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EL ALTO, Bolivia – At a gasp-inducing 13,000 feet-plus (4,000 meters-plus) above sea level, a post marks the spot where Andean gods are said to dwell at the foot of towering, snow-covered peaks.
A group of "amautas," or spiritual guides, arrives to leave offerings to Pachamama, the Mother Earth figure in indigenous Aymara mythology. Women chew coca leaves to ward off the effects of high altitude and mumble prayers beseeching favors, while two priests circle the post and touch it with seashells to summon the spirits.
On a recent weekend, the mayor's office of El Alto, the nearly 3-mile-high city perched above the Bolivian capital of La Paz, led a group of tourism students on a visit to the site.
Officials are in the early stages of creating the first dedicated tours of sacred sites of the Pachamama. They're especially targeting foreign visitors, whose numbers are growing, said Diego del Carpio, head of tourism for the city.
"We have become materialists. We want to have the latest cellphone and a nice house. That's why we incentivize tourism to sacred sites for a spiritual re-encounter, to unload negative energies and recharge the positive ones," del Carpio said.
According to Andean mythology, Pachamama awakens every August hungry and thirsty after the Bolivian dry season. To satiate the goddess, believers hold syncretic rituals in which they toss offerings including fruit, coca, sweets and a dead llama fetus into a bonfire and they water the soil with the warm blood of a sacrificed llama.
The tour starting in El Alto goes to four sites and last five hours. Prices vary but it includes bus transportation, refreshments and a spiritual cleansing by women clenching fistfuls of herbs.
"Energy emanates from here," spiritual guide Victor Machaca said. "That is why it is sacred."