Alpacas and Altitude
In June I headed to La Paz, Bolivia to shoot 2 new personal projects. ‘Cholitas Escaladoras’ and ‘Flying Cholitas’.
The Cholita Climbers are a group of Aymara indigenous women who are breaking stereotypes and shifting perceptions. In January of 2019 they summited the 22,841ft peak of Mt Aconcagua, in Argentina. The highest mountain outside of Asia. And did so, eschewing as they always do, traditional climbing clothing in favour of their traditional, vibrant, billowing dresses. And using their traditional shawls to carry equipment rather than backpacks.
While their counterparts the ‘Flying Cholitas’ are a group of wrestling luchadoras who first began practicing their craft in the early 2000’s when a group of women in El Alto created the group. Inspired by Mexico’s lucha libre style of wrestling, this group was partly for recreation and entertainment. But also as a way for women who had suffered domestic abuse to take out their frustration and stress. And they haven’t looked back from there, headlining events and even taking on their male counterparts in the ring.
El Alto in Bolivia sits on a high plateau 1600ft above the city of La Paz. From a distance the city’s densely packed 2 and 3 story brick houses almost look like they are flowing up to the plateau’s cliff edge before cascading down its precipitous face like water flowing over a waterfall, down to La Paz below it. In places the houses seemingly defying physics and gravity as they stake their claim on the cliffs face. El Alto, as the name eludes too, sits at an oxygen neglecting 13,615ft in altitude. Our flight rolled into the airport at around 1am and this lack of oxygen becomes very quickly apparent. Unloading your camera cases off the baggage carousel onto your trolley suddenly becomes a slightly odd experience, in that it feels like you’ve broken into a light jog in order to achieve this most Herculean of feats.
Drinking at 6am
5 days later, after having shot with the wrestling Cholitas, we set off for Huayana Potosi mountain (Pronounced ‘why-na’) in the pre dawn light. As Huayana Potosi comes into full view, just as the first rays of morning light begin to kiss it’s upper slopes, we pull off the road and the Cholitas ask us to join them in a Challa / Pachammama offering ceremony. This is to afford us safe passage on the mountain over the coming days. With a small fire smouldering, we each offer the Pachammama some Coca leaves, tucking them under a small rock, before pouring some alcohol onto it. Finishing off with a small swig as well. It’s basically local fire water that could likely strip paint if needed. And imbibing it at 6am blows your head off.
In the end we climbed to around 16,000ft. At that height, without time to completely acclimatise, just holding your camera and shooting makes you stop for breath. And headaches. Absolutely thumping headaches, and the rest of your body just feels completely weird and exhausted.