Bolivian’s love a good entrada (parade). In fact, in La Paz there are more entradas than days of the year. None, however, are comparable Bolivia’s craziest event: The Carnival of Oruro.
The countries biggest and most spectacular carnival parade brings the entire city of Oruro to a standstill. Some 400,000 people take part in the festivities, almost doubling the local population which results in several days of pure mayhem. The truly mammoth parade spans over 4 km through Oruro’s city centre and lasts for an astonishing 24 hours.
The first of the 28,000 dancers begin at 8 a.m. on Saturday morning with the last lot not finishing up until around the same time on Sunday. Colorfully dressed processions are accompanied by over 10,000 musicians comprised of some 150 marching bands. It’s a truly epic event, the scale of which is difficult to comprehend.
Oruro’s Carnival was originally a small indigenous religious festival that dates back some 2,000 years. When the Spanish took control of the city in the 17th century, they tried their best to replace indigenous beliefs with Catholicism. However, the natives outsmarted the conquistadors by continuing their worship by using Christian idols to hide portrayals of Andean gods.
Legend has it that a mural of the Virgin Mary appeared out of nowhere in a mine shaft near Oruro and the festival has since been observed in honor of the Virgin del Socavon (Virgin of the mine shaft). This “miracle”, along with Oruro’s convenient geographic location between most major cities, has paved the way for Oruro’s carnival to become the biggest and best in the country.
Throughout the event, Bolivian history and folklore is passionately acted out through music and dance. Spectators admire representations of Spanish conquistadors defeating the native Aymara or sympathize with African slaves who were brought to Bolivia to work in the mines of Potosi.
The most famous and recognizable dance is undoubtedly Diablada (the dance of the devils). Oruro is a mining city whose population are syncretic in their Catholic and Indigenous beliefs, viewing the devil as the lord of the underground who needs to be worshiped in order to safely extract wealth from his domain. Locals also make offerings of alcohol, coca leaves and cigarettes to devilish statues in the depths of the mines.
What makes Oruro’s Carnival stand out from other Bolivian parades are the highly detailed costume designs. Outfits are made by hand and take months to prepare, often being valued at over US$500 which is double Bolivia’s minimum monthly wage.
Outside of carnival, the city receives very few visitors so tourism infrastructure is relatively underdeveloped. Available hotels tend to book out months in advance and increase their prices five-fold during the event. Expect to pay US$100 or more per night for a bed in a really lousy hotel.
Many do not take internet reservations so a bank deposit must be arranged in advance which leaves travelers open to fraud. Travel agencies across Bolivia can organise multi-day all inclusive packages which I’ve seen advertised for US$500 or so.
Many residents and businesses sublet their houses and offices for the weekend to make some extra cash. Prices vary on location and available facilities such as bedding and bathroom access.
The cheapest places just offer floor space and guests will be expected to bring their own mattress and sleeping bag. Although hardly glamorous, a group of six or more people should be able to find floor space for US$50 each for the whole weekend. This requires a lot more organisation as it’s best to see the place yourself beforehand and meet with the owner in person. Look for places advertised in carnival Facebook groups (search for Graderias Oruro), local Oruro newspapers or even the bus station.
Due to the expense and effort of finding a bed, many people do Carnival as a day trip from La Paz. Local Travel agencies offer packages including transport, seating, food, and some drinks for US$70 to US$100. The downside is that they leave La Paz at 3 a.m. to arrive at the beginning of the parade and return around 6 p.m.
If these times aren’t suitable, it’s easy enough to go it alone. There are plenty of buses leaving the La Paz bus station from 5 a.m. and returning from Oruro all through the day and night. The trip takes four hours each way, which is tiresome but worth it. Bus fares are higher than usual but are still pretty cheap at about US$5 one way. It’s also easy enough to do carnival as a day trip from Cochabamba and with a little bit more travel from Potosi or Sucre.
Finding a good grandstand (graderia) to watch the parade can be a challenge and one of the reasons many visit on tours. The best atmosphere is in the main plaza, 10 de Febrero, which has the most media coverage so dancers are more energetic and perform their best moves. On the other hand, it’s also the most expensive with seats in this area costing between US$100-200.
The next best spot is within four blocks on either side of the plaza on calle Bolivar. These sections are still pretty lively and tend to attract a party orientated crowd with seats costing around US$70.
Finally, the long stretch starting from the bus station known as Avenida del Folklore or 6 de Agosto is a lot more family orientated and typically cost about US$50.
If you are by yourself or with just one or two people it might be possible to watch the parade for free. We spent hours on Calle Bolivar enjoying the show from the street, just inches of the action. Be sure not to block anyone’s view and share your beer with the passing dancers and musicians. When I went in 2015, the crowds were thinner than usual because of the rain so this suggestion might not be always possible.
Most people attend Carnival without issue but there are some risks so it’s always wise to be cautious. The following are some commonsense safety tips.
1. Pickpockets love crowded places so keep your valuables in an inside pocket at all times.
2. Don’t drink so much you become an easy target.
3. Be cautious about accepting drinks from strangers.
4. Foam is sprayed everywhere so keep cameras and mobiles in a waterproof place. It will get in your eyes and will sting, but only for a day or so.
5. Drink driving is a serious problem so try to take a look at your bus driver to check he’s sober.
Elsewhere in Bolivia:
While Oruro has the best parade, carnival is a five-day holiday throughout the country and every city has its own celebrations. It officially runs from Friday to Tuesday, although it’s not uncommon to see people celebrating earlier in the week.
Friday is a popular day for office parties, where work mates get together to eat, drink and be merry. Saturday see’s the main entrada which is usually the biggest, booziest and most popular celebration. Sunday through Tuesday tends to consist of more drinking, water fights and obnoxiously loud fire crackers.
Regardless of where you are, expect to see a ridiculous amount of alcohol consumed on the biggest party of the Bolivian calendar.
Fun fact: The word Carnaval originates from the phrase carne llevare, which is Spanish for “I’ll take out the meat”. The holiday commemorates the beginning of Lent which is the final 40 days before Easter where Catholics should not eat beef and generally refrain from sinning. To make up for those 40 long days of no sinning, Bolivians try to sin as much as possible during the Carnival long weekend.