People often ask me, “What’s your favorite country that you’ve visited?” I always find it to be an impossible question to answer. It’s like comparing your children, I imagine. They are all unique, and you love them all (some more stressful than others) but there’s always that one that you like to brag about. For me, Bolivia is that one I ALWAYS brag about. What do I love about it? Simple, it’s like no other place you will ever visit in your life. Sadly, Bolivia often escapes the travel radar of most people. Mountainous, rugged and landlocked between the Andes and the Amazon, it’s not the easiest place to navigate. It doesn’t have the stunning coastline and international flair of it’s neighbors Brazil, Argentina and Chile. It’s also the poorest country in South America. But what it does have, thanks to its isolation, is a world of exotic landscapes, deep-rooted indigenous traditions, and some of the most interesting and fashionable natives you’ll ever come in contact with. For the intrepid explorer looking for a one-of-a-kind travel experience, you best mark Bolivia on your bucket list!
In the Bolivian Highlands, market Sunday in Tarabuco is especially colorful, as Bolivians love to put on their Sunday best and hit the town to buy, sell and barter goods with their fellow countrymen and tourists. This all-day swap meet begins bright and early (like 4am early) for many of the local Yampara people who walk 4 to 6 hours up and over the mountains from their ranches and homes to participate in the weekly market. Though my bartering with Red Vines didn’t work too well here, I did get a nice deal on a wooden flute and a bag of coca leaves. I really wanted to buy a charango (Andean stringed instrument) but I spent all my Bolivianos on tips for the locals who granted me some awesome photo opportunities. (Work that scarf baby!)
So let me just tell you about the Bolivians up here. As a photographer, my senses always ignite when I see raw life, tradition and color blending together in a visual concoction so fluid that my eyes struggle to keep pace. I’ve never seen a more fashion-conscious indigenous people…especially a tradition of dress that extends to the men as well. Women are pretty universal when it comes to wanting to look nice, but the dudes up here take “superstylin” to another level. Their traditional Yampara outfits not only preserve their identity, but they also advertise their location of origin to others. The men here sport colorful ponchos called “unkus”, many with horzontal stripes and regional colors. Scarves, patterned sweaters and woolen caps called “chullas” are also common threads among males. The women, known as “cholitas”, are typically seen in an outfit consisting of an apron over a layered skirt (“pollera”), a blouse, sweater and a rainbow-colored shawl used for everything from carrying babies to firewood. Their signature hats and braided hair seem to be a critical accessory to their look, along with those striped hand bags you see everywhere. It all works together quite nicely. In the words of my Aunt Cheryl, their style is “casual, yet smart…self-assured and oddly elegant”. Now let’s talk about those hats…
The one feature that is undeniably “Bolivian” is their hats. They love ’em! They rock those cool hats like breakdancers rocked Converse in the 80’s. They come in all styles, shapes, sizes and colors…straw hats, bowler hats, cowboy brimmed, alpaca wool beanies, crazy turtle shell looking things…quite an impressive variety. I offered to trade my baseball cap for one guy’s dusty Clint Eastwood looking Stetson, with no success. (Hard to find a Brewers fan in the Andes, let alone anywhere outside of Wisconsin). For women, the choice of hat frequently signals marital status. (Must be nice for the dudes!). Single women wear wool hats and married women wear leather. Among the most popular for women is the bowler hat (“bombin”), introduced by British railway workers in the 1920’s. There is a common saying about the bowler hat: “Born in Britian, perfected by Bolivia”. Some wear it straight up, some to the side. Hat styles change every year: color, height and width of the brim. I can just picture the cholita gossip around the local market…”OMG, look at her…that 2 inch brim is SO last year!”
The Bolivians don’t dress to impress one another, they dress in a way that represents where they come from and their pride of being indigenous. It is important for them to keep tradition alive. Tradition is at the heart of their culture…and they protect it well. Not to mention, they look pretty damn good doing it! And that’s just one of the many reasons I love Bolivia. It’s probably a good thing that it has been over-looked by mass tourism over the years. There is an old world charm and purity here that is untainted by the outside world. I highly recommend a visit. Just remember to ditch your coca leaves at the border!