The Sacred Leaf – Thanking Pachamama

While in Coroico, Erik and Felix took a guided hike to see some of the agricultural lands the Yungas region is famous for, the most important of which is coca. As in other parts of Bolivia, agriculture in the Yungas is carried out on steeply sloping fields, but these ones really put the “eeeeeee” in ‘steep’. By Erik’s estimation some were as steep as 60%!


Not surprisingly, coca fields are terraced, not in broad swaths but in micro fashion, meaning that every row is a double-sided hill, each row being successively lower than the last, not so much like stairs but more like undulating waves (two feet down, one foot over, one foot up, two feet down, etc). Consequently, building a coca field properly is an enormous amount of work, as is harvesting it. Coca plants are woody shrubs, so their leaves must be individually plucked off, every three months, with 100% of the work being done by hand.


In the Yungas, most of the coca is used for chewing, since the leaves are much smaller and more tender than those of the coca plants grown in the Chapare (the region of Bolivia where a great deal of the coca grown finds its way into the nefarious cocaine supply chain).  Coca is typically grown on very small plots of land – in fact, there are government-imposed limits to the amount of land any one person can use for growing coca – but it can net a farmer around $8000 (USD) cash per hectare per year, spread over four harvests. That’s probably an order of magnitude more than you can get for any other crop in Bolivia (not counting quinoa).


As most Bolivians will tell you, there is a world of difference between coca and cocaine, even if the latter is made from the former. I won’t say much about the politics of coca – just like I’ve avoided blogging about Evo Morales – because I don’t know enough about either, except that the government, led as it is by the former president of the coca growers’ association, is very supportive of coca growing, emphasizing its legal uses and actively trying to invent more of them, while attempting to enforce the rules put in place to thwart illegal activity. This is very hard to do, and some people have told us that the amount of coca being grown (especially in the Chapare) far outweighs any quantity that could plausibly be used for household consumption in the country, even if every single family was using it for chewing, medicinal and religious purposes on a regular basis – the suggestion being that Evo is well aware, but turning a blind eye.


Suffice to say that coca has great economic, cultural and religious significance; it is both commonplace and revered. As a mild stimulant and appetite suppressant, it is favoured by miners, trufi (mini-bus) drivers, farmers and anyone else who puts in a long day with not much food, and may explain why so few Bolivians smoke cigarettes. It is prized as a medicine, particularly for “sorochi” (altitude sickness) – tour operators, hoteliers and doctors all encourage its use. And it is central to the Andean religious practice of making offerings to Pachamama.

Several weeks ago I started a post to explain this thanking of Pachamama that is so central to Bolivian culture, but I never finished it.  It now seems an appropriate way to wrap up this whole blog at the end of an unforgettable trip: with the theme of thanks-giving. But it’s not quite so simple. The act of making offerings to Pachamama is multi-faceted and more reciprocal than just giving thanks. It is also a way of petitioning Pachamama for her blessing, and for that reason there are many types of offerings that can be made. The simplest ch’alla involves just pouring a little bit of alcohol (the first sip or so) on the ground. You can do this even indoors – in a bar, say. Or you can just dip your finger in your drink and flick a few drops on the ground. I’ve seen people do this in the street with regular beers, so it’s more of a habit or spontaneous act than an organized or formal affair, though I’m sure the intention is sincere.

Another form of ceremonial offering is called a mesa (not to be confused with the ‘mesa’ that is also Spanish for Catholic mass), though to make matters really confusing, this is sometimes referred to as ch’alla as well. When you do a mesa/ch’alla, you collect all manner of materials that symbolize what you want and/or what you’re thankful to Pachamama for, and burn them. Alcohol is sprinkled on the ground as an offering to Pachamama, and many coca leaves are chewed. It is a social and colourful occasion. Noisy too, since many fireworks need to be set off to ward away evil.

Early in the trip, we were invited to participate in a ceremony to honour Pachamama at our Spanish-language school in Cochabamba. While we don’t claim a deep understanding of the mesa/ch’alla, we can share our observations of how this one was done. First, the offering itself needs to be assembled, usually on a sheet of white paper (newspaper will do in a pinch). On the bottom is a pile of some dried plant or herb (we saw sprigs of rosemary and also something looking a lot like sage) representing things that grow – the fruits of the earth for which we are grateful. Next are small shapes made of corn flour (maizena) and sugar, some in the shape of valued material possessions (whether that be books, cars, toys, clothes or candies) and others having words or pictures drawn upon them to represent abstractions like love, health, work, education, prosperity, or fertility. Pachamama 2

Added to this are a couple of 2” by 2” sheets of silver and gold leaf (probably not real, judging by the sticky backing), and a handful of brightly coloured streamers and/or confetti. Fresh flowers are placed all around the outside of the pile, along with dried coca leaves. Some ch’allas include a llama (either a real dried llama fetus or a facsimile made from corn flour and sugar). If you have a llama, it should be placed so that it faces the east, the direction of the sunrise. Then you sprinkle incense over the pile, leaving some to be added later while the ch’alla is burning down.Pachamama 5

At the ceremony we joined in, the school’s founder, Joaquin, verbally acknowledged the four directions as he lit the pile. Then he sprinkled some alcohol on it, a little on each direction. He offered us each a handful of coca leaves and invited us to come up to the offering one by one and set the coca upon it while it burned. Some people also made offerings of alcohol – a little spill here, a little spill there – and/ or spoke quiet words of thanks.  Then we all gathered together to drink juice and eat cheese buns. Pachamama 7Pachamama 12

The mesa (ch’alla) we were invited to was a special one that is performed every year on the same day as Shrove Tuesday, which is also during Carnaval. But Aymara and Quechua people have mesas or ch’allas at other times of year as well. Here, I am confused, because I’ve read or heard such different things: 1) that many people do this every Friday, or every second Friday; 2) that every day of the week except Tuesday and Friday are good for doing it; 3) that it is done on average once every three months; and 4) that it is done whenever there is an occasion calling for it, such as wanting to wish somebody well or ask for health or a good job or a good harvest or a blessing for a new car. Yes, a car. In Copacabana it is common, especially around festivals, for people to bring their cars to the cathedral – all dressed up in streamers – for the priest to bless them in what seems to be the perfect blend of indigenous traditions and Catholicism (also a substitute for car insurance?) We saw a few newly blessed vehicles when we were in Copacabana.


The day before we left La Paz, I went to the witches’ market and paid a woman to make up a mesa or ch’alla for me (minus the coca leaves, since I could be jailed for life if these were discovered in my bag by US authorities at our stopover in Washington…) I think it is most common for Bolivians to choose the individual ingredients themselves (there is a nearly endless array of possibilities) but for a small fee it is also possible to pay someone to custom-make you one, according to what it is you want to focus on (whether that is health, fertility, a good harvest etc). Ingredients are also chosen according to what the woman preparing it decides is appropriate for you (that’s the witchy part). So now we have one, which we successfully brought home through three countries (Columbia, the US and Canada), and we have to decide what to do with it.

Is anyone interested in coming over to our house for a ceremonial ch’alla??? (We figure anyone still reading this voluminous blog deserves a blessing and our deepest thanks for taking such an interest in our lives and adventures these past ten weeks.) Date TBA. It will be a bring-your-own-coca-substitute event (bay leaves, lime leaves or ficus leaves would all be suitable, I think). We’ll be giving thanks for all that we’ve seen and encountered and enjoyed, and asking Pachamama to bless Bolivia and all the wonderful people we met there. What an amazing experience it has been. Do let us know if you are interested.

And so we come to the end of our family’s adventure. After 40 hours of traveling which saw us miss most of two nights’ sleep, we are home, feeling both exhausted and ecstatic over little things that we used to take so much for granted: the warmth of the water coming out of the tap; the delightfully familiar sounds of CBC and Co-op Radio; the ability to make ourselves a soothing cup of tea; the diversity and safety of the foods that are available to us; and the ease with which we can do everything, including communicating with people. (And what’s this two-ply stuff? OMG it’s thick.) For the next day or two we are letting the pleasure principle rule (is there really a principle in that?) – savouring our oh-so-delicious real coffee, napping when we feel like it, and excitedly re-engaging with all the friends, activities and events that make Nelson such a rich place to live. This weekend there is the Deconstructing Dinner film festival, and tomorrow Quinn will be back singing with his choir, Corazon, as they perform five mini-concerts at Touchstones (Nelson’s museum & archives). The soccer season has already begun and it’s time to plant the peas and spinach (though we could probably still get in one last ski if we wanted to). Lots of work also lies ahead for both Erik and me, but it all feels like something we want to do right now, instead of something we have to do.

Felix said last night, “Before the trip I never thought about my bed being comfortable. But now I keep thinking that. There are so many things that make a bed comfortable. And my bed is all of them.” Then he paused. “I wonder how long I’ll go on feeling this way. I think forever.”

Pachamama 1


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