Aymaras of Bolivia

One cannot visit Bolivia without being immediately impressed upon the large Indigenous population that makes the country thrive. In fact, over 62% of Bolivia’s people are of Indigenous ancestry and of 36 ethnic groups, the majority of them are Aymara or Quechua.

My father dedicated a good portion of his Anthropology career in studying the Aymara and Quechua culture starting with his first book in 1963 “The First Book of Bolivia.” His research then continued to document the agricultural and customs of the Aymara Indians throughout the years including their Traditional Uses of Coca.

So it is no wonder that his sense of adventure and desire to learn about other cultures rubbed off on me. As natural as breathing I quickly became engrossed with observing the Aymara Bolivians in their villages and appreciating the difference in life they have compared to my own.

While adopting many new modern conveniences, they also retain much of their original culture. While they may now hold a mobile phone, they prefer to wear the traditional dress. The women are usually the one that handles the money and business, even though they live in a “Machismo” society. It is still common place for an Aymara couple to have the man walk in front of the woman when they are going places together.

They are industrious women, working hard at home in the fields to bring their small produce to market to sell.

As Bolivia and Peru are well known for the wide variety of potatoes it was no surprise to see two types of freeze-dried potatoes beautifully displayed on a colorful textile. White Chuno and Black Tunta are two of the more common varieties.

A technique used for centuries, the potatoes are harvested in the high and dry climate of the Altiplano, cleaned and culled. Placed outside overnight to sit in the freezing temperatures, the Aymara stomp on them in the morning to squeeze out excess liquid. Covering them during the hot sun during the day keeps the white color for Chuno. Needless to say, their design for freeze-dried foods was adopted for our Astronauts heading out into space.

The other potato is a type of Sweet potato tuber called “Oca” or Oxalis which has a wonderful sweet taste that is best cooked over a wood-fire stove (Thank you Gery!)

While driving to Tiwanaku, we passed through the village of Laja and we spotted two “Cholitas” or Aymara women dressed as if they were twins. After some kind coaxing by our guide and of course some Bolivianos, they agreed to allow us to take their picture. In previous times, this never would have happened as they believed that you were capturing and stealing their soul. Modern times and many tourists have changed many opinions and they see the opportunity to earn a few dollars for just a few minutes of their time.

Why these two ladies were dressed the same was curious and my usual way of not intruding too much held me back to finding out what their relationship was to each other. Why is it that they had matching outfits. Are they sisters, best friends? How long have they known each other?

Either way you can tell that they had a strong and long lasting friendship and they will always be there for the other. I will always wonder, but what a wonderful show of such loving friends.

19 replies »

  1. I remember the vivid colors of the indigenous women. Once I was on an all day bus trip through the olive-green altiplano, nothing but tufts of grass and rolling hills. Then I spy way off in the distance a single shepherd in hot pink, tending her llamas. It is a sight that has stayed with me always.

  2. They are so beautiful and colourful. Makes me look dull should I compare myself to them. Oh, those roasted tubers make me salivate. It seems to me that the weight of their garments are heavy. Great shots of the street maker.

  3. These people are definitely to be admired and I love the fact that it is the women that run the business: I take my hat off to them. And talking about hats, do you know why they wear that particular design perched on top of their heads? I always found that very curious. As for the matching outfits, you don’t think they could be part of some traditional folk dance or performance? That’s what you find in Europe: every region has its own traditional dress for both men and women.
    I also find the method to dry-freeze potatoes very interesting, making the most of the climate, with no machinery necessary, a bit like sun-dried tomatoes in Italy. What a fascinating journey of discovery, Emily! I think your father would have been very proud of you.

    • Yes ! That is a specific design of hat that these Aymara wear. And in Bolivia, the hat changes based on the region they come from. Originally, the Spaniards used the Aymara as servants/slaves/indentured servants. it was fashionable to dress up your worker as best as you can to show off your affluence.

      It became important in the culture to be wearing these bowler hats as it showed that you were well cared for. Nowadays, a really well made Cholita hat can be quite expensive as it’s made from wool.

      Yes, wild about the freeze-drying method and wise as the final product can last years on the shelf.

      Thank you so much for your kind words about my dad. πŸ™‚

  4. Vibrant! I love having a window into the lives of women there. And those last photos tell such a story of women and the strength of friendship, its universal that bond. Love the colors!

    • It was so charming to have met these two ladies Terri. One wanted to do it, the other didn’t. She convinced her friend that it was good thing – easy money right? They were so serious though except when they first started and then when I showed her picture to her on the back of the camera. She laughed. So precious!!

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