The well-ordered streets of the colonial city centre still preserve the neat grid pattern laid out by the city founders in accordance with Spanish laws governing the foundation of settlements in the Indies. At its centre stands the Plaza Murillo, home to both the Palacio Presidential and the parliament building, the Palacio Legislativo. A fair number of colonial buildings still survive, though most are in a poor state of repair, their crumbling facades and dilapidated balconies obscured by tangled phone lines and electricity cables. The exceptions to this are concentrated on and around the Plaza Murillo and nearby calle Jaén, both of which are also home to several museums.
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La Fiesta del Gran Poder
La Fiesta del Gran Poder
The defining cultural and social event of the year in La Paz is undoubtedly La Fiesta del Gran Poder, a dramatic religious fiesta held during late May or early June in homage to a miraculous image of Christ known as Nuestro Señor del Gran Poder (Our Lord of Great Power). The origins of the Gran Poder are surprisingly recent. It started little over half a century ago as a local celebration amongst Aymara migrants living and working in the market district around Avenida Buenos Aires, but since the beginning of the 1980s it has grown into an enormous festival that has taken over the centre of the city and is enjoyed by Paceños of all different classes. In part, this expansion has followed the growing wealth and influence of the Aymara merchants, but it also reflects a growing acceptance of Aymara culture and folklore amongst the city’s white and mestizo residents.
Tens of thousands of costumed dancers belonging to over a hundred different folkloric fraternities take part in the entrada – the procession that marks the start of the fiesta – parading through the centre of La Paz to the cacophonous accompaniment of massed brass bands. The various dances performed during the entrada represent different themes from Aymara folklore and Catholic traditions from all over the department of La Paz and further afield. The sight of grown adults dressed in outrageous costumes drinking and dancing their way through the city may seem an odd form of religious devotion, but the participants and spectators see no contradiction in combining the sincere expression of religious belief with a riotous party – indeed the act of dancing nonstop for several hours at high altitude in a heavy costume can be seen as an exhausting form of devotional sacrifice, while the Señor del Gran Poder would doubtless be disappointed if the celebration of his fiesta were not accompanied by sufficient revelry.
La Chola Paceña
La Chola Paceña
One of the most striking images in La Paz is that of the ubiquitous cholas paceñas, the Aymara and mestiza women dressed in voluminous skirts and bowler hats, who dominate much of the day-to-day business in the city’s endless markets. The word chola (cholo for men) was originally a derogatory term used to refer to indigenous women who moved to the city and adopted the lifestyle of urban mestizos, but now refers more to women who were born in La Paz (paceñas) and are proud of their urban indigenous identity.
The distinctive dress of the chola is derived from seventeenth-century Spanish costumes, which indigenous women were obliged to copy under colonial rule. The crucial element of the outfit is the pollera, a layered skirt made from lengths of material up to 5m long, which are wrapped around the waist and reinforced with numerous petticoats to emphasize the width of the wearer’s hips. These skirts can make women appear almost as wide as they are tall, and represent a glorious celebration of a very distinct ideal of female beauty. The pollera is worn in combination with knee-high boots, an elaborate lacy blouse, a shawl wrapped around the shoulders and a felt bowler or derby hat. The bowler hats became common attire in the 1930s, though the origins of this fashion are somewhat mysterious. Some say the style was adopted from the hats worn by gringo mining and railway engineers, others that the trend was started by a businessman who erroneously imported a job lot of bowler hats from Europe and struck on the idea of marketing them as women’s headgear.
The chola costume was originally confined to the wealthier mestiza women of La Paz, but has since become widespread amongst Aymara migrants in the city and across the Altiplano. The acceptability of the chola as one of the central icons of La Paz and an expression of pride in indigenous culture was confirmed in 1989, when Remedios Loza became the first woman to take a seat in the Bolivian Congress dressed in full chola regalia. In the decades since, not least since Evo Morales came to power in 2005, the colourfully attired chola has become almost as familiar a political fixture as the traditional drab-suited gent.