Overland miles: 12914 Bus hours: 371 Empanadar 80
One of our favourite things about Bolivia has been just how incredible its women are. The country’s ‘Cholitas‘, as they are known (their name is taken from the now defunct derogatory term Chola, which was used to describe mixed race or native Americans) are an unmissable sight on the country’s streets with their long black plaits, distinctive headgear and natty outfits. “But what makes them so special?” I hear you ask. Let us present our six favourite reasons why Bolivian women rock our world:
1. They take multi-tasking to a new level – there is nothing these women can’t do with a small child strapped to their back. Everywhere we went, from the lofty streets of Potosi (a mere 4,000 feet above sea level), to the sun-baked shores of Lake Titicaca, we saw Cholitas running street food stands, carrying 20 kilos of shopping back from the market or balancing a bundle of quinoa on their head, all the while toting their offspring in a brightly patterned hand-woven blanket on their back.
2. They are just as strong as any man – in fact, probably even stronger. On Isla del Sol, we couldn’t believe our eyes when we saw a woman carrying not one, but two bus seats on her back while her husband casually strolled on a few steps ahead of her. El Alto, the sky-high city on the outskirts of La Paz, is home to the infamous weekly Cholita Wrestling contests. These Lucha Libre chicas battle it out for tourists every Sunday and you certainly wouldn’t want to come across any of them on a dark night.
3. A Cholita can work the layered look like no one else – where else apart from the streets of Shoreditch will you see females wearing 80s-style glittery jumpers, prints, velvet, knee high socks and beautifully woven fabrics all at the same time (only in a completely non-ironic style)? With their bulky skirts and shawls, which mimic the outfits worn by the women in the rebellious Basque Country, they showed their defiance of the Spanish invaders and still wear the same clothes today. We’re told that the more skirts the women of Bolivia wear, the better a marriage prospect they are considered to be, as they give the impression of child-bearing hips, the polar opposite to today’s hipster uniform of skinny jeans, distressed T-shirt pared with a Cornflakes box on a gold chain.
4. They love a good hat, specifically: the Bowler. The story goes that an enterprising Italian company thought they could make a quick buck by selling bowler hats to Andean men who wanted to wear European-style dress. In their naivety, they thought that as these men were of shorter stature than Europeans, they would have smaller heads, when in fact, the opposite is true. The Cholitas ended up wearing the hats instead and these days they’re such an essential piece of headwear they sell for over US$200 (£120), the equivalent of an average month’s wages.
5. There’s nothing they can’t rustle up using a cow’s head and one of the 3,000 varieties of potatoes that grow in the Andes. In fact, we think they’re the only people who can identify the difference between every type of potato grown here. While their cooking is great (some of the best soups we’ve eaten have been at Bolivian market stalls), the smell of the raw ingredients (mainly cuts of meat you’d rather not think about and rehydrated potatoes) is a little funky. Speaking from experience, when getting one of the country’s rattling buses, we’d advise not sitting next to a Bolivian woman on her way home from the market.
6. And finally, we’re not sure how they manage this, but none of them appear to have a single grey hair and they all have great skin. L’Oreal really needs to find out their secret. Maybe it’s the fact that they’re not averse to a cheeky swig of beer on religious feast days.
So women of the world take note, Bolivia’s Cholitas might live in a remote and-locked county, thousands of miles above sea level but they still embrace tradition, whilst turning traditional gender stereotypes on their head and managing to look dam cool at the same time. Women of Bolivia – !les saludamos!