours browsing the wares on offer. You can literally find anything, from a needle to a tractor & there is no order to where anything is located!
On our short walk the stalls included car tyres, mouse poison, food, rubber boots, car parts, sunhats, fruit, natural medicine, cell phones, fresh fish & a stall with scales to weigh yourself on. It was fascinating!”
The ladies in traditional dress in Bolivia are named cholitas. One thing I loved about my time in South America was how obvious they make it whether a person is single or married. For the cholitas, pleats in their skirts mean that they are taken. The angle of your hat is also a tell-tale sign. The bowler hats themselves were originally brought over from London in the 1870s. Traditionally in the UK, they were worn by men, but in Bolivia, they embraced the fashion for the ladies. The most sought after make is by Borsellino from Italy & some of the cholitas can spend as much as US$500 on acquiring one. However, sensibly on market day, they mostly leave them at home & wear a sunhat to avoid having such a prized possession stolen in the busy market.
Finally, we arrived at the area where the Amauta’s conduct their business. Before we went in for the reading itself, Julia showed us the numerous offerings which were being prepared to burn for Pachamama. The trays included sugar in the shapes of llamas & sacred animals, the ubiquitous coca leaves, incense, alcohol, herbs & paper goods. What is offered will depend on the luck which is required. She also gave us some insight into the other belief systems which dominate the Andean region.
Finally, we met Gladys, our Amauta & virtual fortune teller in her booth. Julia acted as our interpreter. We got the choice to have a reading as a group or individually & we chose the latter. All Gladys needed from us was our name, nationality & whether we were single or married.
We opted to have a general reading first & then asked a specific question each. This allowed the coca leaves to tell us what they felt was important & then for us to also shape our reading.
As I had arranged the tour, I was up first. Gladys threw the leaves on the table & sprinkled them with alcohol. She made a prayer in Aymará to ask permission from Mama Coca for the reading.
I won’t go into all the details of my coca leaf reading however she opened with a line about the fact that I had a partner but am no longer with them. Anyone who has read much of my blog will know about my journey as a result of losing my husband 6 years ago. When she said this, I took a sharp intake of breath. My friends on the tour have been by my side all the way.
When Gladys mentioned this, I think we all had a newfound respect & slightly different attitude about what we were going to get from the experience.”
As the readings progressed through us all, they turned out to be incredibly insightful. One of the girls asked whether her career would be successful in the field she has chosen. Gladys was very positive & the next day she received an offer for a job application she had made.
I am not a religious person, but I am open-minded & with a healthy scepticism, humour & fascination for these types of activities. However, I don’t think any of us would deny how much fun the whole experience was & that Gladys clearly does have a gift, even from the other side of the world!
Julia took some photos for us & passed on our immense thanks to Gladys for our virtual fortune teller session. As she left, there was a long queue waiting to employ Gladys & her gifts for themselves.
- The tour lasts for around an hour although ours was closer to 90 minutes. The readings would no doubt be longer & more in-depth if you take the tour alone. For all 4 of us, each reading was around 5 minutes.
- The best days for the tour are Thursday & Sunday as these are market days in El Alto.
- Tours can start at 9.30am, 11.30am or 2pm. However, this is Bolivian time, so check the time zone conversion carefully before you book.
- The tour can be in either English or Spanish.
- Bring your curiosity & an open mind. Develop questions around love, health, work & family before you start the tour.
- There is a maximum of 4 people per call via Zoom or Google Meet. Make sure you have a strong internet connection & ideally use a laptop instead of your phone. You can all dial in from different locations & devices.
- Use the opportunity of the cable car & market tour to learn about the culture of the country.
- There is no limit on your time with Gladys, but you may need to join a queue as her services are very popular!
- You will be sent a photo as a souvenir after the tour.
- Prices start from US$18.75, depending on the number of people involved.
I would recommend recording the session if you can. I had asked permission ahead of time & although I was unable to video it (due to my lack of technical expertise), I recorded the audio on my phone.”
I thoroughly enjoyed my virtual fortune teller visit & would recommend the experience to anyone. Grab a few friends, maybe a glass of wine, your laptop & keep your mind open. You never know what you might learn!
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