Nuevo Año 5519

Hola and Felice Ano Nuevo!


Hello and Happy New Year from Bolivia!


Tuesday, June 21, we and many thousands of Aymara celebrated the Winter Solstice here, which also marks the start of a New Year for the Aymara – it’s the year 5,519.


June 21 is always a big, important, well-celebrated holiday here, and has been for more than 1,800 years. This year, festivities were close to home for us. If you read the last blog on Neighborhood Clean-up Day, you know that we joined more than 100 of our nearby neighbors to tidy up and patch the streets and the historic site just above our house known as Intinkala. The impetus for all that work was the Solstice celebrations, half of which were held in Intinkala.


Starting early Monday, June 20, and continuing through to Tuesday evening, native bands and dancers performed traditional Aymara songs and dances in Intinkala. Of course, food and beverages were plentiful. Oddly, during the advance set-up efforts on Sunday, someone popped in a 1980s American pop CD, so we spent a few hours pouring concrete and building the dance stage to The Stones, The Bee Gees, and Men At Work – Land Down Under, and, I am not making this up, YMCA!


Aymara people come, often on foot, from great distances to observe the Winter Solstice ritual celebrations in Copacabana, where we live. For nearly two millennia, before dawn on the Solstice, the Aymara have climbed to the top of a mountain directly south of Copa, called Inca del Horca. Despite the name, the site predates the Inca by more than 1000 years. It is the site of one of the last stands against the invading Inca. But before the Inca, the site was an important Aymaran astrological observatory; many stones are carved so that on specific dates, they align with particular stars and planets.


Just after dawn on the Solstice, at the top of the mountain the rising sun briefly shines directly between a pair of enormous boulders, illuminating a stone altar that rises another 40 feet above the mountaintop. At least that’s the hope. A blast of sunlight on the altar bodes well for the coming growing season. No sun ray foretells a bad crop year. This year, a rare bank of clouds rose up just before the sun climbed to the “sweet spot,” blocking the portent rays.


In the dark but moonlit hours before the momentous sunrise, hundreds of people climbed the ancient, carved stone steps leading most, but not all, of the way up the 14,000-foot mountain. We marveled that even very elderly people with canes climbed steps, some of which were 25 inches  high. Young mothers climbed with babies tied to their backs. Vendors carried whole cases of beer, huge crates of food, and coolers full of gelatin sweets. More portable goods for sale included bags of coca leaves, which locals chew for stamina, and small ceramic houses, which people buy to represent the real thing when seeking blessings for safety and good fortune in the coming year.


As the sky gradually paled and brightened, Aymaran medicine men called “yatiri,” wearing colorful ponchos and feathered hats, and brandishing staffs, started a blessing ceremony. Many people in the crowd brought sacrificial gifts, always wrapped in white paper. These were presented to one of the yatiri, who held the offering over the bowed head of the supplicant, and murmured a blessing. Then the gift was placed among the many other offerings on a big bonfire. Dozens from the audience chose to circle the not-yet-lit bonfire, and sprinkle on alcohol, rose petals, coca leaves, herbs and incense, and offer gifts or requests.


Little children and adolescents dressed in elaborate home-made costumes of traditional fabrics and lots of metallic gold pantomimed various gods and symbols. They and their parents were obviously very proud and honored to be part of this solemn ceremony. The kids with bare shoulders were clearly cold (at night, it drops below freezing here). But they soldiered through; not one of them ever reached for a blanket or coat. But we shuddered at the recollection that centuries ago, Horca del Inca was the site of human sacrifices. When the Incans took it over in about 1480, it became a gallows.


In recent times, many Aymara have loosely but happily adapted their religion to Christian faiths, especially Catholicism. For example, in his formal blessing, the chief yatiri raised a chalice and wine to the rising sun. The traditional Aymara faith believes that the Supreme Spirit exists everywhere, especially in the natural world, and that all living things are interconnected and interdependent.


We were struck by the warm welcome we received in all these celebrations. Neighbors we’re getting to know invited us to share their food and drink -- we declined the drink, and worried about alcohol imbibers as they tottered down the long, steep path back into town from Horca del Inca. At the kick-off prayer ceremony in Intinkala we first hesitated, not sure whether we might be intruding on an exclusive tradition. But many Aymaran hands reached for us and pulled us into their circle. Even during advance set-up, we were honored that the local folks not only welcomed our help, they expected it: we are members of the community.


To see a short (about 2:20 min.) composite of related photos and video snippets, please click this link:


Chao y Bendiciones,

Debbie y Jeff

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