Declared one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2001 by UNESCO, the Oruro Carnival is Bolivia’s most celebrated festival taking place for two weeks in February each year. It is a massive event in which more than 150 groups with 30 thousand dancers and 10 thousand musicians take part- an impressive procession of color, sound and movement spanning across the length of a few kilometers.
We have never heard about nor did we plan to go to Oruro for the carnival, until our new Chilean friends told us about it. Visiting this part of Bolivia in the beginning of February is an example of being on the right place at the right time, we thought. So from Uyuni, we head to Oruro, for the carnival.
The town of Oruro is a big blunt Bolivian town with not a single tourist attraction, not a single site of interest. Not a single tourist visits it, except in February, when the place becomes suddenly flooded with over half a million people from all over the world, here for this ancient religious festival- a tradition dating back more than 200 years.
It started with the Uru indigenous people in the area once called Uru Uru- “Sacred Mountain of the Urus”, a place for religious pilgrimage and spiritual center of the Andean world. But soon after the arrival of the Spanish colonizers, the indigenous celebrations were banned and replaced by catholic rituals and iconography. For the conquered Uru people, the only way to survive and to preserve their tradition and culture was to accept the new religion and to blend their old beliefs, symbolism and customs with the new ones. Thus, Christian icons and saints were used to conceal Andean divinities. The Virgin Mary became Pachamama (Mother Earth) and the Devil from Catholic teachings was absorbed into the local idea of Tio Supay (Uncle or God of the Mountains).
The carnival is a bright example of this tradition-blending in Bolivia. The main character of the event is El Diablo (the devil) and the main event- the Diablada- the leading traditional Dance of the Devil.
Our bus drops us off in Oruro in the middle of the night a day before the beginning of the carnival, only to realize, that all hotels and hostels are full and their prices are not double but triple, at places quadruple than normal. “It’s because of the carnival”, they tell us shamelessly, and there is nothing to do but to pay the price.
We check in a cheap hotel, in a room with two beds and we pay only $18.00 for the first night, but we are asked to pay $60.00 for the second (when the carnival officially starts). Luckily, we meet again our Chilean friends from the group in Uyuni, and we “invite“ them in our room to share the cost. The hotel owner agrees to bring two more single mattresses in the already small room, and we somehow manage to place them between our two single beds. This, we sleep seven people in a room for two for $15.00 per person…
We are also shocked to find out that the entrance fee for the carnival is $20.00 per person- a small fortune in Bolivia, and we are told, that if we don’t pay, we would not be able to enter and would not be able to see anything. Well, this is one of those Once-In-A-Lifetime things, so we pay…
Thousands upon thousands of people in elaborate colorful costumes and masks dancing with unlimited energy to the sounds of traditional music- the Oruro carnival is truly a glorious monumental event.
But for us, spending so much money for the hotel and for the entrance fee is a BIG MISTAKE!!! Not because you can enter for free and watch the carnival, like half the people do, but because the same groups and the same people dressed in the same costumes perform the same music and the same dances for free in the center of Bolivia’s capital La Paz, a few days after Oruro.
So we watch the carnival twice- once in Oruro and once in La Paz, where we go after Oruro, and we have much more fun in La Paz.
In La Paz, after the carnival, groups of local women dressed in their best polleras(traditional skirts and shawls) decorated with their best top hats, gather and occupy the space in front of small corner-stores, furnished with chairs, tables and cases of beer. And begin drinking. I have no idea where the men go.
If you pass by and smile at them, they will smile back. And if you are in their range, they will pull you in and before you know it, you will have someone’s glass in your hand, full of beer.
You will have to drink it at once, and they will laugh at you and poor you another shot.
This is what happened to us in La Paz. More than once. At the end of the street, we are slightly drunk and covered with colorful paper garlands. A very drunk woman tried to kiss Ivo. More than once…
Now that is a carnival we really enjoyed, and it’s not the one in Oruro…
ORURO CARNIVAL PHOTOS