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A full moon was rising over Mount Illimani as I stepped into an alley in the Bolivian capital. I was a few paces behind Juan Mamani, a mountain magician, and we were looking for a deserted corner where he could perform a psychic diagnosis through the casting and reading of coca leaves. He needed a quiet spot with no breeze and few curious onlookers.

Finally, in the dim shelter of an adobe wall, he unfolded his stool and lay his botiquin, or medicine pack, across his knees. Emptying a small plastic bag of pale-green coca leaves, he packed several in his cheek and began to chew. Then, he placed one flat leaf on top of a weathered coin, made the sign of the cross, held his hands to his abdomen, breathed deeply and exhaled lightly onto the leaves. Lifting his hands high, he let the leaves scatter. My reading had begun.

Psychic divination by coca leaves is just one of the diagnostic tools used by the Kallawaya, or mountain magicians. Known as the Gypsies of South America, they have a long history as doctors to the Incan kings, and even today are consulted by up to 80 per cent of all Bolivians. Based in the Apollobamba range of the Andes, they travel through northwestern Bolivia and into parts of Peru, Argentina, Chile, Ecuador and Panama. They use ancient Inca trails, often travelling by foot through the ecosystems of the tropics, mountain valleys and highland plateaus seeking traditional herbs and treating patients from remote regions. While many continue to reside in the country, others now travel for only part of the year and then settle in the city, close to their urban clientele.

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I had been troubled by vivid dreams about my family since arriving in Bolivia a few weeks earlier. Although nightmares are a common side effect of La Paz's 3,400-metre altitude, I had heeded the advice of Bolivian friends and, pushing my skepticism aside, was scouting the Mercado de las Brujas, or Witches' Market, hoping to encounter a Kallawaya.

These diviners of the future carry no obvious signs of their trade and don't solicit business, making them tough for the uninitiated to find. But the dozens of mountain magicians who live near the steep cobblestone streets above Plaza San Francisco in central La Paz are the most respected in the country, so I kept looking.

On the third day, I met Mamani, a third-generation Kallawaya from the Andean town of Charazani. Many of the Kallawaya speak only their indigenous language, Kechwa, so I was fortunate that Mamani spoke Spanish. Yet, with his soft, gravely voice, it was difficult to make out his words. I had my choice of questions, relating to work, health or family. Given my dreams, I chose family. Adjusting his faded black fedora and suit jacket, he took out his reading glasses and began.

One leaf caught on a slight breeze and fell to the ground.

"A bad omen?" I asked.

"No significance," he said. "The coca leaf goes where it wants to."

He ripped a pattern into one leaf that represented my father.

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"See the road that your father makes," he said, pointing to the leaf that was facing in one direction. "He is healthy. But he is disconnected from Mother Earth and lives in fear." That made some sense to me as my father is known for his morbid stories.

Another smaller leaf represented my mother. Her leaf had caught on a slight breeze and landed upside down, somewhat ominously. "That means sorrow," he explained. That struck home as our family is scattered in cities across Canada, which is a source of worry for my mother.

Mamani continued: "They are surrounded by negative energy," he said, pointing to a circle of leaves. "They must reconnect with Mother Earth."

Kallawaya believe that physical illnesses originate from the soul and are caused by the ajaya, or life force, leaving the body. The healer's job is to coax it back into the body and restore equilibrium with the spirit, as well as the environment. By invoking the power of the earth, they redirect energy through ceremony.

Mamani confirmed that an offering of herbs, money and talismans to Pachamama, the Earth Mother, was needed. With thanks and armed with his instructions, I headed uphill to the booths of the Witches' Market.

They were doing brisk sales in spells on Calle Linares, where the witches' stalls are located. Chepa, a healer in a bowler hat, took charge of filling my order, much like a pharmacist would with a prescription. She told me that despite popular faith in the Kallawaya holistic methods, the continuation of the practice is at risk, owing to declining interest among the next generation of healers.

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Conventional medicine, however, has begun to acknowledge the value of their treatments. The Kallawaya healers, for example, were the first to discover the use of the cinchona tree, the source of quinine, to control malaria, Chepa said. And recent studies report signs of medicinal potency in several Kallawaya medicinal herbs in the treatment of HIV.

Fortunately, as I later learned, several international agencies, such as the Pan American Health Organization and Canadian Executive Service Organization, are working on initiatives to strengthen and preserve the indigenous community and their practices.

While preparing my potion, Chepa asked where I would be performing my offering. I had to confess that I didn't have the slightest idea. She explained that sacred sites, called achachilas, play a very important role in maintaining the equilibrium between humans and Pachamama. The achachilas are hills, lakes and rocks that the Kallawaya believe have a certain power, and have names, personalities and special qualities.

As Chepa gathered a yellow candle, some copal incense, several limestone effigies, some madera del santo wood, some coloured alpaca string and several suspicious looking scoops of herbs, I began to doubt the prudence of transporting the growing bundle back to Canada.

"You must burn it in a metal container," Chepa explained. "Burn it until it turns to ashes and then bury it deep in the earth."

Reaching into her stall for a dried llama fetus hanging in a grotesque state of rigour mortis, she paused to see if I wanted to spend the extra money. Based on my grimace, she instead chopped a large hunk of llama fat from a block that looked like Crisco, placed it on the pile, and sprinkled the mixture with gold and silver confetti.

"When it burns, it will release its power," she assured me. The sizable packet was then wrapped in newspaper and sealed in a plastic bag. The total bill was six bolivianos -- or about $1.

Back home in Canada, my bad dreams far behind me, I have yet to open the package of ceremonial offerings. But, based on the odour emanating through the plastic wrap, I suspect that I better do it soon. On second thought, my parents will be arriving for a visit next week.

Just wait till they see what I brought them.

Pack your bags

WITCHES' MARKET

Kallawaya healers and coca-leaf readers are located among the sidewalk vendors of Avenida Sagarnaga, a cobblestone street next to San Francisco Church in the centre of La Paz. The cost of readings vary, but they start at about $13. Farther up the hill, at the intersection of Calle Linares and Avenida Sagarnaga, are the shops and stalls of the Mercado de las Brujas, or Witches' Market. In addition to selling made-to-order saumereo (offerings of llama fat, flowers, coca leaves and other symbolic items), they provide herbal remedies and spell-casting services.

TOURS

Crillon Tours: 591 (2) 233 7533; http://www.titicaca.com; titicaca@entelnet.bo. This company's one-day city tour includes a stop at the Witches' Market, while longer packages include a visit to the village of Huatajata on Lake Titicaca, one hour from La Paz. Optional activities include "Mystic Night of the Kallawaya," an introduction to the culture's traditions and natural medicines, and a visit with Tata Lorenzo, a Kallawaya healer.

G.A.P Adventures: 1-800-465-5600; http://www.gapadventures.com. The 14-night Inca Empire tour offers the highlights of Bolivia and Peru, and is priced at $1,425 a person from Lima or La Paz.

Exotic Destinations: http://www.exotic.to; 1-877-698-6588 or 416-214-2235. A 14-night Peru-Bolivia tour, departing May 5, 2005, includes one night at the Inca Utama Hotel & Spa in Huatajata on Lake Titicaca. It is priced at $4,208 a person from Lima.

MORE INFORMATION

Embassy of Bolivia: (613) 236-5730; offers brochures, information.

Note: Health Canada and the Canada Border Services Agency considers products made from coca leaves (such as tea, massage cream or loose leaves) prohibited goods for transportation into Canada. For more information, call Health Canada at (613) 957-2983.

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