Bolivia prides itself as having one of the largest indigenous cultures in South America with an estimated 60% of her population claiming indigenous descent. Although many native groups make up Bolivia’s indigenous population, the most prevalent group living in La Paz and the Bolivian highlands are the Aymaras.
The Aymaras are known for their rich, highland culture, colorful handicrafts and traditional dress. The Aymara women known locally as “cholitas” generally are always seen dressed in traditional clothing, wearing their tiny little bowler hats, several layers of large colorful polleras (skirts), tiny shoes patterned after Spanish bullfighters and beautifully embroidered shawls. They also generally wear a colorful hand-woven blanket on their backs to either carry a baby or other items.
Walking around the streets of La Paz I was amazed to see so many of cholitas dressed so colorfully, each one bringing her own unique charm. Most Aymaras are short and stout, and purposely wear many layers of skirts to make their hips look quite large. According to their culture, large hips are a sign of beauty and fertility. The woman also always wear their hair long and plaited with black-colored yarn adornments at the end. I’m not sure what it symbolizes but I did not see a single Aymara woman without her hair worn this way.
As I walked around La Paz, it was evident that Aymara women make up the majority of street vendors selling anything ranging from vibrant, traditional clothing to scarves, shawls, vibrant colored blankets and produce. They worked hard yet never seemed to be unhappy about their status in life. I was always greeted with a smile and the woman stuck together.
Here are a series of some of my favorite captures of the Aymara women of La Paz. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.
I loved her beautiful, happy smile. I asked her if I could snap her photo and she agreed. She smiled even bigger when I showed her the photo.
The Aymara women are central to the family unit in Bolivia. Not only do most Aymara women work full time, they also manage the house, children, cooking and cleaning and finances. Most come to La Paz from the countryside in search of a better life. Yet many of the women do not have enough education to get very far.
Baby-carrying is quite common. The woman simply fold their colorful blankets around their backs making their own little carriers for their children.
Most Aymara woman can be seen wearing tiny little bowler hats that sit precariously atop their heads. I have no idea how these hats stay on since they are not attached in any way. They also wear many layers of skirts to give their hips and behinds a wider, more fertile look.
The woman always wore their hair unbelievably long and in two braids reaching all the way down to their seats.
Women could be found carrying anything inside their colorful shopping sacks. Even fresh flowers from the local market.
Most did not wear the most comfortable looking walking shoes.
I found the Aymara culture to be quite fascinating. While so many indigenous cultures are disappearing around the world, it is nice to see one that is still going strong. Of course there are many problems facing the Aymaras such as high rates of poverty, low rates of education, and prejudice but at least they continue to fight for their rights. It is a beautiful thing.
Stay tuned…more street photography coming up!
Love the city of La Paz! Your pictures took me back to 2012 when I visited. Lovely pictures 😊
Thanks! Yes it is quite a city isn’t it!
So colorful, Nicole, but you’re right. The shoes do NOT look comfortable.
And the women wore these in the mountains! I couldn’t believe it.
Is it cold there? They seem to have a lot of clothing on. I hope they have happy lives, it seems like hard work for little reward.
It can get cold but when we were there it was Spring so the weather was very nice and required a light jacket. They do work hard but after going to visit with the NGO that helps the women escape the brothels I know this is a better life. Bolivia is a relatively poor country but didn’t appear as difficult as other places I’ve been like India and Ethiopia. People have food and water. Their lives are tough yet there still seems to be happiness. Many times I wonder about life here in the US. There seems to be so much unhappiness where we have so much more in material ways. Although the women work hard they still have generally strong family units and friendships. They don’t make very much money but they manage to survive. I did see some homeless women with children which was hard yet not as much as I’ve seen in Mexico, India and Ethiopia. And I also didn’t really see any slums in La Paz. It is interesting to see different lives around the world. Thanks for stopping by Debra and commenting. I always appreciate your reflective comments.
Beautiful commentary and point about the US having so many more material and opportunal conveniences, yet many are quite unhappy. One thing I have really enjoyed about Latin America in general are how happy people are with so much less given to them.
Thanks so much for your comment. The more I travel, especially to less developed and poorer places, the more I see that oftentimes people have a much deeper happiness despite their hardships. We have so much here yet people don’t seem happy with what they have and want more. Not everyone of course but I do believe that capitalism fuels this hunger for the latest, greatest thing.
I particularly enjoyed the photos of the braids! Of course, the pictures were all so colorfully appealing, but the plaits were just a great small area of focus.
Thanks so much! Loved your post on Russia!
Wonderful photos, Nicole! We do have to wonder about our lives in the United States, such abundance here but yet so many people seem so unhappy. The simpler life, though hard, seems to be the most fulfilling.
Yes Angeline. I often wonder about that very thing. Sometimes people seem happier even when they have a harder life. Less can be so much more, right.
Thanks Maya! I loved taking these photos. I found these women so amazing.
Stunningly gorgeous photos, worthy of a National Geographic story and as usual, informative and interesting commentary.
I forgot how much I envy and respect your life and your blog. It remains in my top 5 travel blogs and never disappoints. One day I need to spend an entire day just reading your whole blog (well I guess that would take longer)
I just recently stumbled on an old post about being blond and how that was strange in places like China. Comments were closed so just wanted to add: That post was awesome. Funny part: In Asia, I am not short. When I lived in Canada I was ultra short for a guy (I;m about 5’7″). Every time we visited anything Muslim where the women are segregated, it makes Diane uncomfortable and she also thinks that all the Spanish cultures are not wild about Asians, although we’ve seen Chinese communities scattered all over Latin America.
As a spouse of a Chinese woman, although we’ve never been to China, I understand the universal fascination you experienced. Chinese people in the smaller villages are like curious little puppies to me; not to sound harsh, but the reality is Chinese are very nosy (Diane’s word, not mine) but when they stare at funny westerners with blond hair, they usually just think you’re funny looking and that’s why they want pictures. Muslim countries even make me nervous at times with my Jewish last name (I’m non religious) so it’s something we’ll need to get over to move to Malaysia.
Anyway, I love your stuff, again and again and thank you for occasionally checking in with us; I’m sure you follow hundreds of worthy blogs
Rob and Diane
I look at these beautiful women, and all I can think of is the persecution of the Aymara women in the late 1960’s. I’m having a difficult time researching this, but I have read that there was a forced sterilization policy under Alberto Fujimori, which affected exclusively the Aymara and Quechua women. Over 200,000 of these women were forced against their will to be sterilized. Have you read anything about this, Nicole? The information is difficult to find. There appear to be a lot of conspiracy theories out there. One of them being that the Peace Corp was involved in the forced sterilization of the indigenous women in the 1960’s. I came upon the information by accident when I was researching the indigenous women of Ecuador and their traditional dresses. I was shocked! This may not be the appropriate place to discuss this ( and it’s OK if you want to delete my comment), but I am so curious to learn more about this.
Interesting point Debbie. I think I vaguely heard about this but don’t know much more. It is terrible however to think of this happening. I too have found information hard to come by on Bolivia. I was trying to research more on the women and couldn’t find much. I would love to learn more about this so if you have any other information please let me know. And yes, any comment is always welcome!!! 🙂
You and me would need quite a bit of padding to compete, Nicole 🙂 🙂
Love the baby carrying shot!
Ha Ha! Love that Jo!
Amazing photos, Nicole. Your street photography is really wonderful. 🙂
Thanks Sylvia! This new notification/comment section is bugging me as I can’t tell if I’ve answered a comment or not. Before, there was a mark and now there isn’t! Are you having challenges with it too?
Thanks Sylvia!!!! I am trying to improve!
My mother blessed me with her big hips and I have never thought them a thing of beauty. I would probably fit in nicely in La Paz. 😉 Great photos Nicole.
Ha Ha LuAnn! Love that! 🙂
Very cool. Just finished a blog post about the Uru people on Lake Titicaca who abandoned their language centuries ago for the Aymaran tongue as a consequence of strengthening trade ties. If reed islands and aggressive harvest dances sound interesting, drop in for a read!
Cool! I will have to jump over and check it out. Thanks for letting me know.
Where would I find it? I clicked on your blog and it says unavailable.
There are 2 parts to the Titicaca piece:
dealing with our altitude issues and…
dealing with our encounters with the Uros and Taquileans on the lake.
Thanks for sharing! I will check it out! 🙂
Interesting ! Well done .