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This fascinating festival has a long history dating back to pre-Colombian times, when the ancient Tiwanaku people used to pray for bountiful harvests and exchange gifts in return for good luck. The festival evolved to include the gifting of miniatures representing their greatest desires.
The central character of the festivities is a jolly dwarf known as Ekeko, the god of abundance and prosperity. He wears a traditional poncho and beanie to keep warm and has a fondness for cash, cigarettes and pure alcohol. To the indigenous Aymara people of Bolivia, Ekeko represents the luxuries in life – the opulence and grandeur that they one day hope to acquire. Throughout the festival, he’s given a prominent place in the family home and even a lit cigarette to keep him happy.
Modern-day Alasitas is a huge event covering a large section of the city center. On its opening day of January 24, bustling markets are held in Plaza San Pedro, Plaza San Francisco, and Parque Urbano, where miniature versions of every imaginable desire are vigorously traded to a feverish crowd. After opening day, miniatures can still be bought at a much more relaxed pace in Parque Urbano.
Money is obviously a popular desire. Bolivia is a developing country, so extra cash is understandably in hot demand. Tiny US dollar, euro, and boliviano bills are on offer. The more you buy, the richer you’ll become, so be sure to stock up. Cash also serves as the perfect gift – after all, who wouldn’t want a little extra purchasing power?
Real estate and automobiles are also popular options – from modest cars and homes to extravagant apartment blocks and buses. Mini degrees are a hit with nervous university students, while lovers looking to take their relationship up a notch can snap up pint-sized marriage certificates. International travel has always been a common desire for many Bolivians, represented here by little suitcases.
Once these miniature model dreams have been purchased, they need to be taken to a local Yatiri (shaman) for a blessing. Plenty of Yatiri offer their spiritual services throughout the festival, typically performing a small ceremony that involves chanting, burning wood and incense, and pouring liquor on the ground. Even the Catholic Church gets involved (Bolivia is steeped in religious syncretism) by offering their own blessings involving copious amounts of holy water.
Alasitas is a fascinating insight into Bolivia’s unique traditions and culture. Those who find themselves in La Paz at this time of year simply must check out this exciting event. Be sure to buy a miniature model, get it blessed by your preferred holy man, and watch your dreams come true in the year to come.