The Salar Series: A Morning of Mummies

Morning greeted us bright and cold as we made our way over to the dining area for breakfast.  Temperatures had dropped so low during the night, the plumbing froze and we had no running water.  We use our bottled water to make coffee and were served pasteles: large, thin, flat pieces of fried dough, a traditional Bolivian breakfast staple.  Typically sprinkled with powdered sugar, ours were served with jam.  Absolutely delicious.

After breakfast, we were ready for the main reason we stayed in this tiny town called Alcaya:  a guided hike through the ruins of an ancient village of Aymara people, who migrated into the area around Alcaya in 1,200 BC.  The site is known in particular for the tombs dug into the ground at the base of a massive boulder face, tombs in which you can see the bones and partially mummified remains of the site’s former inhabitants.

Our guide met us at the start of the climb, a nimble old man who had lived in Alcaya his entire life.

He knew every blade of grass, every shrub, every plant, and their medicinal properties.  As we climbed up the rocky trail toward a massive rock face rising out of the ground, he pointed out and named every plant we saw, explaining that “you brew this like a tea to calm the stomach,” “this cures headaches,” “take this for your heart,” and on and on.  There was a whole pharmacy in this valley, if you knew what to look for.

It was at the base of the rocks when we saw the first set of tombs.  Dug a few feet into the ground were holes filled with human skeletons.  A skull rested on a flat rock next to one of the first holes, like a sentry guarding the souls beyond.  According to legend, these are the graves of a people who migrated to this site many thousands of years ago.  They lived nocturnally, believing the sun was poison, and searched for dark places to build their communities of sun-tight stone huts.  They knew a large natural disaster was coming, an earthquake or a storm, and that they would all die, so they began to look for a place to die together.  Drawn to the shade of this giant rock face — its enormity would protect them from the sun as they waited to die — each family dug a hole, crawled inside, and perished together as the disaster struck.

Eery, indeed.  While our guide said it was ok to take pictures of the mummies, it just didn’t feel right to me.  A strange presence hung over the place (understandably, whether or not the legend is true), especially when we continued further to a wider spot in the path where you could see nearly 20 different holes dug in the ground, each one the grave of a family.

As we continued the climb, passing the semi-intact walls of homes and storage areas of this ancient village, our guide told us more about the surrounding area.  It has been a sacred site for the current town of Alcaya as long as he remembers: he recalls participating in a certain ceremony near the top when he was very young.  He could tell us the ages of the cacti we encountered along the way, saying the ones that are now soaring above our heads were barely to his waist when he was a teenager.  As we reached the top, he pointed out into the surrounding valley at the white peaks way of in the distance: “That’s Chile” (well, ok, he said it in Spanish…).

On our way back down, we saw more tombs, this time with a lot more mummies rather than skeletons.  Some still had much of their clothing, fingernails and teeth, while one had a patch of hair sticking straight out of the skull.  These tombs also displayed pottery and musical instruments, along with patches of well-preserved cloth.

And on that morbid note, we made it back to the base of the hill and continued our journey into El Salar de Uyuni.

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