Markets and Cholitas in Bolivia

The city of Cochabumba is nestled in a fertile valley and at one time was the ‘food bowl’ for a large area that included the mining city of Potosi to the South. Street markets abound in this region, as they do all over Bolivia and as a traveller, they are always a great place to wander, buy stuff and understand how people really live. We stumbled across a couple of markets in towns driving enroute to La Paz and stopped and wandered about with the locals. We also made a point of visiting the city market on one of the ‘busy’ days in Cochabumba (apparently the biggest market in South America, but there appears to be a long list of cities claiming this!)

In Bolivia, there are very few supermarkets. The market place or ‘Mercado’ is where everything is bought and sold. Markets have specialties. So you will find a street where every shop sells the same thing. This could be chicken, motorbike parts, electrical appliances, fruit and vegetables, herbal remedies – you get the idea. You name it there’s a street or area assigned to that product.

In addition to markets, the streets in most towns are dotted with mini-vendors who sell just about anything from the side of the road. Apple juice in plastic bags with a straw, cups of jelly, bras or stockings, cut flowers and more. Regional food specialties are often sold from these mini-vendors. On the footpaths in many places, women sit with their home-made cheese, fresh bread or other single products in the hope that someone will buy. People work hard. In many places in towns, people sell all manner of things at intersections and traffic lights. Men with an arm-full of toilet paper rolls or razors, women with lollies, drinks and food wander between the cars and are often at toll booths on main roads too. In Bolivia the products come to you!

In the areas of Bolivia that we have travelled (western region) the distinctive dress of the Cholitas (traditionally dressed women) sets them apart from other parts of society. We have observed that the Cholitas work very hard. They are almost always carrying a large ‘sack’ on their back wrapped in distinctive colourful cloth and often a heavy bag in each hand too. What they are carrying varies – sometimes it’s a child and other times it may be produce from the fields – or both!

Cholitas wear pleated skirts to enhance their body shape (because its important to be robust to be a strong worker in the home). The history of this fashion dates back to the 1600 and 1700s when large pleated skirts were fashionable in Spain and hence grew popular here in this region. We were told that some women wear up to 7 layers underneath the top skirt to enhance their shape. This would also be a great advantage in the very cold winters! Cholitas have plaited long black hair which symbolises wisdom and they almost always wear an apron and a hat. Hat styles vary according to region. Whilst not all women dress this way, the Chlolitas are iconic in this area of Bolivia.

The majority of market stalls both in the cities and the villages are run by Cholitas and you also see them dressed the same way in their colourful clothing, working in fields or tending small herds of 6-12 sheep, llamas or occasionally a couple of cattle.

Our market photos are a combination from Cochabumba and La Paz.



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