Worth a Trip: Visiting the Chipaya

Immediately north of Salar de Coipasa, on the Río Sabaya delta, live the Chipaya people. Some researchers believe the Chipaya were the altiplano’s first inhabitants and that they may in fact be a remnant of the lost Tiwanaku civilization. Much of this speculation is based on the fact that their language is vastly different from both Quechua and Aymará, and is probably a surviving form of Uru. They occupy two main desert villages, Santa Ana de Chipaya and Ayparavi.

Though it is rare to see these days, the Chipayas are best recognized by their earth-colored clothing and the women’s unique hairstyle, which is plaited into 60 small braids. These are, in turn, joined into two large braids and decorated with a laurake (barrette) at each temple. Traditionally they lived in mud huts in a unique circular (huayllichas) or conical (putucus) shape, with doors made from cactus wood and which always face east, though few of these now remain. Museo Antropológico Eduardo López Rivas in Oruro has a replica of a Chipaya home and photographs of the community.

Chipaya tradition maintained that their people came into the world when it was still dark, and that they are descended from the ‘Men of Water’ – perhaps the Uru. Their nature-based religion was complex and symbolic, deifying phallic images, stones, rivers, mountains, animal carcasses and ancestors. The village church tower was worshipped as a demon – one of 40 named demons that represent hate, ire, vengeance, gluttony and other evils. These were believed to inhabit the whitewashed mud cones that exist within a 15km radius of the village, where they were appeased with libations, sacrifices and rituals to prevent their evil from invading the village.

The commemoration of dead ancestors culminated on November 2, Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), when bodies were disinterred from chullpas (funerary towers). They were feted with a feast and informed about recent village events and the needs of the living. Those who were chiefs, healers and other luminaries were carried to the church, where they were honored with animal sacrifices. Due to Christian evangelism such practices have died out, but ancestors who died during the previous year are still celebrated with a feast of their favorite foods in their honor on November 1.

Río Lauca, on which the Chipaya have depended for thousands of years, has been drying up during winter in recent years. Many Chipaya thus emigrate to Chile during this period, returning to plant their quinoa with the rains. The traditional way of life of the region’s most ancient people has now all but disappeared.

In the past tourists haven't been especially welcome, but there is now a community-run albergue (hostel) in Chipaya village. Accommodation is in round adobe huts, with tiled floors, hot water and electricity. Expect to be charged for taking photographs of people (and ask permission first!).

The distinctive, conical houses are found in the Ayparavi community, 30km outside Chipaya. Here you might also see women with their hair plaited in the traditional style. Ask around in Chipaya for a guide to take you to Ayparavi and negotiate a price; the area may be inaccessible in wet weather.

There is now an asphalt road from Oruro to Santa Ana de Chipaya. Minivans leave when there is sufficient demand, from Oruro's Mercado Avaróa on Velasco Galvarro, 1.5km south of the train station (B$40, 4½ hours). There are most likely to be people making the trip on Wednesday and Saturday afternoon, after the market.

In addition, a few tour companies organize visits to Chipaya; check with Charlie Tours in Oruro.