Sometimes it’s the humblest textile that takes up permanent residence in your memory of a place. I was fortunate to travel in Bolivia with a group from Andean Textile Arts recently, and was blown away by the fine basketry of the jipi japa palm weavers of the Santa Cruz region, and the lovely natural dyed alpaca textiles of Cochabamba, and the bizarre and haunting (and disturbing) imagery of the J’alqa weavers southwest of La Paz, and so much more.
But what says “Bolivia” to me most of all is the man’s Tarabuco poncho. It’s a wide knee-length poncho, four panels with a horizontal seam and head opening. It always has narrow red, black, and white stripes in different sequences and spacing, sometimes some gold or other accent color. And fringe. You see them on men everywhere in the altiplano, from Sucre to La Paz and beyond. You would have seen it on Quechua villagers rounding up their alpacas or vicuñas (yes, there are big flocks of semi-domesticated vicuñas). You would have seen it on president Evo Morales, before he was deposed.
We saw it on the musicians in the village of Candelaria and on the musicians of Los Masis in Sucre. This group is an amazing blend of traditional Andean music with a dose of hard rock—full of passion and spirit and never without their ponchos. The musicians of Los Masis come from a wonderful program that enlists street kids into a music school, where they learn culture and discipline and what it feels like to be cared for. Some of the kids graduate into the rock band, some get scholarships to American universities. Check our their YouTube videos Los Masis El Borrachito or Los Masis Ch’allaricuna. The little boys in their colorful, short, vertical-striped ponchos graduate into the more austere, manly version.
And you can see men wearing the Tarabuco poncho on page 119 of A Textile Traveler’s Guide to Peru and Bolivia among much more distracting Carnival wear. It’s almost like a cultural anchor. It is serious, stalwart, and determined, like the Quechua and Aymara people of the region (when they’re not enjoying the frenzy of Carnival or some other celebration). If you go there, just don’t overlook the poncho. And if you can’t go there, buy the book! It provides a wonderful armchair adventure.
Learn more about Bolivian textiles in A Textile Traveler’s Guide to Peru & Boliva, available individually or as part of our special textile traveler’s bundle available only through December.