During our visit to La Paz, I didn’t only engage in adrenaline fuelled activities such as biking down death road or abseiling down a building. I was also keen to find out a bit more about Bolivia, especially its people and their traditions, as Bolivia is a country rich in history, rituals, and culture. For me the perfect way to do that was to take part in a free walking tour which really brought this incredibly interesting and complex city to life.
1. San Pedro prison
Our group was lead by two very knowledgeable and entertaining sisters with the tour starting at the famous San Pedro prison, the largest prison in La Paz. Although it was only built for 250 inmates it is actually home to close to a claustrophobia inducing 1,500 prisoners. What is really unusual about this prison though is that it like a little community as families can live together with their convicted family member. Each prisoner has to pay rent for their cell space meaning the more money you have, the more luxuries you can get, from TV’s, Play Stations, and proper kitchens. The most luxurious cells cost about $1,500 per month which is a pretty steep price in a poor country like Bolivia.
Tourists used to be able to tour inside the prison -including to visit British inmate Thomas McFadden who started offering tours a few years ago – but because of too many bad incidents (including rape and assault) this is no longer possible. If you would like to find out more about life in this prison though I highly recommend the book Marching Powder, written by Rusty Young, which describes the experiences of Thomas McFadden.
2. The Cholitas
After visiting a few local food markets our tour group couldn’t help but notice the lovely local ladies, also called Cholitas, wearing their traditional outfits which include braided hair, a bowler hat – which as a British civil servant I particularly liked – and layered skirts which are long enough to cover most of their legs but short enough to get a glimpse of the women’s calves. According to our guides Bolivian men from the La Paz region tend to prefer more well-built women as they believe that they are stronger and better able to look after the household and children. So while European men tend to like a good cleavage, Bolivian men like some good strong calves and when they want to flirt the men apparently ask the Cholitas to show them their calves. Sometimes the women will lift their skirts slightly to give the men a quick glimpse and if they have strong calves the men are suitably impressed. Men are so easy!
3. Witchcraft and smoking gods
No visit to La Paz is complete without checking out the witches market where you can buy all kinds of love potions, medicine, herbs, and other offerings including llama foetuses or sweets for the various gods Bolivians believe in. The owners of these market stalls are all witches and if you are an annoying tourist and take a photo of them without asking they will promptly curse you.
Although most Bolivians are Catholics, they also still believe in the traditional Incan gods as well. One of the most important gods in Bolivia and across the Andes is Pachamama, the Quechuan word for ‘Mother Earth’. She is the supreme goddess revered by the indigenous people of the Andes. She provides life, food, and protection. To stay in the good books of Pachamama there are several rituals you should undertake – for example the burial of cooked food, coca leaves, llama foetuses, cigarettes, and alcohol. Before drinking alcohol many people will first spill a tiny amount of the alcohol on the floor as an offering for Pachamama, before drinking the rest.
Another important god is Ekeko, the god of abundance. Most households in Bolivia have a statue of him in their homes and they offer him all kinds of goodies to keep him pleased. Apparently Ekeko loves cigarettes, and alcohol in particular. Our visit to La Paz coincided with Bolivia’s Alasitas festival, the festival of miniatures, which is an event mixing ancient traditions and beliefs with modern-day consumerism. The idea of the festival is to buy what you want in the coming year, in miniature form, and get it blessed by a priest or yatiri (witch doctor) and then offer it to the cigarette-puffing Ekeko – all in the hope that the gods will convert your dreams into life-sized reality. In the build up to the Alasitas festival you can buy all kinds of miniatures from mini-diplomas, to work contracts, suitcases if your dream is to travel, mini-houses, marriage certificates, or money. I got myself a little passport in the hope of continuing my travels this year. 🙂
I thoroughly enjoyed the free walking tour and can highly recommend it. I wouldn’t have learned any of these things from a guidebook, so I was really pleased that I went along.
So guys, now I want to know from you, do you know of any weird facts or traditions from any countries you have visited, or if you had to buy something mini in the hope of it coming true in life-size, what would it be? Please do tell me in the comment section below.
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