Travel Blog: El Alto, La Paz, Bolivia – Cholita wrestling, shamans and the afterlife

The cable car to El Alto.

 

Mortally hungover after staggering in at 5am the night before, we turned up outside the now shut down Oliver’s English Tavern on a Sunday afternoon for the Red Cap extended walking tour.

After some confusion caused by half of the group meeting in the bar next to Oliver’s and the rest of us waiting on the street, we finally joined together and started the walking tour.

Heading towards our first destination down La Paz’s annoyingly narrow pavements we stumbled upon an unconscious man who was blocking our path. A posh English girl walking next to me, looking concerned, said to me ‘do you think he’s alright? Should we help him?’ The guy had clearly passed out after consuming some cheap but highly potent alcohol cocktail. At that present moment all I could think was that I knew exactly how the poor fella must feel, I felt something similar just hours ago. In fact, I was quite envious he was sleeping it off while I was lethargically shuffling along the streets of La Paz.

Seeing the English girl’s concern and my sympathetic look, his equally drunk but still conscious mate sitting across the street shouted something in Spanish along the lines of ‘don’t worry, he’s ok’ so the English girl and I looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders, and continued to walk around the unconscious man.

I’ve noticed that it’s not unusual to see drunks in Bolivia and Chile, though I don’t recall seeing any in Argentina. In Chile we saw one guy walk straight into a massive billboard sign that he surely would have seen had he been sober enough. He knocked himself right to the ground. It was hard not to immediately laugh but also very sad considering it was eleven in the morning.

The life of the dead

The Red Cap tour headed first to La Paz’s massive public cemetery. Our guide told us that people in La Paz bury their dead here, paying a yearly fee, for the first five years after their death. During this time Bolivians believe that the dead are still with them.

After five years they ‘don’t care’ – the guide’s words not mine – what happens to the remains of their loved ones because they believe that if you still mourn the dead after that period the dead can’t move on to the afterlife. Seems like quite a nice philosophy to me.

An interesting and rather sexy mural at La Paz general cemetery.
An interesting and rather sexy mural at La Paz general cemetery.

After this period burial plots are served eviction notices, which we saw plastered to the little windows of some graves, and eventually evicted. The remains are then buried in a common mass grave keeping only the skulls which are then adopted by families.

These are known as natitas. They’re kept for good luck and treated like idols by their adopted families who give them offerings. People believe the skulls represent the souls of the dearly departed and that giving them offerings and treating them with respect will protect their houses and businesses. The skulls are from random people and not the skulls of their loved ones.

Once a year in November the natitas are celebrated and honoured in a sort of ‘Day of the Dead’ festival that takes place at the cemetery. I absolutely love the idea of a day of the dead festival, a day for everyone to come together and remember their deceased loved ones with a big party.

On this particular Sunday in La Paz’s general cemetery people were just hanging around, chatting and relaxing like they usually do in one of the country’s many plazas. It was much more of a busy, bustling vibe rather than a subdued and peaceful one like at the cemetery in Sucre.

After the cemetery we took the cable car up to El Alto, a separate town to La Paz and where the very poor people live.

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I hate cable cars. I know it is an irrational fear, but I dislike heights and I can’t understand the mechanics behind them – it’s a big box hanging off a piece of wire…how is this safe?!

The cable car in La Paz, however, is perhaps the most modern looking thing I have seen throughout the whole of Bolivia. It was built by socialist President Evo Morales to connect the richer South part of the city with the poorer North and is actually a fantastic idea. The cable cars float above the city bypassing traffic, endless steep hills, and reducing pollution. They’re said to be the safest way to travel around La Paz – the system is built by Austrians not Bolivians – and the government are already planning to build several more lines.

They are not for the faint-hearted though, they go incredibly high, almost vertical at some points as they climb the lofty edge of the city to reach El Alto.

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But Bolivians are hardy people who live mostly at altitude and aren’t daunted by this at all, unlike me. Disembarking at El Alto after a 15 minute journey where I avoided looking down the entire time there was a line almost a kilometre long to get on the cable cars and back down to the city.

El Alto

According to our guide, El Alto is home to the biggest open air market in Latin America (though I’ve also heard this claim made in Peru).

I love markets but even this one was too much for me. People cajole and hustle trying to get past each other. There’s the regular stall holders set up in rows and others pushing carts past the hordes of people selling all sorts of random stuff. I saw one cart peddling only plastic spray bottles and another hair clips. Everything can be bought here. Our guide claims his sister bought a brand new, genuine Louis Vuitton bag for the equivalent of £10 at the market, though I’m not sure I believe him.

The smell of fat frying from stalls selling fried fish and chicken with rice fills the market air, though it looks reasonably tempting we were told not to eat anything from the market as even people from La Paz can’t stomach El Alto food.

Shaman's street for coca leaves reading.
Shaman’s street for coca leaves reading.

I was quite glad to get out the market even if it was onto a dirty, dusty street lined with mini-bomb fires.

This street was dedicated to Aymara shamans who read coca leaves. They reside in little wooden huts lined up one by one. The bonfire outside each hut is for burning offering such as sweets and other things to Pachamama (mother earth) for good luck. According to Aymara beliefs to become a shaman you must be struck by lightening and have survived. (If you’re interested in this sort of thing you can find out more in Mario Vargas Llosa’s fiction story Death in the Andes which I have just read and can recommend).

Shaman's hut.
Shaman’s hut.

According to our guide, some people come here daily to have their future told or to seek direction and guidance by the coca leaves if they have a big decision to make. It’s taken so seriously there is a whole street devoted to it, not that it was very busy on this Sunday afternoon. Mostly there were just men chatting and drinking beer by bonfires. I noticed one of the men offered some beer to an American guy in our group who politely declined. The Bolivian man insisted but still the American refused and the Bolivian man was very offended by this, throwing the beer aggressively on the floor. 

It’s interesting that although Bolivians are now predominantly a Catholic population due to the country’s colonisation by the Spanish, many people, mostly the indigenous Indians who make up the majority of Bolivia’s population,  still follow their own rituals and beliefs from their indigenous heritage, such as making offering to idols and shamans. In the ancient past offerings of mostly girls and children would be made to the mountain gods when building a new structure or road, for example, as they believed the mountains to be very powerful.

Lady selling offerings.
Lady selling offerings.

It’s understandable how people would believe the mountains to be powerful when you consider that a landslide could kill thousands of people at any time.

Our guide said there are suspicions that sacrifices still happen, that bodies of people have, years later, been found under modern buildings. He thinks builders might find a street alcoholic, get them extremely drunk and when they’re sufficiently out-of-it bury them under the foundations of the new building. This is all speculation of course.

Cholita Wresting

Finally, to end our tour it was time for some afternoon Cholita wrestling. Yes, little women in their Cholita outfits – ankle length, wide rimmed skirts and tights – ‘wrestling’ each other.

It’s a bit silly and touristy, though lots of locals do come with their kids to watch. The premise is usually an older lady pitted against a younger, more beautiful lady who gets ‘beaten up’ by the older women, only to come back and win the fight at the end. They’re not really hurting each other, though they certainly get thrown high in the air and slammed down quite ferociously.

Cholita wrestling.
Cholita wrestling.

It all gets a bit raucous when the wrestlers come off the stage and into the arena threatening to spray fizzy drinks over those who boo them. They never actually do this to the tourists but the locals certainly get fizz in their face. The audience throw meat bones and fruit in return. I nearly got hit by a couple of T-bones a few times.

Old men wrestling young men also takes place following the same pretence. The cutest thing, though, is how the children idolise the young wrestlers, clinging onto them as they leave the stage and asking them for autographs.

Locals watch the wrestling.
Locals watch the wrestling.

As part of the ticket tourists get a free drink, a little souvenir and a bag of popcorn.

And that was the end of the tour!

More reading…

You can also read about Death Road just outside of La Paz here.

You can read more about La Paz here

For a blog on Sucre, Bolivia click here

For a blog on Santa Cruz, Cochabamba and Samaipata, all Bolivia click here

For a blog on Uyuni and the Bolivian Salt flats click here

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