I went to Carnival in the Bolivian city of Oruro expecting to be blown away by tens of thousands of dancers and musicians, towering devil masks and llama sacrifices in the mines. I was. But even more striking was the pervasive small-scale ritual of “ch’alla,” the offering of libations to the earth goddess Pachamama taking place in the streets and fields during Carnival.

After viewing the massive Carnival processions in Oruro, I traveled to Bolivia’s main city, La Paz, last week. There, I saw small groups of Bolivians from all walks of life gathered on street corners. Each group defined a ritual space on the sidewalk with colorful paper streamers and flower petals. The people set off firecrackers in the center of the improvised altar, and then stood around or sat on chairs drinking beer from cases they brought with them. Before each quaff, they poured a little beer onto the ground, or onto the wheels of a car that was decorated with ribbons, balloons and flowers. By making the offerings to Pachamama, they hoped to be blessed with luck, safety and abundance. 

Driving through the Andes, I saw Bolivians on streets, in the fields, and in the patios of their houses, getting together for ch’alla rituals, making offerings to the Pachamama and blessing their cars. Apparently Bolivians do ch’alla often when they drink — spilling or flicking alcohol onto the ground — but the practice becomes a full-blown ceremony on special days, such as at the end of Carnival, just before Lent begins.

What intrigued me was that many of the people I saw doing the ritual appeared to be of mixed European and indigenous descent and were dressed in so-called Western clothes, instead of the typical garb of Aymara or Quechua Indians. Pre-Columbian spiritual practices are part of everyday life in Bolivia and I was fascinated with how intermingled they are with Catholicism. In a drive to improve rights for indigenous people, President Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian, included guarantees of freedom of religion in a new constitution. The previous constitution explicitly recognized and supported the Roman Catholic Church.