Aymara New Year

Bolivia is the most indigenous country in South America.  In the 2012 census 86% of respondents identified themselves as having native origins.  In La Paz the Aymara people form the vast majority.  These people are traditionally sun-worshipers and have used the summer solstice to mark the beginning of a new year since long before colonisation.  Every year they hold a big party at the nearby ruins of Tihuanaco so I thought I would join in the festivities.  My girlfriend had to work so I went with a group of people from couch surfing.

The event is primarily held in the main plazas of the small town on the outskirts of the Tihuanaco ruins, about a 2 hour journey from La Paz.  As is typical in Bolivia, public buses don’t want to leave until they are completely full.  This meant waiting around in the bus for an hour and a half before we could even depart.  By the time we got there it was past 1am, but the focus of this New Year’s party was the sunrise rather than a 12oclock countdown, so it didn’t really matter.

On the altiplano (highlands) the nights during this time of year are below freezing.  To avoid the cold many revelers drink Singani, a Bolivian brandy, mixed with piping hot tea.  Given the temperature, hard liquor is definitely more enticing then cold beer.  Bonfires and scattered all through the plazas for people to dance and huddle around.  The downside is that 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 played 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.  There was everything from Afro Bolviano (decedents of Africans slaves who mostly live in the mountainous, semi tropical Yungas region) to somber pan pipe orchestras to 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 in 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.  They must have fancied this tradition and adopted it as their own, adding in 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.

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