Dressed in indigenous clothing and bowler hats, Bolivian female wrestlers are full of surprises.
Bolivian women are typically depicted in iconic traditional clothing: bowler hats, embroidered shawls, and vibrant polleras (long, multi-layered skirts). For most of the week, you’ll find women dressed like this selling fresh fruits and vegetables on the street, hawking second-hand clothing and knock-off electronics at public markets, or carrying young children (or groceries!) on their backs, bundled in colorful woven slings known as aguayos. But on Sundays, a day of rest in this predominantly Catholic country, bowler hats go flying across the wrestling ring as indigenous women in petticoats battle it out in the Andean highlands of El Alto, overlooking La Paz. Hundreds of locals and a growing number of boisterous tourists ride a cable car up the steep mountainside to cheer on the cholitas, quite possibly the world’s first indigenous wrestling stars.
Female professional wrestlers fight (quite literally) for attention and respect in the male-dominated sport across the world and Bolivia is no different. What is distinct about Bolivia’s female wrestling scene, however, is that the women clotheslining and elbowing each other in the ring are indigenous women wearing traditional clothing. Not only do cholitas fight each other, but they also fight male wrestlers. Neither gender shows the other any mercy and co-ed matches can result in particularly comical confrontations.
Female professional wrestlers fight (quite literally) for attention and respect in the male-dominated sport across the world and Bolivia is no different.
The word “cholita” was once a derogatory term for mixed-heritage Indigenous girls but is now positively associated with modern Bolivian women who are proud, empowered, and entrepreneurial. Most cholitas are Aymara, an indigenous group that has faced ethnic oppression and exploitation since Spanish colonization of the region in the 16th century. Indigenous people were forced to work as servants for Spanish occupiers and were required to wear certain garments (such as hefty skirts and bowler hats), which are now sources of pride for cholitas.
Cholitas exist across Bolivia, but the types of skirts and hats change across regions. Until recent decades, indigenous Aymara and Quechua women were looked down on as rural peasants who migrated to large cities, where they could be refused entry to some restaurants, taxis, and public buses. Today, cholitas can be found working as journalists, politicians, and television anchors. La Paz now even has a cholita-focused modeling agency that stages runway fashion shows.
Some of the fiercest and feistiest cholitas are the Flying Cholitas, a group of female wrestlers who perform in front of packed crowds each Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday at 5 p.m. Each day’s fights are in a different location and have their own flare but the Sunday show is especially fun because it draws more locals, who may be less-inclined to go out on a work/school night.
Cholita wrestling started as a way for domestic abuse survivors to release stress and express their frustration.
Influenced by America’s World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and Mexico’s famous lucha libre, Bolivia’s wrestling matches are staged and spectacular, where the cholitas captivate crowds with their colorful costumes and exuberant antics. The women enter the auditorium to huge applause, clapping, singing, and dancing along to festive music. Once the match begins, seriousness takes over, as the women leap off the ropes to tackle each other, kick each other in the stomach, pull braids, and call out to the audience for advice on how to next torment an opponent.
Cholita wrestling started as a way for domestic abuse survivors to release stress and express their frustration. Female wrestlers were initially featured in the formerly all-male sport as a publicity maneuver that proved lucrative. Most cholitas come from low-economic backgrounds and wrestling has been a means for them to improve their lives and those of their families. Though many cholitas still work multiple jobs, wrestling has empowered women and provided them with additional earning potential that comes on their own terms.
Many hotels and hostels arrange tours to cholitas wrestling matches that typically include transportation, admission, a snack, and souvenir (about 90 Bolivianos, or $13 USD). You can also book directly with an agency such as Andean Secrets or Red Cap Walking Tours. Both companies give the option to include a cable car ride and/or a walking tour of the El Alto market before the show. Joining one of these tours is the fastest and easiest way to get to the event, and you’ll likely get the best seats in the house, though you may feel uneasy when you see that Bolivians have been relegated to bleachers in the back so that tourists can sit ring-side. Note to anyone lucky (or unlucky) enough to be seated in the first few rows, you may have water and/or soda spit on you during the show.
Though many cholitas still work multiple jobs, wrestling has empowered women and provided them with additional earning potential that comes on their own terms.
To get to the Sunday show in El Alto on your own from La Paz, take the red line on the Teleferico cable car (3 Bolivianos, about $0.44) to Estación 16 de Julio or take one of the local white mini-buses (2 Bolivianos, $0.29) from Plaza San Francisco and get off at the market entrance. The views of La Paz from the cable car ride alone are reason enough to visit El Alto. Bolivia’s cable cars offer a spectacular bird’s-eye view of the sprawling city’s red brick buildings, modern skyscrapers, and snow-capped mountains. The Coliseo, where the Sunday fights take place, is a 20-minute walk from the teleferico. Take a left out of the terminal and head down Avenida Panoramica. Tickets are usually available at the door but tourists may be forced to pay for premium seats up front (60 Bolivianos, $8.50), even if they’d prefer to sit in the bleachers in the back.
Spanish for “The Heights,” El Alto is both the largest city in Latin America inhabited by indigenous Americans and also the highest major metropolis in the world, perched 4,050 meters (13,615 feet) above sea level. Consider getting there early so you have time to explore the largest open-air market in Bolivia, where you’ll find everything from car parts and exercise equipment to electronics and just about any and every food item grown in Bolivia. Grab lunch at one of the food stalls then head into the match for what very well may be the most memorable part of your visit to Bolivia.