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Bolivia – Colourful People, Colourful Culture

Jan 2016

Bolivia – Colourful People, Colourful Culture


Bolivia, the land where “the border between the heaven and earth” exists, is the reflection of a past that is rich in rituals, cultures and traditions. A former part of the mighty Inca Empire, followed by nearly three hundred years of Spanish rule, the country herself is a cultural confluence, where a European and a native culture co-exist peacefully without devouring each other.

Ethnically, roughly sixty percent of the Bolivian population is of American-Indian descent, the largest groups being the Quechua, Aymara and Inca descendants native to the mountainous Andes region. The remaining forty percent of the population is divided between Mestizos (those with mixed Indian and European ancestry), European descent, and many small Amazonian cultural groups. Due to such diverse ethnic background, like India, there are total 36 languages which are given the status of official languages including Spanish. A large part of Bolivian population use Quechua and Aymara as their mother tongue. Chiquitano and Guaraní are among the other significant languages of the country. Bolivian Spanish, as a result of mixing with its indigenous rivals, differs from region to region. The vocabulary and pronunciation can be distinctly different in Andes region from the plains. Most educated urban people use Spanish and their native language fluently in their day to day life.

Despite having such a close association with a European culture like Spanish, surprisingly large number of Bolivian prefer to stick with their traditional attire. Women wear long, often colorful skirts called polleras and undersized bowler hats. In some localities, the positioning of a woman’s bowler hat can indicate her marital status. How bowler hat included itself in fashionable local ladies’ wardrobe, is a very amusing story. According to local myth during 1920, a British mine owner ordered thousands of bowler hat for his workers only to find that those are not well-fitted. Local ladies gladly then helped themselves and started to use those discarded hats as a new fashion statement and the rest is history. Bolivian men are not fancy of Bowlers hat and traditional dress for them is called the poncho. Poncho is basically a beautifully designed single large sheet of fabric with an opening in the center for the head and often it has an extra piece of fabric serving as a hood. But in urban areas people often trade their traditional dresses, for conventional western wear.




The festivals in Bolivia represent a mixture and a marriage of its rich indigenous history and the Roman Catholic religion, which has come to prevail in the country. They are typically expressed by means of rituals and dances and have become a popular tourist attraction because of the colorful costumes worn by the people and the interesting folkloric dancers. One of the biggest festivals of Bolivia is Oruro Carnival. It is a pagan-religious festivity in which preparations take place throughout the year, with innumerable ceremonies and rituals. A variety of folkloric dance groups such as the diablada, morenada, caporales, tobas, and a variety of Andean rhythms start to prepare while musicians begin to perfect their choreography from the first Sunday of the month of November to the Saturday – celebration day of the Oruro Carnival. The essence of the Oruro Carnival is the Diablada which represents the triumph of good over evil. One of the significant aspects of Bolivian festival is extravagant processions. From La Festividad de Nuestro Señor Jesús del Gran Poder   to Urkupiña Festival in Quillacollo, near Cochabamba, the main attraction of the festivals is always the great procession of the dancing groups.

The variety of colors and flavors are not limited to Bolivian festivals only but also a part of Bolivian cuisine. Cuisine and food habit of Bolivian people is directly related to its varied geography, climate and culture. Bolivian cuisine stems mainly from the combination of Spanish cuisine with traditional native Bolivian ingredients. The main meal for most Bolivians is lunch – massive in proportions and preferably eaten with their families. Lunch usually consists of soup, a main dish and capped with dessert. The streets of Bolivia also offer good, fast and cheap food and in the cities like La Paz and Santa Cruz, four-star restaurants offering fine dining and international choices also abound. Popular local dishes are the hearty corn beverage api served hot with a delicate pastel (thin fried pastry), salteñas (a juicy meat pie), sausages, stuffed potato, chank’a de pollo (chicken stew), huminta (corn pastry), puchero (mixed meat stew), cinnamon popsicles, pampaku (a variety of baked meats), silpancho (chicken fried steak), trancapecho (a big silpancho sandwich), lapping (roast beef), anticucho (beef heart/potato shish kabob) etc.

Bolivians are also avid believers of the popular proverb “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” and have deliberately chosen football and other games to be part of daily life to refrain themselves from being next bunch of “dull boys”. Local games like Thunka, Sortija and Jocheo de toros etc are very popular and have some connection with Spanish culture. People are also enthusiastic about both boxing and baseball, but those are nowhere close to football in popularity. Attending football matches to cheer the favorite football team on Sunday afternoon is considered a social norm and failure to attend the matches for couple of times consecutively, is enough to get labeled as a social misfit. The kids and teenagers often practice and hone their football skill in the narrow lanes of the charming Bolivian towns and dream about representing their homeland someday. Football is the common thread which binds and connects all the Bolivians with each other, expunging their vast cultural difference.

The cultural background of Bolivia is greatly influenced by its history, people and Andes Mountain. The Culture, food habits, traditional attire etc. can be widely vary across the country. Art, culture and empowerment of people were hindered several times in the past due to political unrest and rebellions. Currently the country is in peace but class discrimination based on economic condition is still a major issue. However, fortunately situations are changing and the country is making progression towards prosperity. In short, Bolivia is a beautiful country full of warm hearted people who really know how to enjoy life to the fullest.




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