Huatajata, Bolivia - With a medicine man, an astronomer and two reed boat builders on staff, the Inca Utama Hotel and Spa isn't your typical resort. But I've got only two days to get rid of my altitude sickness, so it's just what I'm looking for.
Located in this small village less than an hour from Bolivia's capital, La Paz, the Inca Utama Spa sits on the shores of the world's highest lake and birthplace of the Incan empire, Lake Titicaca.
It also lies on the route of the Kallawaya, physicians to the Inca kings. These healers still travel the ancient Incan paths along the Andes gathering traditional herbs and divining the future through the casting and reading of coca leaves.
Within the labyrinth of the spa's stone walls, Tata Lorenzo, a visiting Kallawaya medicine man, explains that the indigenous communities around Lake Titicaca still live according to the three principles of Inca life. By maintaining the golden rules of the Empire of the Sun - ama suwa, ama quella, ama llulla (do not steal, do not be idle, do not lie) - they live in harmony with nature.
In his soft, gravelly voice, Tata Lorenzo offers to perform a blessing. By invoking the energy of Mother Earth through ceremony, he believes that a person's life force or ajaya can be coaxed into equilibrium with the environment. He lays his botiquin (medicine pack) across his knees and, bringing a bunch of coca leaves to his mouth, blows gently and whispers a prayer.
With thanks, we head to the hotel's Kallawaya Spa, where we choose a massage with coca crème extract. Although illegal in North America, coca is popular in Bolivia and Peru, where it is often chewed as a mild stimulant. During the massage, the crème releases a pungent fragrance. It's quite a vigorous treatment, but leaves us refreshed.
On the way back to our room, an elderly man carrying a bundle of reeds in his arms gestures at us. "Come, come," he says, identifying himself as José Limachi, builder of reed boats. In his on-site workshop he tells us that during the 70s, following ancient traditions learned from his father, he helped construct reed boats used by anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl in his famous voyages.
Sailing from Africa to the Americas, Heyerdahl's crew proved the possibility of transatlantic contact between ancient civilizations. Heyerdahl himself hoisted the flag on the immense replica of the RA II in their boatyard. A graceful creation, it resembled the crescent-shaped papyrus craft depicted on ancient Egyptian monuments.
At nightfall, remembering the hotel's astronomer, we wrap ourselves in alpaca ponchos and follow Marcello Hazcon, a guide of indigenous Aymara descent, to the Alajpacha Observatory. Built using ancient Incan designs, it's set out over the water, fitted with a retractable reed roof. As the slats part above us, the stars seem to spill out of the indigo night sky as if from an inverted cup. The Southern Cross tilts like a drunken sailor while Mars shines like a lamplight among the constellations of the southern hemisphere.
The next morning, as the sun rises over the snow-capped Andes, we board a hydrofoil heading for the Islands of the Sun and the Moon, just two of the many islands one can visit on the lake. Temple ruins mark the spot where, according to Inca legend, the sun sent Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo, the founders of the Incan dynasty, down to earth. Before heading back to La Paz, we drink from the icy Inca Water Spring, a legendary source of eternal youth.
On our return, we reflect that, much like Bolivia itself, the Utama Hotel and Spa is a unique place. More whirlwind than retreat, it has turned out to be in perfect harmony with the Inca principle of ama quella - do not be idle.