Ask around at the bars, cafes and restaurants for live music; several occasionally host acoustic peñas (gatherings where traditional folkloric music is played). Potosí has two cinemas; the Multicine Universal screens relatively recent releases. Real Potosí, the local soccer team, is one of Bolivia’s most successful; it plays at the town stadium on the hilariously named Av Highland Players.

Tinku: the Art of Ritual Mayhem

Native to the northern part of Potosí department, tinku fighting, which takes place on May 3, ranks as one of the few Bolivian traditions that has yet to be commercialized. This practice lies deeply rooted in indigenous tradition and is thus often misunderstood by outsiders, who can make little sense of the violent and often grisly spectacle.

Tinku may be best interpreted as a type of ritualized means of discharging tensions between different indigenous communities. Festivities begin with singing and dancing, but celebrations soon erupt into mayhem and frequently violence, as emotions are unleashed in hostile encounters.

A tinku usually lasts two or three days, when men and women in brightly colored traditional dress hike in from surrounding communities. The hats worn by the men strongly resemble those originally worn by the Spanish conquistadores, but are topped, Robin Hood–style, with one long iridescent feather.

On the first evening, the communities parade through town to the accompaniment of charangos and zampoñas (a type of pan pipe). Periodically, the revelers halt and form two concentric circles, with women on the inside and the men in the outer circle. The women begin singing a typically repetitious and cacophonous chant, while the men run in a circle around them. Suddenly, everyone stops and launches into a powerful stomping dance. Each group is led by at least one person – usually a man – who uses a whip to ensure slackers keep up with the rhythm and the pace.

This routine may seem harmless enough, except that alcohol plays a significant and controlling role. Most people carry bottles filled with puro (rubbing alcohol), which is the drink of choice; by nightfall, each participating community retreats to a designated house to drink chicha.

This excessive imbibing inevitably results in social disorder. Roaming the streets, individuals encounter people from other communities with whom they may have some quarrel, either real or imagined, and may challenge them to fight.

The situation rapidly progresses past yelling and cursing to pushing and shoving, before it turns into an almost choreographed form of warfare. Seemingly rhythmically, men strike each other’s heads and upper bodies with extended arms. This has been immortalized in the tinku dance, which is frequently performed during Carnaval in highly traditional Oruro. To augment the hand-to-hand combat, the fighters may also throw rocks at their opponents, occasionally causing serious injury or death. Any fatalities, however, are considered a blood offering to Pachamama in lieu of a llama sacrifice for the same purpose.

The best known and arguably most violent tinku takes place in the village of Macha during the first couple of weeks of May, while the villages of Ocurí and Toracarí, among others, also host tinkus.

As you’d imagine, few foreigners aspire to witness this private and often violent tradition, which categorically cannot be thought of as a tourist attraction; many people who have attended insist they’d never do it again. For the terminally curious, however, Altiplano Tours in Potosí conducts culturally sensitive – and patently less-than-comfortable – visits to several of the main tinku festivities. Note, however, that if you do go it will be at your own risk. Keep a safe distance from the participants and always remain on the side of the street to avoid being trapped in the crowd. When walking around the village, maintain a low profile, speak in soft tones and ignore any taunting cries of ‘gringo.' Also, bear in mind that these traditional people most definitely do not want hordes of foreign tourists gawking at them and snapping photos; avoid photographing individuals without their express permission and do not participate.