Religion, customs and beliefs

Although some 97% of the population ostensibly belong to the Roman Catholic religion, in reality religious life for the majority of Bolivians is a mix of Catholic beliefs imported from Europe and indigenous traditions based on animism, the worship of deities from the natural world, such as mountains, animals and plants.


Ecotourism is a buzzword on the lips of all self-respecting travellers and tour operators. But though ecology may be a relatively new concept in the West, to the people of the bleak northern Bolivian Altiplano, this idea is absolutely fundamental to their very culture and almost as old as the land itself.

, or Mother Earth, occupies a very privileged place in indigenous culture because she is the generative source of life. The Aymara believe that Man was created from the land, and thus he is fraternally tied to all the living beings that share the earth. According to them, the earth is our mother, and it is on the basis of this understanding that all of human society is organized, always maintaining the cosmic norms and laws.

Women's and men's relationship with nature is what the Aymara call ecology, harmony and equilibrium. The Aymara also believe that private land ownership is a social sin because the land is for everyone. It is meant to be shared and not used only for the benefit of a few.

Vicenta Mamani Bernabé of the Andean Regional Superior Institute of Theological Studies explains: “Land is life because it produces all that we need to live. Water emanates from the land as if from the veins of a human body, there is also the natural wealth of minerals, and pasture grows from it to feed the animals. Therefore, for the Aymaras, the
is sacred and since we are her children, we are also sacred. No one can replace the earth, she is not meant to be exploited, or to be converted into merchandise. Our duty is to respect and care for the earth. This is what white people today are just beginning to realize, and it is called ecology. Respect for the
is respect for ourselves as she is life. Today, she is threatened with death and must be liberated for the sake of her children's liberation.”

Day of the dead

One of the most important dates in the indigenous people's calendar is 2nd November, the 'Day of the Dead'. This tradition has been practised since time immemorial. In the Inca calendar, November was the eighth month and meant Ayamarca, or land of the dead. The celebration of Day of the Dead, or 'All Saints' as it is also known, is just one example of religious adaptation or syncretism in which the ancient beliefs of ethnic cultures are mixed with the rites of the Catholic Church.

According to Aymara belief, the spirit (
athun ajayu
) visits its relatives at this time of the year and is fed in order to continue its journey before its reincarnation. The relatives of the dead prepare for the arrival of the spirit days in advance. Among the many items necessary for these meticulous preparations are little bread dolls, each one of which has a particular significance. A ladder is needed for the spirit to descend from the other world to the terrestrial one. There are also figures which represent the grandparents, great grandparents and loved ones of the person who has 'passed into a better life'. Horse-shaped breads are prepared that will serve as a means of transport for the soul in order to avoid fatigue.

Inside the home, the relatives construct a tomb supported by boxes over which is laid a black cloth. Here they put the bread, along with sweets, flowers, onions and sugar cane. This last item is an indispensable part of the table as it symbolizes the invigorating element which prevents the spirit from becoming tired on its journey towards the Earth. The union of the flowers with the onion is called
and is a vital part of the preparations. It ensures that the dead one does not become disoriented and arrives in the correct house.

The tomb is also adorned with the dead relative's favourite food and drink, not forgetting the all-important glass of beer as, according to popular tradition, this is the first nourishment taken by the souls when they arrive at their houses. Once the spirit has arrived and feasted with his/her living relatives, the entire ceremony is then transported to the graveside in the local cemetery, where it is carried out again, together with the many other mourning families.

This meeting of the living and their dead relatives is re-enacted the following year, though less ostentatiously, and again for the final time in the third year, the year of the farewell. It does not continue after this, which is just as well as the costs can be crippling for the family concerned.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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