La Paz has a very special mix of modernity and tradition. While on the one hand people in suits are standing in front of new high-rise buildings made of glass, traditionally dressed women are walking by as a matter of course. In the city you can see many women with plump physiques and in the typical Bolivian clothes with the puffy colorful skirt, the jacket and the round hat: the cholitas.
Wikipedia clarifies the origin of the term: “Chola or cholita – derived from cholo – are the names given to indigenous women in Bolivia and Peru who dress in hats originally designed for men in a fashion imported from Europe to South America in the 1920s.“
From the Wikipedia explanation of “cholo” I learn that “in Bolivia, “cholo” refers to people with various degrees of Amerindian racial ancestry. In Bolivia, the term “cholita” has overcome former prejudice and discrimination, and cholitas are now seen as fashion icons. A “cholo” in Bolivia is a campesino who moved to the city, and though the term was originally derogatory, has become more of a symbol of indigenous power. The word “cholo/a” is considered a common and/or official enough term in Bolivia such that “cholo” has been included as its own ethnic group option in demographic surveys conducted in the country. In these same surveys, the term had on occasion been used interchangeably with the term “mestizo.” Nevertheless, some locals still use cholo as a derogatory term.“
We see cholitas walking the streets or for sale at kiosks.
The hats and the skirts differ, but the style and the proportions that go with it are always the same.
Cholitas characterize the image of the metropolis
In the old town there is a witches’ market. Here you’ll find shops selling cholitas spells for everything. We roam the streets and shops and are… fascinated. Herbs, stones with symbols, incense and… dried baby alpacas. Optionally also as fetuses. For particularly difficult spells. Traditionally, people like to use this magic to ask the gods for their goodwill. If you want to transport fragile goods in a ramshackle truck over 5000 meter high passes, any help is definitely needed.
It would have been better if we hadn’t just sacrificed 3 Bolivianos in Yungas, but an alpaca fetus. You should always have everything with you to be prepared.
But even witches cannot resist one magic, and that is Leon’s sunny laugh. Every cholita melts away when she sees the little one and his curious eyes.
But cholitas can do things differently, the hard way. Somewhere I had heard about a very special wrestling in La Paz and here it comes to mind: Cholitas Wrestling! Sounds absurd, and in fact it is! I’ll get us tickets and we’ll go to El Alto to see for ourselves.
A sports hall is reserved there for this event, which takes place weekly. I read that women do wrestling as a sport and take pride in performing in front of an audience.
And the women can be proud, because although the whole thing sounds ridiculous, the women conduct these exhibition fights very professionally under the tough conditions, their age, their body shape and their clothes. Of course, it is also a welcome source of money if mainly tourists come to this event and pay admission. The majority of the spectators are foreigners sitting in the front rows. But locals also watch the fight and we prefer to sit between them.
Of course, as with the model in the USA, there is also a moderator who comments on what is happening as dramatically as possible. The first fight, incomprehensibly, takes place between two men and isn’t particularly exciting. But then two cholitas come together in the ring and we are amazed at how the plump women throw themselves through the air in extremely impractical clothes. There’s always a little story, a clear good character and the clear bad guy, so audiences quickly take sides.
This is especially important when the artists leave the ring and fight in the stands between the spectators. We also quickly concede Leon and all his toys when a black-clad actress in her burial robes throws her opponent down the stairs between us.
After our breakdown at 4703 meters we have plenty of time to get to know La Paz. This city fascinates and shows us many of its faces. We see the contrasts of modernity and tradition on every corner. Through the teleféricos we can easily get to any part of the city and see the full extent of it and its mountains above the clouds.
On the streets we see business people next to traditionally dressed women, the cholitas that give La Paz its special personal character. These tradition-conscious women are also business-savvy, running kiosks for newspapers and fruit, but also magical paraphernalia for everyday spells. And they can fight!
The streets of La Paz are lined with high-rise glass buildings and crumbling old buildings. However, you can find incredibly beautiful street art in all neighborhoods. The artist quarter with its market is characterized by special graffiti. But the city’s huge cemetery, the Cementario General de La Paz, is not only a place of rest for the dead, but a small town in its own right, in which the deceased are commemorated with sadly beautiful murals.
As we leave the city, our car struggles again with the steep incline and altitude. Finally we reach the legendary Lake Titicaca via the Altiplano and stumble upon the traces of Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon Tiki.