I first went to Bolivia in 1994 with my husband to view a total solar eclipse. It was a stunning experience, high in the Altiplano with the sky going dark, the donkeys and cattle bellowing, the birds flapping around in perplexity. The eclipse itself lasted only moments, but the memory overshadows everything else I experienced on that trip.
So it was a huge privilege to head back to Bolivia last month with a group sponsored by Andean Textile Arts , this time with a focus primarily on the strange and wonderful textiles of the Aymara and Quechua people of the Andes.
We experienced sensory overload, going from subtropics to 13,000 feet to the ghostly and weird landscape of the Uyuni salt plain. But when I close my eyes and think back, what comes first to mind is our drive out from La Paz to the small dusty village of Candelaria. We had seen examples of their weaving in the splendid National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore (Musef) The weaving is sewing-thread fine and highly figured with little scenes from village life. But seeing the weaving and seeing who and where it comes from are two complementary experiences.
We were greeted with song and dance, and what a dance! The musicians—flutists and drummers— wear traditional Tarabuco-style ponchos (that’s another story).
The dancers, well, just look.(Click HERE to see my short video of the dancers!) Finely woven cape, apron, sash, carrying bags, embellished helmets, knitted leggings—and on their feet, the most remarkable objects you can imagine. These men’s dance shoes are high wooden platforms with large copper disks attached to the back, tambourine style. As they shuffle around in a circle, brushing their heels together, the percussive effect is almost hypnotic.
After the introductory ceremony, the women went to their looms and demonstrated their skills. That they can weave such an intricate, lively hubbub of figures, one weft at a time across a wide warp, working solely from their imagination, is awe-inspiring. It is truly a treasure of human endeavor.
Andean Textile Arts is planning another trip to Bolivia next year. If you love textiles, start getting in shape for the altitude and keep an eye out for it.
Discover how to plan your own journey to Bolivia with A Textile Traveler’s Guide to Peru & Bolivia.