Bolivian’s love a good entrada (parade). In La Paz there are more entradas than days of the year. None of them however can be compared to Bolivia’s number one 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 for a few days of mayhem. The parade spans over 4km through Oruro’s city centre and goes for an astonishing 24 hours. The first of the 28,000 dancers begin at 8am on Saturday morning and last of them finish up at about the same time on Sunday. The dancers are accompanied by 10,000 musicians who form 150 marching bands. The massive scale of the event is an experience in itself.
Oruro’s Carnival was originally a small indigenous religious festival that dates back some 2000 years. Once 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 and continued 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 allowed its Carnival to become the biggest and best in the country.
Bolivian history and folklore is acted out through music and dance. Spectators can watch 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 has got to be Diablada (dance of the devils). Oruro is a mining city whose population are syncretic in their Catholic and Indigenous beliefs. They see the devil as being the lord of the underground who needs to be worshiped in order to extract wealth from his domain. Diablada is one such form worship, but the people 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 is the highly detailed costume designs. Outfits are made by hand and take months to prepare. They can be worth over US$500 which is more than two months minimum wage.
Oruro’s Carnival is Bolivia’s number one attraction for local and international tourists. Outside of Carnival the city receives very few visitors so tourism infrastructure is relatively underdeveloped. The few available hotels tend to book out months in advance and increase their prices five fold during the event. You should 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. 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, toilet, and shower access. The cheapest places will just offer floor space and the tenants will be expected to bring their own mattress and sleeping bag. It’s hardly glamorous but a group of 6 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. There are places advertised in Carnival Facebook groups (try search for Graderias Oruro), local Oruro newspapers or sometimes even at the bus station.
Due to the expense and effort of finding a bed many people do Carnival as a day trip from La Paz. Travel agencies in La Paz offer packages including transport, seating, food, and some drinks for US$70 to $100. The downside is that they leave La Paz at 3am to arrive at the beginning of the parade and return around 6pm. 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 5am and returning from Oruro all through the day and night. The trip takes 4 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 people just book tours. The best atmosphere is in the main plaza, 10 de Febrero. This area has the most media coverage so the dancers are more energetic and do their best moves. It’s also the most expensive with seats in this area costing from US$100-200. The next best spot is on calle Bolivar within 4 blocks on either side of the plaza. These sections are still pretty lively and tend to attract a party crowd with seats for around US$70. Finally, the long stretch starting from the bus station is known as Avenida del Folklore or 6 de Agosto. This section seems a lot more family orientated and seats 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 within inches of the action. It was crowded and noisy but a lot of fun. Just be sure you are not blocking anyone’s view and to 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 feasible.
Most people attend Carnival without issue but there are some risks so it’s 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 that 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 they 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 that 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 but it’s not uncommon to see people celebrating early. 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. A ridiculous amount of alcohol is consumed across the country and it’s easily the biggest party on the Bolivian calendar.
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.