Bolivia is the most indigenous country in South America, with the 2012 census revealing 86% of respondents had identified as having native or mixed origins.
In La Paz, the Aymara people form the vast majority. Traditionally sun-worshipers, among other things, the Aymara have used the summer solstice to mark the beginning of a new year for over 5,000 years.
Every year they hold a big party at the nearby ruins of Tihuanaco, so I thought I would join in the festivities.
The event is primarily held in the main plazas of the small town on the outskirts of the Tihuanaco ruins, about a two hour journey from La Paz. As is typical in Bolivia, public buses don’t want to leave until they are completely full which meant waiting around in the bus for an hour and a half before we could actually depart. By the time we got there it was past 1 a.m., but the focus of this New Year’s party was the sunrise rather than a 12 a.m. countdown, so it didn’t really matter.
Up on the altiplano (highlands) the nights during this time of year are well below freezing. To avoid the cold, many revelers drink Singani, a Bolivian brandy, mixed with piping hot tea, a classic combo known as te con te. Given the temperature, hard liquor is definitely more enticing then cold beer.
Bonfires were scattered all through the plazas for people to dance and huddle around. The downside is there isn’t much wood in the altiplano so people just tend to burn whatever they can find, including plastic. Some of the narrower streets were so full of toxic fumes my eyes began to sting.
Music obviously plays a big part in the festivities. Thankfully, the focus was on folklorica (traditional Bolivian folk music) rather than the obnoxious Reggaton and Cumbia one hears every day in La Paz. Large stages were set up to host a variety of musicians from around the country, including everything from Afro Bolviano to somber pan pipe orchestras and the lively Morenda. A highlight for me was the infectious Bolivian classic, Idilio – definitely a fun song to jump around to.
After much drinking, dancing and enjoying the music it was time to enter the ruins to see the sun rise. The Aymara people believe that seeing the first sunrise of the year will give them energy and good fortune for the year to come.
To my surprise (dismay) there was also a large contingent of new age hippies who must have taken a liking to the tradition and incorporated their own drumming circles, hand holding, and chanting. Once the sun started to pop over the hill, everyone stretched their hands out to receive the first rays of the year. I even joined in for a minute, but mostly to try warm my hands as I had forgotten to bring gloves.