Bolivian Rhapsody

by Sanjena Sathian:

‘First time to Bolivia?”

My plane was on its final descent into La Paz, and the man next to me had stopped staring at me long enough to start interrogations.

I responded yes, in Spanish.

“So you’re going to party for Carnaval, right?” he continued in English. “All the tourists are so drunk.”

I replied that I would only be in La Paz, the country’s capital, for a day before heading on to Tiwanaku, a small town about two hours away, where I would spend 11 days living with indigenous Aymara families and learning their agricultural practices.

“Tiwanaku?” he looked puzzled. “I didn’t think anybody still lived there.” Once a regal, thriving city at the center of a powerful Aymara civilization, the city of Tiwanaku today looks markedly different.

I soon left behind the world of my La Paz hostel, clogged with scruffy Australian and Irish tourists who seemed to spend all day watching soccer in the hotel bar for a radical shift in scenery. As I pulled into Tiwanaku, knocking around in an ancient white van that had made me carsick on the way, the first sight I saw was an enormous beige sign hanging from a vacant building, advertising lodging in the Hotel Akapana. Across the street from the hotel, two or three restaurants lined abandoned train tracks, which ended by a coral pink museum and a blue archway labeled “Archeological Site at Tiwanaku.”

Tiwanaku can be seen in the distance from one of the archeological sites nearby. (Sathian/TYG)

The city seemed to be waiting for me, like a ghost town with its arms open. The quiet, dusty streets were lined with restaurants, hostels, hotels, convenience stores, and stand after stand hawking artisan gifts: alpaca hats, stone carved pendants, and posters of Tiwanaku. But as far as I could see, my travel companions and I were the only ones who might buy their wares. Tiwanaku, like many of the rural areas across Bolivia, is caught in a limbo; as its residents flee to big cities, vacating the countryside and leaving gaping agricultural holes behind them, Tiwanaku sits patiently, waiting and hoping for a few visitors to find their way here from La Paz or neighboring Peru.

Only 15 years ago tourists were almost unheard of in Tiwanaku, but today community members report that they receive about 50,000 visitors every year. Visitors to Tiwanaku sweep in in a flash to see the archaeological site and perhaps stop into the small museum right next door, before returning to their treks through the Andes or quests for the best club in Latin America. My travel companions and I were the first foreigners to be hosted by families in the small urban center of the Tiwanaku pueblo and the first tourists to ever enter the homes of the families in the rural nearby campo. We were their guinea pigs, and they hope more travelers like us can help them create a future for tourism in their community.


For indigenous communities like Tiwanaku, life should be getting better. Particularly since the election of Aymaran Evo Morales as Bolivia’s first indigenous president in 2006, conditions for indigenous groups in Bolivia have changed radically. Speaking the Aymara language, once illegal, is today encouraged by the government and even required for some government officials so that they can communicate with all members of society. As I walked through Tiwanaku to the market one Sunday, one of our hosts excitedly pointed out the schools and soccer stadium we passed along the way.

“That’s thanks to Evo,” he explained. “Not everyone likes him, but we have things he built for us right here in Tiwanaku.”

It is almost impossible to drive through a stretch of rural Bolivia without seeing “Evo” or “Más Evo,” meaning “more Evo,” graffitied on a brick wall. Under Morales, indigenous communities have received more attention and rights and have been freed from the discrimination they faced in the past.

But despite better conditions for the Aymara people, Tiwanaku, like many other agriculturally dominated parts of the countryside, faces still another dilemma. The town is conspicuously empty. A glance around the market on a Sunday afternoon in the center of town, or a meander through one of the 23 farming communities surrounding the town, reveals very few young men.

“Where are all the men?” I asked my host mother Rosemarí in Spanish one afternoon as we walked down a dirt road to milk the cows. Since I had arrived in Tiwanaku, I found myself perpetually surrounded by women, interacting with the men only a few times over meals. “There don’t seem to be very many.”

“They’re leaving,” she responded. “Many to La Paz.”

Rosemarí’s brother drives a taxi in La Paz, returning to Tiwanaku every few weeks to see his family or to participate in festivals. It is not just the men leaving Tiwanaku, though. A new generation of young people, excited to lead more cosmopolitan lives with greater financial payoff, are heading to the cities or to work in the coca fields, leaving behind a life of subsistence farming in Tiwanaku’s potato fields. They follow the money, and it leads them straight out of Tiwanaku.

As Rosemarí spoke about the exodus of able-bodied men, her forehead creased with worry. The problem, she told me, is dual: As young men leave for the modern world of the cosmopolitan city life, the modern world is entering Tiwanaku, threatening to erase the memory of what it means to be Aymara. Gesturing to her clothing, she told me that the Aymara used to only wear clothing made out of llama fur, but that today she does not follow the tradition so strictly. She has a cell phone. Their house has a television. Her sister has an e-mail address. The world in the campo is changing, certainly, but they must not forget too much, she said.

“We believe—we really do—in pachamama,” she told me, emphasizing that the community has not forgotten this fundamental Aymara notion of “Mother Earth.”Yet despite Rosemarí’s assertion, the Aymarans, especially members of the farming communities, are acutely aware of something sinister happening to pachamama. As the climate changes and rains come at unpredictable times, the allure of staying in the campo shrinks, and something has to be done. The members of the younger generation that flee to more lucrative areas may be forgetting an ethic that the Aymara hold as fundamental: that respect for pachamama is paramount and that she must be cared for.

Rosemarí once told me as we herded sheep up the mountains that there is a difference even between the farming Aymara living in the agricultural communities around Tiwanaku and the artisans who live in the pueblo. The artisans, she said, are forgetting, but in the campo, they have to build their lives around pachamama.

“We believe in pachamama, and we can feel her changing,” she said, her jaw fixed and her eyes growing wider. “But some people…they are forgetting.”


At the heart of the twin problems of keeping youth in Tiwanaku and bringing more tourists to the city lie questions about the future of indigenous communities. As the indigenous peoples of Bolivia are afforded more rights, will they use their integration into the nation as a chance to abandon their seemingly archaic pasts, or will they be called to remember their culture? Bringing back a slipping culture means both having a population that cares about breathing new life into it, and, in this day, having enough tourist onlookers to watch it all happen.

Just outside the sparse pueblo, Tiwanaku’s “urban center,” and just before the sprawling yellow farmland of the campo meets the soft grey mountains, the Unidad Academica Campesina de Tiwanaku (UAC) sits nestled between town and country. The first day I found myself on the university’s campus, it was as though I’d found Tiwanaku’s missing generation. The university, the first of several indigenous agricultural institutes scattered across the Bolivian countryside, is one element of the indigenous renaissance blooming all over the country, and it might be Tiwanaku’s key to its twin troubles of keeping the young generation around and attracting tourism.

“Since I was a child I’ve always seen these customs and practices, and now I’ve seen them disappearing,” Magda Hortencia Patty Quispe, a student in animal husbandry at UAC, told me. “Young people are leaving to go to the cities, and we realize that’s not good. So we want to go back to remember…and to see the cultures of our grandfathers. Showing young people that you can reappropriate our roots is important; it shows you that you can stay and change the hurting environment.”

An Aymara woman picks potatoes from her fields for carnaval festivities. (Sathian/TYG)

The university, founded in 1998, was part of the governmental push to help members of indigenous communities thrive. The hope for universities like UAC at Tiwanaku is that they might inspire young people to stay in their indigenous farming communities by giving them the tools and skills to turn their traditions into careers for the modern age. UAC’s 175 indigenous students, who come from both Tiwanaku and other neighboring communities, can choose from three courses of study: agriculture, animal husbandry, and rural tourism.

“The main project here is to revive these ancient agricultural practices and to reintegrate them into our communities, and part of this is proving with the help of science that these practices do work,” explained Flavio Merlo Maydana, director of the program in animal husbandry.

UAC at Tiwanaku was founded, he said, with the goal of attracting some young Aymarans to stay behind and revitalize the methods that their grandfathers used for years before them. Maydana is one of the 20 Aymara faculty members at UAC engaged in this project. I followed him from the dining hall to his office, passing a greenhouse and a large field, where an alpaca stood chewing grass lazily and watching a group of students having class outside studying the anatomy of llama skeletons.

“We want to reach back to what we were without forgetting the world outside of us,” said Francisco Flores Lopes, a professor of anatomy and physiology at UAC, his eyes lighting up and his hands clenching and unclenching with nervous energy. “There are things that science doesn’t explain, like why offerings to pachamama work. So here we are doing a combination of science and technology, and we want to take that to the community and help them develop it.”

The sentiment expressed by Lopes is one that pervades the entire university. As students of animal husbandry and agriculture learn old practices and remake them in a modern light, students of tourism study immense amounts of cultural history, in addition to practical skills about marketing and business. UAC is tackling the double-sided dilemma of both keeping people to stay in the campo and bringing in new eyes to visit and learn and study.

“Today, [the university] is a revalorization of our culture,” Maydana said. “We have people who haven’t studied in the universities but who listen to voices they hear in the land and the trees, and they know what pachamama wants people to do or not…and we have a form of revitalizing the earth that we can take from them.”

Maydana can remember when the Aymarans were discriminated against and not allowed to study even in elementary schools, let alone universities. Though people with indigenous heritage make up almost 66 percent of the Bolivian population, it was not until Evo Morales, he said, that the quality of life for indigenous peoples began to improve. But during the time that being Aymara had been a taboo, an entire generation lost a sense of what it meant to be Aymara.

“There’s definitely a revitalization of Aymaran cultural identity going on,” said Alan Kolata, archaeologist and professor of anthropology at the University of Chicago, who has been studying the Aymara community in Tiwanaku since 1978. “It’s been accelerated under Evo, but it predates Evo, back to 1952 or ’53. The Aymara were becoming increasingly more self-assertive about their culture.”

UAC is in the business of saving a culture. At the university, Maydana said students speak not only Spanish and Aymara, but also Quechua, another indigenous language. Lopes said a major part of the university’s goal of revalorizing the culture is encouraging students to speak indigenous languages. Some students at UAC are even writing their senior theses in Aymara, a radical shift from years before when young children might have been slapped by their grandparents for speaking the language.

But saving pachamama is an integral part of saving Aymaran culture. Making old agricultural practices work in new times can be a challenge, Maydana said. Some of it involves abandoning technologies that have failed, like pesticides, to return to more natural solutions for things. As we sat in his office, occasionally interrupted by a cacophony of animal noises outside or in a lab a few buildings over, Maydana remembered his days a child, when he did not know about veterinarians. But animals never got sick then, either.

“Today, there are parasites and pesticides, and we have to use science and technology to go back to some ancient ways,” he said. “We used pesticides to kill parasites, and now we have forgotten in the meantime the natural ways to kill parasites.”

A woman walks home from the Tiwanaku town center after shopping at the Sunday market. (Sathian/TYG)

Reviving the old ways is especially important in the world of dairy farming. Most families in the campo have cows, which they milk twice a day, providing their families with milk and cheese, but many don’t have the materials to make cheeses that could be sold in a market or in La Paz. In one of the labs at UAC, students are working on an answer; they spend hours each morning heating up milk, adding enzymes to it, and turning it into cheese on an industrial scale that many families in the campo cannot emulate.

Dairy likely holds the most potential for rural residents to modernize, Kolata said. But some agricultural practices, like that of using raised fields to farm, though once efficient, are no longer sustainable as the amount of production in rural areas shrinks. But producing things like yogurt and cheese—if universities like UAC can get the technology they need to produce dairy hygienically on a large scale—hold the potential to be a fruitful method of production.

Agricultural modernization may help the community hold onto some of its ancient traditions, but it may not be enough to hold together a culture that some are forgetting.


The Aymara in Tiwanaku had been forgetting for years before they began remembering. And many of the residents attribute the sudden jolt in memory to an unexpected interest on the part of North American academics like Kolata in studying Tiwanaku. After the academics came a few tourists, and now they want more. Tourism is the other stimulus that might breathe new life into Tiwanaku’s economy and, as a result, Aymaran culture.

“Tourism complements the resurgence of Aymara culture, and it’s important for Tiwanaku,” Kolata said. “External interest stimulates their understanding that [Tiwanaku] is an important place.”

The alumni of the rural tourism department at UAC are scattered all around Tiwanaku. Graduates of the university with degrees in tourism and some members of the older generation have been designing ways to pull visitors from La Paz or even from neighboring South American countries by mixing archaeological tourism and ecotourism, or even arranging host family stays like what I experienced.

I was entering parts of Tiwanaku as a pioneer among tourists. As I milked cows in the fields and celebrated carnaval in the potato fields with Rosemarí, I got more than a few confused looks from passing villagers. The ground I treaded in Tiwanaku was fresh, and my footprint may stay imprinted in the soil for some time. As more and more tourists come to Tiwanaku, that effect will be diluted, but in these early years, tourism may change the way Tiwanaku operates.

“Tourism here can be developed as an element of interaction across cultural backgrounds,” said Angela Callisaya Yujra, a 2008 graduate of UAC who is now working at the Centro Integral de Tiwanaku, the growing tourism bureau in the pueblo. “It’s a key way to revalorize the situation with the environment. [Tourists] will change their points of view once they see different ways of treating the earth.”

The future of Tiwanaku, and of other indigenous communities across Bolivia and South America, rests at this crucial junction between the ancient and the modern. But as I watched Tiwanaku retreat into dusty roads and far-off blue tinged mountains on the drive back to La Paz, I saw my presence as not so distanced from the struggles of the campo. Whether or not Tiwanaku continues to modernize effectively and profitably lies in their hands. But our outside eyes, if gentle and curious, are a part of their cultural revalorization, and as tourists, our witness matters.

*Note: reporting for this article was conducting mostly in Spanish, and quotes have been translated.

Sanjena Sathian ’13 is an English major in Morse College. Contact her at