One of the last living kingdoms in the modern world exists in a Bolivian jungle that is home to not only rare, wild animals, natural wonders, and exotic plant life, but also to roughly 2,000 inhabitants of Afro-Bolivians who, for hundreds of years, have remained largely hidden from the outside world.
That’s partially because, in order to get to this little-known kingdom and ancient spiritual destination, you need to trek for hours through extreme altitudes and a maze of winding dirt roads that take you through dense forests in the Andes mountains just to reach this protected land.
But as anyone who has experienced this spectacular part of the world would tell you, the juice is worth the squeeze.
This unique community of humble farmers living in the Yungas in Bolivia is unlike anywhere else in the world — in fact, these Afro-Bolivians are descendants of African slaves who have their own monarchy and even a king. However, it’s not exactly the kind of kingdom you might be imagining.
The Hidden Kingdom
Bolivia — a landlocked country in western South America — is full of wonders and attractions that people from all over the world should experience. Gorgeous rainforests, majestic mountains, multi-ethnic cultures, and the capital city of La Paz, which is the highest capital city in the world at an elevation of roughly 11,975 feet above sea level, can all be found in Bolivia.
There are lots to see, but there are even more mysteries and hidden treasures that you might not see. And when you dive below the tourist attractions and dig into the history, you’ll find the story of the Afro-Bolivian kingdom.
Just outside La Paz is an area known as the Yungas region, a part of Bolivia that is somewhat hard to access due to the rugged terrain, jungles, and plentiful whitewater rivers. It also happens to be home to the South American Afro-Bolivian community.
Not surprisingly, Bolivia is home to a wide range of ethnically diverse communities. As with much of the western world, these different ethnic cultures were introduced to the continent with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century.
As the Spanish continued with their conquest of South America, they brought with them African slaves to bear the burden of work mining silver, among other natural resources.
The exploitation of African slaves in Bolivia continued for hundreds of years until the colonial period ended. After these slaves emancipated in the early 1800s, many Afro-Bolivians relocated from the harsh working conditions and high altitude they had suffered through and settled in the more temperate Yungas region, where their kingdom continues to exist to this day.
From Slaves to Kings
Today’s Afro-Bolivians are descendants of these African slaves who arrived during the Spanish Empire. It is one of the last remaining kingdoms in the world, but the culture of this kingdom, and even the king himself, is far from the monarchy you might picture and is very different from other royal families.
In fact, the last king in South America, Julio Piñedo, didn’t even know he was a king despite being a part of a lineage that dates back centuries.
After discovering that he was a descendant of Bonifaz, a tribal king from Senegal, Piñedo became the first Afro-Bolivian to be crowned king in 500 years. It wasn’t until 2007 that the Bolivian government finally recognized the kingdom, and Piñedo was finally acknowledged as king.
The story goes that many years ago, Piñedo’s ancestor, Prince Uchicho, was discovered when witnesses saw markings on his body indicating he was a descendant of a king. “He was bathing in a river, and [his companions] discovered his tattoos showing that he was king,” explained his wife, Queen Angélica Larrea.
Prince Uchicho and all the kings who followed protected the Afro-Bolivian community against discrimination and abuse.
And while the king’s role is undoubtedly one of protection of culture and tradition, and he does rule over the community, this mini-monarchy doesn’t really function like a monarchy but more like a tribe.
It would be hard to pick Piñedo out of a crowd. He is rarely seen wearing a royal robe or crown. Instead, he and his wife are often found in the grocery shop they run in their small jungle village. The king and queen sell goods from their garden, along with essential supplies and packaged goods.
He is humble and unassuming. He is respected and admired thanks to the humility of the royal family. Self-importance has no place in this kingdom.
Piñedo’s rule is more symbolic than anything else. An important and invaluable symbolic role, especially as, after hundreds of years, this rarely seen ethnic community is finally becoming more visible.
“Without doubt the king’s role is important,” says Zenaida Pérez, coordinator of the Afro-Bolivian Language and Culture Institute, part of the umbrella organization Conafro. “He represents much of what our Mother Africa has left us.”
Piñedo does not have certain leadership roles you might see with other rulers. He does not collect taxes or have a police force. “I’m not like these rich kings of Europe, but I represent the Afro-Bolivian community, and this is a huge responsibility to me,” he said.
While the Afro-Bolivian community might be small, it is certainly strong. The latest Bolivian census nearly ten years ago counted more than 23,000 people who identify as Afro-Bolivian. But if you consider mixed backgrounds in Bolivia, that number might be closer to 40,000, explains former Bolivian MP Jorge Medina, an Afro-Bolivian himself.
As awareness for the Afro-Bolivian community grows locally and worldwide, so does the plan for the future of this kingdom.
King Piñedo and Queen Larrea have a son, Prince Rolando. He is a law student at the Universidad de Los Andes in La Paz, but his studies and ambitions are heavily influenced by his father’s impact and potential role as the future king.
“I would like to keep pushing forward to make the Afro-Bolivian community more recognized and visible, the way my father has done until now,” he said.