Native peoples of Chile

Aymara: the people of the highlands

The second largest indigenous group in Chile resides along the northern border with Bolivia - home to the largest population of Aymara - Peru, and Argentina.

Monday, July 11, 2011  
The Aymara have preserved many of their traditional festivals, crafts and traditions, as well as the The Aymara have preserved many of their traditional festivals, crafts and traditions, as well as the Aymara language. (Photo: gerardo_chinchorro/Flickr)

Huddled beneath soaring volcanoes, crouching low upon the grassy flatlands of the high plateau, the white adobe villages that dot Chile’s extreme north along the borders with Peru and Bolivia were once home to many of Chile’s indigenous Aymara.

The young borders that divide the Aymara territory into three different nations were drawn here only after the War of the Pacific in the late 19th century. Chile, Bolivia or Peru – this is Aymara land.

Like other tribes of the Andean plateau, the Aymara have preserved their mountain culture, with its distinctive tongue and unique crafts. Some of Chile’s Aymara continue to live traditional agrarian lifestyles on the plains, raising llama and alpaca for wool, milk and meat. These men and women live isolated on the frigid highland, some within the boundaries of the Lauca Unesco Biosphere Reserve.

Also within the boundaries of these parks are a stunning collection of old Aymara villages. Largely abandoned as their populations have headed for larger towns and cities, the majority are built entirely of white-washed adobe structures, centered on a simple church. Any trip through the three major parks of the region – Lauca, Reserva Las Vicuñas, and the Salar de Surire – should include a visit to one or more of these villages.

In the last several years as tourism has increased in the region, one of these villages has begun to develop a small tourism industry, leading to its gradual re-population. Parinacota, at the foot of a volcano of the same name, is now an important stop-off for most visitors in the region, popping in for a bite to eat, ocasionally to stay the night in a humble hospedaje, or to purches ponchos, sweaters, socks, hats and tapestries woven by hand from alpaca.

The majority of the Aymara – over 1.5 million according to the last census – live in Bolivia, with smaller populations in Peru (about 445,000) and a fractional number (just 4,000) in northwestern Argentina. Over 48,000 Aymara live within Chile’s borders, making them the second largest indigenous community in the country.

The majority of Chile’s Aymara population is urban, concentrated in cities and towns in Chile’s far north, where the women can be recognized by their traditional Andean dress (long plaited hair, wide skirts, brightly colored woven shawls and bowler hats). Projects with the National Corporation for Indigenous Development (Conadi) are underway to help preserve traditional craft, performance and linguistic traditions.