In many ways, the over-the-top architecture of buildings called cholets in the high-altitude city of El Alto, Bolivia is an apt metaphor for the recent history of the country’s Aymara Indigenous group (the largest in the country): self-made, flamboyant, distinct, and definitely on the rise.
The city of El Alto exists at more than 13,600 feet (4,145 meters) on the Altiplano above the city of La Paz (El Alto means The Heights in Spanish). It’s home to more than 975,000 people, which makes it the second-largest city in Bolivia and it’s also the country’s fastest-growing urban area. El Alto is a noisy, busy, mostly-unplanned sprawl marked by dreadful traffic, an international airport, a network of hectic street markets, and a population of mostly working poor members of the Aymara Indigenous group.
Freddy Mamani Silvestre was one of them. Then Freddy, who is not a trained architect, created a distinct architectural style called cholets (a combination of the words chola–a pejorative term used by Spanish conquistadors to label Indigenous Aymara women which has recently been reclaimed–and the word chalet) and his life changed along with life for many other Aymara who belong to the country’s largest indigenous group. Over the past decade, Mamani has designed and built dozens of multi-level cholets, part of a style sometimes called neo-Andean architecture, that have raised the skyline and the spirits of El Alto.
Cholets are often built for nouveau riche Aymara clients. The mere existence of “nouveau riche Aymara clients” is the result of a dramatic shift in the role of Indigenous groups in Bolivian society brought about, in part, by the controversial nearly 14-year presidency of Evo Morales (2006-2019). Also a member of the Aymara group, Morales rose from his life in a poor and remote village to become Bolivia’s first Indigenous president. His presence and policies inferred more respect, dignity, and political power on the country’s Indigenous groups which made it easier for some to rise in society, including entry into the middle and upper classes.
Mamani’s architecture is very much a product of Aymara culture. Inspired by the vibrant work of Aymara artist Roberto Mamani Mamani (no relation—Mamani is a very common Aymara surname), the architect uses fluorescent colors, geometric shapes, extreme angles, and a lot of glass. It’s a style that also seems to channel elements of the geometric and brightly colored Indigenous flag, called a wiphala, which is often flown alongside the Bolivian flag after Morales declared it the dual flag of the country.
Each million-dollar cholet incorporates retail space on the ground floor, an event space on the second floor, an apartment or two above that, and a full-blown mansion on the roof. The result looks like something a child might draw or a set designed for a futuristic movie or a funhouse-themed casino.
The truth is both more and less fantastic. The ground-level retail space of a cholet is often humble–perhaps a hardware store. The event space, on the other hand, is elaborately decorated from floor to ceiling with hundreds of colored lightbulbs (green and orange is a favored combination), chandeliers, bars, walls decorated with geometric painting and molding, and enough tables and chairs for hundreds of guests. Cholet parties, which are booked in the event spaces to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, and weddings, can cost US$5,000. People save for months or even years to afford to throw a cholet party.
The Peruvian Consulate is located in El Alto and it occupies a building designed in a subdued version of cholet style.
These days there are dozens of cholets designed by Freddy Mamani himself and even more buildings designed by people mimicking his style, including buildings inspired by Iron Man and The Transformers.
A true Freddy Mamani cholet is often marked with a diamond motif somewhere in the facade.
Cholets have become such an ingrained part of society that vendors craft miniatures of cholets and sell them during the annual Alasitas Market in La Paz which honors Ekeko, the Aymara god of abundance. See more from this massive market of miniatures in our photo essay about the Alasitas Market in La Paz.
A few tour companies in the city of La Paz offer tours of the cholets in El Alto which include a guide, transportation, and access inside some of the cholets.
It’s best to book an afternoon tour because that’s when the event spaces are likely to be open and in the final stages of decoration for that night’s parties.
Touring a cholet party space is like seeing a popular nightclub in the daylight: a bit grotty, certainly run down, and permeated by the smell of stale beer. But, like a nightclub, darkness brings these spaces to life and by the end of our cholet tour we were angling for ways to get invited to a party in one.
Those who are really into cholets should consider staying at the Cholet B&B Havana hotel that opened in El Alto in a cholet building. Or grab a drink or a meal at the Juan Cholet Resto Bar, in the Achumani area of La Paz, which features interior decor inspired by cholets.
Want more? Check out a short documentary called Cholet The Work of Freddy Mamani
Bolivia Milenaria tour company hosted us on their bespoke guided tour of cholets in El Alto including an excellent English-speaking guide and van transportation
Here’s more about travel in Bolivia