Travel Writing Competition 2019: meet the winner

We whittled hundreds of entries down to just three. Introducing the winner of this year's prestigious travel writing competition, who won us over with a vivid portrayal of a lesser-known corner of Bolivian culture.

By National Geographic Traveller (UK)
Published 4 Sept 2019, 13:00 BST, Updated 8 Jul 2021, 13:41 BST
Cholita wrestler, El Alto, Bolivia

A cholita wrestler in El Alto, Bolivia.

Photograph by Getty Images

Bolivia: no holds barred

Once a segregated minority, Bolivia's cholita women are now celebrated cultural icons, not least in the wrestling arena. Words: Sarah Gillespie.

She strides in against a backdrop of guitar chords, chest thrust out like an exotic bird. She takes her time to enter, raising her arms to reveal the embroidered flowers on her shawl, swinging her hips so that her skirts swell. She stops before my camera, arranges herself just so, and smiles. The shutter clicks and she’s off, feeding on the admiration of others. Satiated for now, she removes her bowler hat and steps into the wrestling ring. 

It seems an unlikely arena for an indigenous woman, but Bolivia’s cholitas have been subverting expectations for decades. Forced to dress in the style of their Spanish colonists, they scaled the clothes of their oppressors, padding their hips to create a cartoonish female form, piling on tiers of lace and bling, and topping their pigtailed heads with a men’s bowler hat. 

The election of Evo Morales, the country’s first indigenous president, has elevated the cholita from segregated minority to cultural icon with unprecedented economic heft. Boarding the cable-car to the high-altitude metropolis of El Alto, I was joined by a cholita who, only decades ago, would have been barred from public transport. She cut a commanding figure, swathed in black lace and dripping with amber jewellery, her hat pierced by a silver pin. In the market, they’re everywhere, hawking Chinese-made toys and secondhand tools. Their recent foray into El Alto’s professional wrestling scene has bemused many, but to cholitas, it’s an extension of their theatrical power. 

Our cholita, Juanita ‘La Cariñosa’, is squaring up to her rival, Sonia ‘La Simpática’. There’s a hum of anticipation, then the call: “Uno, dos, tres, lucha!” Juanita slams into the ropes and launches into the air, wrapping her slim legs around Sonia’s neck and sending the pair of them down in a billow of skirts. A pigtail chokehold is followed by a swift kick between the shoulder blades — Sonia goes down, and Juanita stamps on her belly, screaming curses. Jeers ring out around the arena — music to her ears. Juanita curls her delicate fingers into a fist and lets out a peal of delight. It’s telenovela-scale drama with no holds barred, where water bottles and bags of popcorn become clubs and projectiles. 

While the fighting between cholitas is vicious, the greatest censure is reserved for the men who dare to challenge them. At one point, a spandex-clad monster of a man squares up to a tiny girl in little velvet shoes. She’s David, he’s Goliath, and she smacks him down into the floor, the crowd screaming in delight. The partisan male referee, in a black-and-white striped shirt, is a pantomime villain, administering sneaky kicks to the backside, assisting the cholitas’ rivals, and making victory so much sweeter when it comes. 

Those who complain about the scripted nature of the drama are missing the point. It’s never been about realism or even physical strength — it’s about redefining power, and power in 21st-century Bolivia wears a tiered skirt and a bowler hat.

The judges verdict

Our team thought Sarah Gillespie’s winning feature on Bolivia stood out for its strong sense of place and authentic storytelling, which draws the reader into what feels like a uniquely immersive experience. A compelling snapshot, Sarah’s tightly focused piece of writing does a brilliant job of showing, not telling, and engaging all the senses. It paints a vivid picture of a very specific place and time, yet also brings fascinating insight into wider Bolivian culture. 

Published in the October 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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