Explore Sucre, Cochabamba and the central valleys
By far the most popular excursion from Sucre is to the small rural town of TARABUCO, set amid crumpled brown mountains about 60km southeast of the city. The town itself is an unremarkable collection of red-tiled adobe houses and cobbled streets leading to a small plaza with a modern church, but its real claim to fame is its Sunday market, which acts as a focus for the indigenous communities of the surrounding mountains, the so-called Tarabuceños, who come to sell the beautiful weavings for which they’re famous throughout Bolivia. The market is a bit of a tourist trap – there are usually several busloads of foreign tourists in attendance – but it’s still principally geared towards the indigenous campesinos of the surrounding region, and the stalls selling weavings and other handicrafts to tourists are far outnumbered by those selling basic supplies such as dried foodstuffs, agricultural tools, sandals made from tyres, big bundles of coca and pure cane alcohol. If you walk a few blocks away from the centre of town you can still see campesinos engaging in trueque, a traditional Andean system of non-monetary trade in which agricultural products from different ecological zones are exchanged according to standard ratios – potatoes for maize, dried llama meat for oranges, and so on.
You can pick up some nice souvenirs at the market, though it’s best to have some idea of quality and price before you arrive (have a look at things on sale on the streets of Sucre). Small items like decorative chuspa coca-bags make good mementoes; larger items like ponchos and shawls cost a lot more. Be prepared to bargain, but not too hard: many of the sellers are poor campesinos who may be desperate to sell something so they can buy essential goods to take home to their families. Photographing people without permission is considered rude and can provoke an angry reaction: ask first, and be prepared to pay a few bolivianos for the privilege. If you want a less touristy experience, try one of Candelaria Tours’ trips to Candelaria village.
The Tarabuceños: master weavers
The Tarabuceños: master weavers
Though they wear the same traditional costume, speak the same language (Quechua) and share many cultural traditions, strictly speaking it’s not correct to refer to the Tarabuceños as an ethnic group: the name was simply given by the colonial authorities to all the indigenous communities living around Tarabuco. When the Spanish first arrived, the region had only recently been conquered by the Incas and marked the very limit of their domain. To secure the frontier and defend against raids by the indomitable Chiriguano tribes to the east, the Incas settled the area with different ethnic groups brought from elsewhere in the empire. All these indigenous communities speak Quechua, the lingua franca of the Inca empire, and at some point after the Spanish conquest they also adopted the distinctive costumes that give a semblance of unity today, but they have no collective name for themselves nor any tradition of collective political organization that suggests a common origin.
These distinctive traditional costumes make the Tarabuceños difficult to miss: the men wear leather hats, known as monteros and shaped like the steel helmets worn by the Spanish conquistadors, along with woollen ponchos woven with bright, horizontal stripes of red, yellow, orange and green on a brown background, and three-quarter-length white trousers. In addition, they often use finely woven accessories like chumpi belts and chuspa coca-bags. Though generally more muted in colour, the traditional costumes worn by the women, particularly the woollen shawls known as llijlas or aqsus, are also decorated with beautiful and complex designs, and the ceremonial hats and headdresses they wear on special occasions match the monteros of the men in their unusual shape and design: black pillboxes with a flap covering the neck decorated with sequins and bright woollen pom-poms, or boat-shaped sombreros embroidered with silver thread. More even than their costumes, however, it is Tarabuceño weavings that draw travellers to Tarabuco, and selling them has become a major source of income for the Tarabuceños, who otherwise depend on agriculture for their livelihoods and live in great poverty.
The Carnaval de Tarabuco
The Carnaval de Tarabuco
Every year on the third Sunday of March, Tarabuco celebrates Pujllay (or the Carnaval de Tarabuco), one of the best-known indigenous fiestas in Bolivia. Pujllay commemorates the battle of Jumbate on March 12, 1816, during the Independence War, when the Tarabuceños ambushed a battalion of marauding Spanish troops, slaughtering all but the drummer boy and eating their hearts in ritual revenge for abuses committed by the Spanish. During the fiesta, all the surrounding Tarabuceño communities come to town dressed in their finest ceremonial costumes, joined by thousands of tourists. Following a Mass to commemorate the battle, the participants stage folkloric dances and parades whilst knocking back copious amounts of chicha (fermented maize beer), beer and pure cane alcohol. The climax of the celebration takes place around a ritual altar known as a pukara, raised in honour of the Tarabuceños who died in the battle and formed from a kind of wooden ladder decorated with fruit, vegetables, flowers, bread, bottles of chicha and other agricultural produce. Drinking and dancing continues through the night: if you want to sleep, you’re better off returning to Sucre.