The crowd seemed bored, sitting through three bouts of sub-par lucha libre wrestling that spilled awkwardly in and out of the ring. Locals filled concrete bleachers on one side of the expansive Coliseo 12 de Octubre in El Alto, Bolivia, which looked more like a drafty factory floor than sports arena. Seated closer to the ring were high-paying tourists (high paying as in 80 Bolivianos, or $12 for a tour), trying to get excited about the night’s entertainment and throwing the occasional handful of popcorn and booing comical villains. If they hadn’t been bused there, I imagine many would have left already.

Cholitas_Wrestling_14Then, with a cacophony of crackling firecrackers, the crowd was suddenly jolted to life. The athlete they’d been waiting for finally appeared, dressed in traditional Aymara attire and looking more like a Bolivian grandmother than warrior of the wrestling ring. Her long hair was pulled back tightly in two braids beneath a bowler hat that sat balanced upon her head, her hips well rounded by the bright orange bustle skirt worn with numerous underskirts, and the tassels of her matching shawl spinning wide as she danced and twirled her way around the ring to panpipes and strings of Andean folk music. This was what the crowd had come for, Bolivia’s famous wrestling cholitas!

La Paz, El Alto, Cholitas, Cholitas Wrestling, Cholita, Lucha Libre, WWE, Wrestling, Bolivia, Bolivan Wrestlers, photography, travel, travel photography,Climbing into the ring, the cholita removed her hat, earrings, and shawl, before coming face to face with her opponent: a tall lucha libre dressed all in black with a fierce mask to match, looking to dominate his female opponent. And that he did, at least for a good half of the bout as the crowd booed loudly while watching their cholita champion get slapped, kicked, tossed, and spat on. All for show in the ring, the theatrical wrestling was really a tragicomedy of real life for many women in Bolivia, 70 percent of whom suffer some sort of abuse according to estimates in 2009. All that aside, it’s still a tough life up there.

La Paz, El Alto, Cholitas, Cholitas Wrestling, Cholita, Lucha Libre, WWE, Wrestling, Bolivia, Bolivan Wrestlers, photography, travel, travel photography,The former suburb of El Alto sits on a ridge far above the high-rises and red-brick homes of La Paz, which climb the slopes of the valley below. It is home to many rural poor, who seek more comfort and opportunity in the teeming streets than can be found in the bleak Andean landscapes beyond the city. Difficulty growing crops in the dry plains above La Paz has led to increased migration from rural areas, making El Alto one of Bolivia’s fastest growing cities. It also happens to be the world’s highest major metropolis at 13,615 feet. In a nutshell, life is hard. Not just for the cholitas in the ring earning $20 to $30 a performance, but also for the crowd of locals filling the bleachers and looking for a little entertainment on a Sunday night.

La Paz, El Alto, Cholitas, Cholitas Wrestling, Cholita, Lucha Libre, WWE, Wrestling, Bolivia, Bolivan Wrestlers, photography, travel, travel photography,So when the struggling cholita rose from the ring, reversed the grip of her black-clad assailant, and began to inflict her own punishment upon him, it was good to hear the crowd’s loud cheers and laughs. As the cholita battled her opponent with high-flying, acrobatic moves and a few cheap shots, the crowd got more involved by battling a corrupt referee with a barrage of oranges, popcorn, and water-soaked tissues.

La Paz, El Alto, Cholitas, Cholitas Wrestling, Cholita, Lucha Libre, WWE, Wrestling, Bolivia, Bolivan Wrestlers, photography, travel, travel photography,Throwing her opponent against the ropes, the cholita built her momentum by bouncing herself off the opposing ropes and leveled the villain in the center of the ring with a punishing drop kick. She then climbed the turnbuckles in one corner of the ring and, just as the lucha libre was finding his feet, flattened him again in a flurry of orange skirt and braids with a cross-body splash.

It must take a tremendous amount of rehearsal time to perfect such a demanding and punishing performance, and to keep coming up with new routines to entertain the returning regulars. All that work on top of day jobs selling souvenirs to tourists or used clothes to locals, dull work made even more monotonous when compared to the rush earned in the wrestling ring. No wonder they all keep at it to earn a little extra money and, most importantly, the love of the crowd. A nice distraction from a tough life at 13,615 feet.

La Paz, El Alto, Cholitas, Cholitas Wrestling, Cholita, Lucha Libre, WWE, Wrestling, Bolivia, Bolivan Wrestlers, photography, travel, travel photography,P.S. For your viewing pleasure, here is some of the action captured by Britnee. It’ll be the best one minute and four seconds you’ll spend today.

More fun pics from another bout below…

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