WHAT: Tinku, Bolivia
Each year in early may, indigenous Bolivian communities come together to eat, drink, dance, honor Pachamama, and beat the living shit out of each other in a 48 hour, full-contact, moonshine-fueled brawl. Weapons may include fists, rocks, whips, slingshots, glass-encrusted gloves, and iron bars. Many are injured. Some die. After two or three days of mayhem, the blood is mopped up, the injured cared for, the dead buried, and everything returns to normal. This is Tinku, AKA Bolivian fight club, and there is no spectacle in the world quite like it.
Tinku, which translates to “violent encounter” in the Aymara language, began centuries ago when rival communities fought over scarce water resources. Over time, these fights evolved into organized ritual battle. Human casualties are considered blood donors, offered up as a sacrificial fertilizer to the land that sustains them.
Centuries on, Tinku is a secretive, non-commercial, no-holds-barred slug-fest. Some visitors have trouble making sense of such a violent spectacle, and insist they would never return. Others see Tinku as a primal, morbidly beautiful ceremony, a way of preserving endangered indigenous traditions, and even a necessary and beneficial relief valve among frustrated indigenous communities. Others just see it as good old-fashioned fun.
Informing parents their kid got beaten to death with impunity at a local fiesta is a telephone call the Bolivian government would rather avoid. In recent years police have been deployed to protect visitors. Once it kicks off, stay closer to the cops than to the locals. Remain roadside so as to avoid being engulfed by the crowd, and do all you can to avoid flashpoints. Keep a low profile and don´t cheer, don´t goad people, and ignore any taunts and yells of ´gringo.` Foreigners snapping grisly pictures of an already controversial event won´t be looked upon kindly. Even if you follow these guidelines, you still risk getting your ass kicked.
For the insatiably curious who don´t balk at the sight of blood, Bolivian fight club tours are run by a select few companies in the Potosi region. These tour operators are quick to let you know that you visit Tinku at your own risk.
The most famous and arguably most violent Tinku takes place in the village of Santiago de Macha: a remote community 4,000m above sea level, 75 miles north of Potosi in the Bolivian Andes.
The Tinku ceremony is no Disneyland. It is full-force combat, that usually turns into a plaza-wide bloodbath. If no-one dies, it is believed the annual harvest will be bad because the offering to Pachamama is insufficient. Even for spectators, the risk of becoming an unwitting human sacrifice is very real. Violence can be contagious. Anyone crazy enough to get sucked into the excitement will find no shortage of locals happy to accommodate them.
When interviewed about his role in the movie Fight Club, Brad Pitt said that the film neither promotes nor glorifies combat, but instead offers fighters the chance for a visceral experience in a world where they are otherwise numb. Many Bolivians echo this sentiment in relation to Tinku. Anthropologists and psychologists say Tinku represents much more than fighting. It is a way to overcome trauma and frustration.