Traditions and customs of Bolivia

What traditions and customs are there in Bolivia?

We delve into the customs and traditions of Bolivia.

Food and economy

Food in daily life

The typical diet is high in carbohydrates but deficient in other food categories. In the highlands, the main staple food is the potato (dozens of varieties of this domesticated Andean are grown), followed by other Andean and European tubers and grains (e.g., oca, quinoa, barley, and increasingly in the Oriente, rice), corn and legumes, especially broad beans.

Freeze-dried potatoes (“chuño”) and dried cecina (“ch’arki”) from cattle or Andean camelids (llama, alpaca, and vicuña) are common, although beef makes up an insignificant part of the daily diet. Corn beer (“chicha”) is a traditional and ritually important drink in the highlands.

In the East, rice, cassava, peanuts, bananas, legumes and maize form the cornerstone of the daily diet, supplemented by fish, poultry and beef. Favorite national delicacies include guinea pig (also eaten in important ceremonies) and chicharrón.

Meals are served with hot pepper sauces. There are few food taboos, and almost all animal parts are eaten, although reptiles are not. Most cultural restrictions focus on food preparation, such as avoiding raw and unprocessed foods.

In cities and towns, the early morning meal usually consists of coffee, tea, or a hot maize drink (“api”), sometimes served with bread. In the markets, hot meals and stews are also consumed. In the country, breakfast sometimes consists of toasted ground cereals with cheese and tea, followed by a thick soup (‘lawa’) at nine or ten.

The main meal is lunch, which in upper-class urban homes and restaurants is usually a four-course meal. A much lighter meal is eaten around seven in the evening. Peasants and lower-income urban dwellers have lunch with boiled potatoes, homemade cheese, hard-boiled egg and hot sauce (‘lawa’) or a thick stew with rice or potatoes.

Food customs on ceremonial occasions

More elaborate and substantial meals, with plenty of fresh vegetables and beef, chicken, or pork, are eaten on ceremonial occasions, such as the lifecycle events of baptism, marriage, and death.

Public displays of generosity and reciprocity, offering abundant food and drink not typically available at other times of the year (for example, bottled beer, cane alcohol [trago], and beef), are an important cultural imperative.

On All Saints’ Day, meals are prepared for the recently deceased and the sick. Many major meals mimic those of high-class restaurants in major cities, including dishes like ají de pollo (chicken smothered in hot sauce and served with rice and/or potatoes).


Marriage, a fundamental rite of passage and an indicator of adulthood, is often linked to the formation of new homes and is expected of all Bolivians.

The typical Andean marriage model (common in the highlands and the East, but often frowned upon by members of the elite) involves three highly ritualized steps: an initial period of cohabitation (“juntados”) lasting up to three years, in the one in which the spouses establish a home and start having children, a civil wedding and a religious wedding followed by a two to three day marriage celebration.

Although there are polygamous marriages in some ethnic groups in the East, monogamy is the norm. The most important marriage prescription in the highlands is not to marry someone with an identical (often paternal) given name and/or who is within the range of third cousins.

Village or hamlet exogamy is often the rule. Postmarital residence is usually neolocal (the couple establishes their own household independently of the parents), although it is sometimes preceded, especially in the case of cohabitation, by a patrilocal phase in which the couple temporarily resides with the groom’s parents.

Marriage expands the alliances and networks of relatives and generates obligations and reciprocities between the group of relatives, including godparents and other fictitious relatives, of both spouses. Divorce, although legal, is rare in rural communities. It is common and expected for widows and widowers to remarry.


Social interaction is governed by norms that emphasize respect and formality and mark differences in age, gender, status and class. Shoppers are expected to be polite and convey deference to merchants by using the adverb “please.”

The use of formal pronouns in Spanish (“usted” but not “tú”) is especially important when addressing the elderly and older relatives, as are honorific titles for men and women (“don” for men and “doña” for women). women). Peasants address members of the Spanish-speaking urban elite as “gentlemen.”

Cultural mores dictate that one is in close proximity to the person one is interacting with. Staring and looking directly into the eyes are acceptable. Physical greetings vary greatly. In rural areas, it is common for family and close friends to give a simple, short, firm handshake; a half hug (not a full one) is expected, followed by a pat on the back.

In rural settings, public caresses, caresses and kisses between couples are frowned upon. Generosity and reciprocity are necessary in all social interactions, many of which involve the sharing of food and alcoholic beverages.


Religious beliefs

Bolivians are overwhelmingly Catholic (at least formally), and the Catholic Church has historically wielded enormous influence.

However, religious beliefs and practices constitute a system of “popular religion” that encompasses formal elements of Catholicism and, increasingly, Protestantism (especially rituals) with a partial understanding and acceptance of the doctrine, along with beliefs and rituals. prehispanic Andeans.

In popular religion, complementary deities and supernatural beings coexist. Many people believe in a k’harisiri, a malevolent demi-human being who is usually identified as the soul of a Spanish-speaking elite priest, foreigner, or mestizo who, in a pact with the Devil (“supay”), primarily attacks the indigenous travellers.

The miners are especially devoted to the deity of the uncle, who ensures rewarding work and protects them against accidents and misfortune. The widespread devotion to the cult of the Virgin Mary, intertwined with and nurtured by the equally powerful devotion to the feminine Pachamama (Mother Earth), is a cornerstone of popular religion.

Another distinctive feature of Andean folk religion is the importance of rituals through which people maintain social relationships and reciprocal ties with supernatural deities.

These rituals sometimes involve the sacrifice of Andean camelids (such as llamas), but more often require constant libations (“ch’allas”) in the context of excessive alcohol consumption and ritualized coca chewing.

Religious practitioners

The most important religious practitioners with whom the average person comes into contact are church officials (such as parish priests or bishops) and Protestant sect leaders.

Popular religion includes religious practitioners (“yatiris”) who are fortune tellers or who claim knowledge and ability to intercede with supernatural beings.

Rituals and Holy Places

Social life is marked by many rituals that coincide with the main agricultural seasons and/or are linked to the celebration of Christian deities, especially the Virgin Mary. The summer solstice is celebrated during the Night of San Juan (June 21) and has important pre-Hispanic antecedents.

The Oruro carnival festival (which begins on the Saturday before Ash Wednesday) is a crucial ritual event that mixes Hispanic and pre-Hispanic cultural and religious elements; Thousands of spectators and performers participate in musical and dance groups that commemorate motifs, themes, images and events, including the veneration of the Virgin Mary.

A similar festival is that of the Virgin of Urkupiña (August 14-16) in Quillacollo. The cult of the Virgin of Copacabana, religious patron of the nation, whose image was sculpted in 1583, is a ritual event of special importance.

Many communities have their own ritual celebrations and holy places, almost all associated with the appearance of a Christian saint or the Virgin Mary or the presence of mountain deities.

Death and the afterlife

Home shrines and rituals that take place on All Saints’ Day (November 1 and 2) indicate that the dead are part of the sociocultural universe of the living.

During this solemn celebration, specially prepared tables of food and drink are offered to the souls of the recently deceased, who are expected to visit their relatives (a return associated with the powers of reproduction, especially during the planting season).

Funeral rituals typically include washing the body and clothing of the deceased; buy and prepare the coffin; gather large amounts of coca, food and drink for the nightly wake and subsequent burial; and sponsor four Masses over the next year.

Secular celebrations

Important secular celebrations include Independence Day (August 6) and the signing of the 1953 agrarian reform law (August 2), also known as Indian Day. Some of the most well-known and significant secular celebrations are also national folkloric celebrations.

Arts and Humanities

The Bolivian Institute of Culture sponsors the arts and humanities and plays a role in preserving the nation’s cultural heritage. Bolivia has a distinguished literary tradition (especially novels and short stories), a popular oral tradition, and, to a lesser extent, graphic and performing arts.

An important genre is the world-class textile production in the La Paz and Sucre regions. With the support of the Inter-American Foundation, Bolivian anthropologists are working with weavers and documenting their ancient techniques and traditions.

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