In the Bolivian Aymara tradition, tinku has its origins in a ritualistic form of combat dating back to the time of the Spanish Conquistadors, who arrived in the region of Potosí and enslaved the indigenous population. Not one to give up dancing in the face of oppression, since that day tinku has proved the cathartic exercise of choice for the Aymara and Quechua peoples.
Tinku continues to be wildly popular throughout the Andes, taking place each year in the early weeks of May. Nowhere is this more true than in the Potosí region of Bolivia. Within this area, the farming community of Santiago de Macha — or simply “Macha” for short — has the most notoriously bloody incarnation, where upwards of 3,000 participants file into the city during the Festival de la Cruz each year.
Fueled by alcohol and the corn brew chicha, to say Macha’s modern tinku gets “a little rough” is an understatement. Wearing bright costumes, sandals, and helmet-like hats made of leather, there’s a reason the men look like they’re preparing for an ancient battle; hand-to-hand combat is the name of the game, with some participants going so far as to wrap cloth spiked with glass shards around their forearms for extra umph. Others pack slingshots and whips in their belts, though this is less in keeping with tradition.
Warlike in rhythm, the festival begins with both men and women dancing together, only for the women to back away, encircling the men. From there, things escalate quickly into a ritualized brawl which hasn’t changed much over the centuries. Police and authorities are present, but step aside once the rock throwing begins. Death isn’t a rare occurrence during tinku.
It’s of utmost import to note that these skirmishes aren’t personal in nature; instead the mayhem is more of a designated space-time for locals to have an outlet for whatever is plaguing them. Or, as Atlas Obscura writer Dan Nosowitz put it, tinku is “a way to vent and avoid existing in a state of anger for the entire year.”
Much like those individuals whose bragging rights include participating in tinku their whole lives, the fact that the festival itself has survived for centuries against improbable odds demonstrates the power of a bold heart to weather time itself.