Discriminated against for decades, Bolivia’s indigenous Aymara women were once bound to lives as servants. But one group has risen from oppression, reaching new heights on the summits of the Andes.
When she was a little girl growing up in the early 70s, Lidia Huayllas dreamt of becoming a journalist or TV host. But she was a cholita, once a derogatory term for Bolivia’s Indigenous Amayra women, also dubbed the “maids of the middle class” and subjected to harsh discrimination. Restricted from free movement in parts of the capital city La Paz, denied access to restaurants and even refused service on some public buses, Lidia’s childhood dreams were naturally replaced with more practical options.
At the age of 14, she met Eulalio Gonzales, an aspiring mountain guide. The pair courted, married and moved to the snowy base of Huayna Potosi, a 6,000-metre mountain located 25 kilometres north of the capital, in the Cordillera Blanca. There, Lidia raised their children and worked as a camp cook for mountain tourists. For over 30 years she lived a rather ordinary life, until one day she asked her husband what it felt like to stand at the summit. He answered: “Why don’t you see for yourself?” She decided to do just that.
By this time, Aymara women had risen to take their place in government, economics and even fashion. Lidia asked herself, “Why not, then, in the mountains too?”
The 49-year-old, mother of two, assembled a team of 10 other cholitas, ranging in age from 42 to 50 years, and on December 15, 2015, they set out to climb Huayna Potosi. The women had no formal training and wore thermal suits under their polleras (layers of multicoloured skirts), puffed out by las enaguas (petticoats), and their knitted aguayos (fringed shawls). They had traded their bombín (bowler hats) for helmets and headlamps, and their traditional, ballet-style flats in favour of boots and crampons. Two days later, they reached the summit and cemented their place in the country’s history.
Most of the original women, along with a few newcomers, have continued to climb, adding bursts of colour to the stark landscapes. In January 2016, they scaled Acotango (6,052m) and Parinacota (6,347m); in March, Pomarape (6,282m); and in April, Illimani (6,438m), the highest peak in the Cordillera Real in Bolivia’s western Andes. The group hopes to soon add Argentina’s Aconcagua, South America’s highest peak at 6,972m, to their successful summits list.
For these modern-day cholita, ain’t no mountain high enough.