Altiplano Adventures


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Published: September 26th 2010
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A church on our way into the Altiplano, it was built in the 1500s and the original structure still stands.
This week I went on my first excursion with SIT. On Tuesday we drove up to Putre, a town in the altiplano (high plains) of the Andes. Putre is at 3,500 meters (11,400 ft) above sea level, meaning that there is little oxygen and a high risk of altitude sickness. On our climb up into the Andes, on narrow roads bordered by cliffs or desert gorges, we stopped several times to help our bodies acclimate to the changing environment and lack of oxygen. Our program directors provided us with coca leaves to chew or drink in tea. This reduces the fatigue, nausea and dizziness associated with altitude sickness. With the help of some coca tea, didn't have any problems with the altitude except for a fast heart rate and being out of breath, but this may have been due to the fact that our bus was negotiating hairpin turns bordered by cliffs with semis from Bolivia coming at us. The trip took about 4 hours, including stops for photos.


Our first day in Putre we had classes over the development and methods of the rural health system in this region, which integrates traditional Aymara medicine, based around the Yatiri, yerbas (herbs), Pachamama (Mother earth) and the anima (soul or spirit), and Western medicine. This program involves the medical staff, including Yatiris and Usuris, from Putre making monthly rounds to all of the pueblos in the altiplano and higher in the mountains. This integration is unique in Chile- Temuco is one of the only other areas where this type of integration occurs- and rare in the rest of the world. There are many problems with using only western-style medicine in the region because the nearest hospital is in Arica and 80% of the population of this region is of Aymara descent. The Aymara have been oppressed for many years, and there is evidence of this in their unwillingness to share a lot of information about their beliefs. The medical staff at Putre, meaning doctors, were not from the region and seemed to have a poor understanding of the Aymara culture. This system is obviously not perfect, but it provides access to healthcare for several thousand people who would otherwise be very isolated. On Wednesday we had a presentation by Don Severo, a Yatiri, over the use of yerbas and prayer in Aymara health and religion. He explained what the herbs
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The Yatiri predicts fortunes using coca leaves.
were used for, how to call back the Anima when a person has lost it, and predicted fortunes using coca leaves. We also met a Usuri, or midwife, who explained the use of herbs during pregnancy and child birth, and then demonstrated her methods for turning a child in the Breech position (photos in the album at the end) and how to remove an umbilical cord that has been wrapped around the child's neck.

On Wednesday we also visited to CESFAM clinic in Putre, which is the most developed medical center in the Parinacota region. It was clean but sparse, and there is a minimal medical staff. The pharmacy there is one of the only places in Parinacota where one can purchase medical supplies, including ibuprofen and band-aids because there are no other pharmacies. One of the most important aspects of this medical system is the monthly rounds made by all of the staff, including the Yatiris and Usuris. On Thursday we traveled to Bélen, a small but beautiful town that also has a rural health post. The town was beautiful, with flowers in bloom all over the central plaza and around the church. The clinic was not as nice, with small, dirty rooms and a lack of functioning bathrooms. The town is very small, and many people who have houses there live in other areas, such as Bolivia or Arica and go to visit. My host family actually has a house in Bélen, and one of my bisabuelas lived there. We visited the school, which has 7 pupils total in grades 1-5. They sang us songs in Spanish and Aymara. This is the first year of a government program to teach Aymara to grade school children in certain areas, mainly the northern regions like Arica and Parinacota and Tarapaca where there is a high population. Afterwards we were welcomed into the home of an Aymara women to enjoy a traditional food, Guatia (series of photos in album). The Guatia is a process of cooking meat, potatoes, and tamale-esque things underground. A pot of meat- in this case chicken and goat- is placed in a hole filled with heated stones, and then covered with more stones. Potatoes are placed on top of the stones to cook, and then everything is covered in cornhusks and a layer of alfalfa. Everything is covered with a layer of dirt and left for several hours afterwards. The result is a very tasty dish.


On Friday we left Hotel Kukuli in Putre for the last time. We took a two hour bus ride through Parque Nacional Lauca- the Pan-America highway to Bolivia runs straight through it- and up another several thousand feet to Lago Chungará. This is the highest lake in the world at over 15,000 feet. The lake is surrounded by several volcanos, and is frequented by Vicuñas, Alpacas, llamas, flamingos, and a variety of other birds. On the way through the parque we saw many vicuñas and alpacas on the side of the road, and a few spots of glacial ice in some higher areas of the mountains. The countryside can be bleak, especially above the tree line, but it is dotted with lumps of bright green moss called llareta. After the Lago we took a stop in Parinacota, a very tiny town in the shadow of the Parinacota Volcano, to see the famous adobe church and pick up some souvenirs. There is a table in Parinacota that is rumored to have walked around the town, and as a Chilean jóvene explained it to me, I think it predicted deaths.
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A cemetery that has been in use since the 1500s.
The people have chained it to the wall of the church and put a pole through the middle of it to prevent it from going anywhere else. Our final stop of the day was the Termas Jurasic, a small set of hot springs. It was nice to jump into the warm pools after being in the cold mountain air in a bikini, and in some pools we found some mud which we were told was very good for the skin and had healing properties. After splashing around for a while, it was time to head home via a four hour bus ride with the driver in low gear and leaning on the brakes to keep the bus from going over a cliff. The Pan-American highway is very dangerous, not only for the fact that it is bordered by cliffs and gorges, but also because of all the international trade and drunk driving. The drive in itself is an experience, and the scenery is always beautiful and surprising.





Additional photos below
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Village in a gorge in the Atacama desert.
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Breech baby 1

The usuri massages the stomach to discover the position of the child.
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Breech baby 2

The usuri rocks the mother from side to side to move the baby.
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Breech baby 3

The usuri shakes the mothers feet to move the baby.
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The final step in which the usuri uses the blanket to roll the mother and shift the baby into a safer birthing position.
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Farming in the Andes
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A room in the Posta Rural de Belen.
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6 of the 7 students from the Colegio in Bélen.


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