In Bolivia’s Andes, Indigenous Quechua settle disputes with ritual dance, hand-to-hand combat

SAN PEDRO DE MACHA, Bolivia — In the high altitude Bolivian town of San Pedro de Macha, hundreds of Indigenous Quechua men and women take to the streets for a ritual dance and combat known as the “Tinku”, involving hand-to-hand combat between neighbors to settle disputes.

The Tinku, a word that in Quechua means “encounter” and in the local Aymara dialect “physical attack,” is celebrated in certain Quechua towns in May as a traditional way of resolving problems, rather than allowing them to fester.

El Tinku is performed with big crowds.
El Tinku ritual in the communities Potosí­, Bolivia, in 2022.Luis Gandarillas / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

“This custom is very old. It was passed down to my father and my father left me it to me,” said Jose Luis Paco Cruz, 35, a Tinku “dancer,” who traveled hundreds of miles to the town with his two sons, Luis Eduardo Paco, 17, and Brayan, 10.

“Now I am leaving it to my children so the custom will never be lost. This is part of the inheritance I leave to my sons.”

The confrontations often involve colorful traditional clothing and a leather “montera” helmet with vibrant feathers that echoes that of the Spanish conquistadors. The battles are meant to show people’s devotion to Mother Earth — and at times leave an offering of blood from the fight.

The Ancestral Ritual of Tinku.
The ancestral ritual of El Tinku, whose meaning has Quechua origin and means “meeting”, on May 2022. Luis Gandarillas / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images file

The Tinku range from joyful dances and music to full-on brawls, with police at times getting involved, referee-like, to halt the fights. On the sidelines some onlookers help treat fighters’ bleeding lips and faces.

Esteban Paco Taquichiri, Jose Luis’ grandfather, admitted that sometimes there have been deaths, though police now often monitor the events and use tear gas to avoid excess violence.

“We enter the square dancing from every corner to confront each other,” said Taquichiri. “Due to bad luck, sometimes one or two people fall to the ground and, with worse luck, they even die. But all this is part of our custom.”