Every year, in late February or early March, the sleepy mining town of Oruro, located in the middle of the Bolivian Altiplano region, all of a sudden comes to life with wild celebrations. The weekend before Ash Wednesday, its usually quiet streets become overflown with jubilant crowds, loud music, and grotesque characters, dressed in lavish dazzling costumes. For several sleepless days and nights, one of the most unique carnivals in the world, known as Carnaval de Oruro in Spanish, enlivens the local community that was home to ancient indigenous festivals long before the modern holiday emerged.
While the carnival is celebrated all across Bolivia and other South American countries, with every town holding its own festive parade, Oruro is, by far, the largest in scale and most popular. 28 000 dancers and 10 000 musicians that form in total 48 dance groups march through the streets of Oruro for two days running. They perform a variety of dances and plays while half a million visitors watch and cheer on them.
In Bolivia, it is a great honor to participate in the Oruro carnival. The dance groups practice their moves throughout the whole year to get ready for the parade.
The significance of the Oruro Carnival has also been recognized by UNESCO. It was put on the list of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2001.
Unlike a more sensually charged extravaganza of Rio samba dancers, the Oruro Carnival centers around the folkloric traditions of the indigenous people of Bolivia. The native pagan mythology is easily mixed here with Catholic beliefs, brought to South America by the Spanish conquerors. Yet, this extraordinary blend of fascinating local customs with religious symbolism and ingenuous revelry is filled with so much imagination and fun! Even people who fall asleep at the first sound of words such as folklore and religion will be totally brimming with excitement while watching or taking part in the parade.
History of Oruro Carnival
Oruro, known as Uru Uru in ancient times, was an important religious center long before the Spanish conquest. Pilgrims from all across the Andes traveled to the Sacred Mountains of the Urus to worship Pachamama (Mother Earth in the Andean mythology), perform sacrificial Itu ceremonies, and ask the mountain spirits such as apus, achachilas, etc., for protection. They also had a special Anata holiday there to celebrate the beginning of the harvesting season.
When the Spanish arrived in the area in 1606, they tried to impose their Catholic religion on the indigenous people and banned the local pagan practices. However, the Indians did not want to disown the beliefs of their ancestors. They continued to observe their traditions under the guise of Catholic rituals to appease their rulers. Catholic priests disapproved but tolerated the ruse to convert more local people to their religion. They also encouraged the natives to perform their traditional dances and music during Catholic holidays and turn their festivals into Christian celebrations. This somewhat lenient approach led to the unique fusion between Catholicism and paganism and the evolvement of the modern carnival.
The Andean deities, worshipped by the Indians, took on the features of the biblical characters. For example, Pachamama merged with the image of the Virgin Mary, as the representation of all the good forces. El Tio, also known as Tio Supay, the malicious spirit of the mountain where local miners worked to extract silver, became the Devil. Hence, the principal story of the carnival revolves around the battle between the good and the evil.
The Religious Meaning of the Oruro Carnival
The carnival also commemorates a miracle that occurred in one of the mineshafts in the early days of the town’s history. Legend has it that once the Virgin helped a repentant but fatally injured thief to reach his home near Oruro silver mines before he died. When local miners found his body at the entrance to the mine, there was an image of the Virgin hanging over his head.
The story was most likely made up by the Spanish priests to convince the Indians to worship the Virgin. Nevertheless, the Indians did build a church and dedicated to the Virgin a 3-day holiday that coincided with the dates of the indigenous festival of Anata Andina. Since that time, the Oruro Carnival has been observed in honor of the Virgin of Candelaria, or Virgen del Socavon in Spanish. The most important events of the Carnival are held at the Santuario del Socavon, which means the Church of the Mineshaft.
Oruro Carnival Program
While the weekend festivities are the most significant events of the carnival, the local people begin to prepare for the celebrations a few weeks ahead of the parade.
Usually, one week before the start of the Carnival, Oruro hosts a competition and a general rehearsal for the bands that participate in the parade.
On Thursday, two days before the beginning of the parade, the local peasants celebrate the indigenous festival of Anata Andina. Its main purpose is to thank Pachamama for the abundance of the crops that Mother Earth has produced during the current year. Farmers arrive from the nearby villages and set up a market in the center of the town to sell their products. Dance bands from different parts of Bolivia perform in the streets to create a festive atmosphere and showcase their native costumes and music.
Friday is dedicated to the Challa. This traditional ceremony involves offering Pachamama gifts in return for the crops. In the country, peasants strew the earth with flower petals and bury a pot with cooked vegetables, cigarettes, coca leaves, and alcohol to feed Pachamama. In the cities, people decorate their houses and sprinkle alcohol, grains, daisy petals, and candies all around the streets. In the evening, there is a big street party along the 4 km carnival route. All night until dawn, Oruro’s residents and guests keep vigil in anticipation of the parade that begins early next morning.
The Pilgrimage Saturday is the most important day of the carnival. It opens with a ceremony dedicated to the Virgin del Socavon. After that, the bands set off on pilgrimage along the carnival route towards the Socavon Sanctuary, and the parade begins.
The carnival procession is usually headed by Archangel San Miguel. Next come the colorfully dressed devils, bears, pumas, monkeys, condors, devil wives who attempt to seduce the Archangel, and seven deadly sins, namely, greed, lust, pride, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth. They all take part in one of the principal dances of the parade, called Diablada. Seventeen other folk dances succeed one another, illustrating a great variety of cultures and ethnic groups that comprise the modern state of Bolivia. In a very imaginative way, through different kinds of live music, movements, and costumes, the performers tell the history of Bolivia and its people such as native tribes, Spanish conquistadors, African slaves, etc.
The viewers, sitting on the platforms near the carnival route, cheer on the dancers, sing along, and spray distracted bystanders with foam. If they feel inspired, drunk, or confident in their dancing skills, they can even join the parade. By the evening, the general mood gets even more convivial, thanks to generous amounts of local beer and chicha, a traditional alcoholic beverage made of purple corn. By midnight, everyone in the streets is whooping it up. You simply cannot stay away from all the merrymaking and excitement of the crowds that draw you in.
The parade lasts well into the wee hours of the next morning. After a short break, it resumes around 8 am on Carnival Sunday. The performers gather around the Socavon Sanctuary to pay homage to the Virgen. Then the parade continues along the same route as the day before. It is a repetition of Saturday’s celebrations but on a slightly smaller scale.
Devil’s Monday, or the Day of the Devil and Moreno, starts with a mass at the Socavon Sanctuary. After that, the bands split into smaller groups and perform in various locations around the town.
Shrove Tuesday is a bank holiday. It is dedicated to family reunions around traditional Challa ceremonies.
On Ash Wednesday, following the ancient tradition, people go to the countryside to visit four sacred rock formations, called the toad, the lizard, the condor, and the viper.
For more exact dates of the Oruro Carnival in 2020 visit BoliviaTravelSite.
List of Dances Performed at the Oruro Carnival
If you make it to the next Oruro Carnival in Bolivia, here is a list of the most representative dances performed at the festival. It will help you avoid confusion as, at first, it might be difficult to tell one dance from another.
As mentioned earlier, the Diablada tells a story of the Archangel San Miguel gaining victory over the Devil and the seven deadly sins. However, this traditional dance is much older and deeply rooted in the ancient rituals of the Uru people. Its origin can be traced to a legend that describes how the Urus were saved by the Nusta, the female energy of the Andes, from the four plagues of ants, lizards, toads, and snakes, sent by the infuriated god Wari. Under the Spanish rule, the story took on a new Christian meaning, and the pagan deities were transformed into biblical icons.
The origin of Morenada goes back to colonial times and slavery. The slowly moving dancers in heavy costumes portray the African slaves, brought by the Spanish to the Andes to work in the silver mines. The dance tells a sad story of how the slaves, led by their white lords, traveled through various regions of the country. The eerie masks symbolize the suffering and the deplorable physical state of the black laborers. The rattling sound of the matracas, an instrument that the dancers spin in their hands, represents the sound of chains worn by the slaves.
The Caporales is one of the most popular and peppy dances of the carnival. Young men in high-heeled boots, with wide-brimmed hats in their left hand and a whip in their right hand impersonate Spanish military guards, known as the Caporales. They are overseers of black slaves. The Caporales is, probably, the most spectacular dance of the carnival as it is characterized by high jumps and swirls and requires a lot of physical prowess. The men show a great attitude and a lot of skills during their performance.
Young girls in short-skirt dresses usually follow them in separate groups. Even though the girls don’t jump as much as the men, they show off their best moves in a vivacious and sensual manner, gaining a lot of male fans during the parade.
The dance also has a religious meaning as the performers dance in honor of the Virgen del Socavon. They vow to do it for three years of their lives.
The Llamerada is one of the oldest dances of the Bolivian folklore. It originated in the ancient Aymara villages around the Titicaca lake. The moves imitate the daily activities of llama herders that live in the Andean highlands. That’s why the dancers hold little toy llamas in their hands and wear traditional headdresses of the Aymara community leaders. Traditionally, Aymara people also performed this dance as a ritual of good fortune.
The Incas dance tells an old wanca, or a tragic story in Quechua, of the Inca people during the Spanish conquest. It describes the greatness of the Inca empire, the arrival of the Spanish, the confrontation between the native people and the invaders, the death of the Inca Emperor Atahuallpa, and the triumph of the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizzaro.
The Tinkus dance is a representation of ritualistic combat between two opposing groups. It is based on ceremonial fights that were traditionally carried out in the name of Pachamama by different communities in the Potosi region. That is why the dance is performed to martial drum music and is characterized by warlike movements that imitate punching and assault. Despite its violent origin, the dance is very spectacular and entertaining. The performers are dressed in very colorful costumes that are fun to look at.
The Potolos originated in the Bolivian towns of Potolo and Potobamba. The dance represents the act of carrying the water to the fields and the flirting between men and women. It describes the daily routine of the agricultural workers and is characterized by agile rhythmic hip movements.
The Khantus is a ceremonial folk dance that originated in smalls towns north of La Paz. It was performed during local celebrations by the native people that live in the Andes. The musicians play special native instruments such as, for example, the siku, or panpipe, made of multiple bamboo tubes of different lengths.
The Kallawaya are a group of traditional healers, also called Yatiri, that come from the mountainous area north of La Paz. For centuries, the Yatiri have been known to perform complex surgeries and treat serious diseases. For this reason, they are deeply respected and enjoy a special status in the traditional Bolivian society. Before leaving home to heal the sick, Kallawayas perform this special ceremonial dance that helps them to establish contact with the world of spirits.
The Tobas is a folk dance that tells a story of the tribe of warriors that lived in the Chaco region of Eastern Bolivia. It is characterized by monotonous rhythm and acrobatic jumps performed by separate groups of men and women in feathered costumes. The dancers imitate the supple, almost animal-like, movements of the tribal people.
The Negritos is the dance of the black community that lives in the Yungas region of Bolivia. It expresses the anguish and the nostalgia of the black slaves who lost their roots when they were brought from Africa for work in the Spanish colonies. Every evening, after the hard day of labor, the slaves gathered around the fire to sing their songs and perform their rites with the help of traditional African drum instruments. Their movements are reminiscent of African tribal dances. The male costumes feature extremely ruffled sleeves. The female dancers wear ruffled skirts as well.
The Phujllay originally comes from the town of Tarabuko near Sucre. They also have an annual festival there under the same name. Through heavy music and slow movements, the dance expresses the melancholic mood and solitude of a peasant who has fallen in love. One of the most striking features of the dancers’ attire is the spurs attached to the heels of their sandals. These spurs are used as percussion instruments during the dance. The higher the sandals, the more skill is required to produce the clanking sound with the spur.
The Tarqueada has its origin in the indigenous festival of Anata Andina when the peasants performed rituals for Pachamama to thank her for the abundance of crops. The dance is the celebration of the fertility cult and the expression of happiness and joy at the beginning of the harvesting season. During the carnival, the dancers spill chicha to the ground in four directions as an offering to Pachamama. The musicians play a special musical instrument called tarqa, a kind of wooden windpipe.
The Kullawada is the dance of the Aymara spinners and weavers of llama wool. It highlights the importance of the precious textiles that have been the main economic activity of the Altiplano region. The dancers in elaborately decorated costumes perform with a little spinning wheel in their hands as a symbol of the dance.
The Waca Waca, or Waca Tokori, is the dance that satirizes the bullfight, one of the main entertainments of the Spanish colonists. Men get dressed like bulls. Women wear dozens of heavy skirts which they move with their hips from side to side to the rhythm of the brass music.
The Suri Sikuri is a dance performed in different provinces of the La Paz region to celebrate a wedding or construction of a new house. The dance is a portrayal of a hunting ostrich, which is called suri in the local language. The performers imitate the animal’s movements and wear wide hats made of its feathers. The sound of siku, the traditional Andean panpipe, accompanies their performance.
The Wititis refers to several dances from various villages and towns in the Bolivian highlands. Each of them has its own folkloric traditions that reflect the main activities of its population.
The main purpose of the Doctorcitos dance is to mock the lawyers who misused their powers and abused the poor during colonial times. The dance ridicules their fatuity, arrogance, and hypocrisy. The performers wear a top hat, a suit, a bow tie, and a cane.
Planning a Trip to Oruro
If you are planning to visit the next Oruro Carnival, here are a few pieces of advice on how to organize your trip.
First of all, I should tell you that Bolivia is an incredibly beautiful country which remains terra incognita to the majority of tourists today. Due to its unique natural wonders, it gradually becomes more and more popular with adventure seekers and travelers looking for unusual experiences. However, as a holiday destination, Bolivia still lies off the beaten path. So the sooner you come here with a visit, the more chances you have to enjoy its authentic culture and pristine nature without the chaotic tourist crowds, typical of more trendy places.
Oruro itself is not the prettiest or most interesting Bolivian town. There is not much to do there outside of the Carnival time. However, you can easily combine your carnival experience with visiting other attractions in the country such as the cities of La Paz and Sucre, the Titicaca Lake, the Amazon jungle, and the famous Uyuni Salt Flats.
Since distances between different sites in the country are quite large, you will need at least two weeks to visit some or all of the above-mentioned places. However, if you have only one week available, you can still add one or two places to your itinerary as the carnival itself does not last longer than a weekend. Ideally, you should arrive in Oruro on Friday to be in time for the opening of the parade on Saturday morning. You can easily leave the town on Monday morning, as the most spectacular festivities are over on Sunday night.
How to get to Oruro
The best and easiest way to get to Oruro is to take a bus from La Paz or any other major city in Bolivia if you are already traveling inside the country. When it comes to buses, the town is well connected with direct routes to La Paz, Cochabamba, Sucre, Uyuni, Potosi, Santa Cruz, Tarija.
I would not say the same about air flights or trains. To the best of my knowledge, there are no direct flights from La Paz to Oruro. Traveling with a stopover in Cochabamba takes a lot of time. The train system in Bolivia is, practically, defunct. While there is a train going from Uyuni to Oruro a few times a week, there is no train connection between La Paz and Oruro. The trains in Bolivia are also quite outdated and slow. So taking a bus is your best bet.
If you leave from La Paz or Uyuni, it takes about 4 – 4 ½ hours to reach Oruro by bus. If you want to book your tickets in advance, you can do it on ticketsbolivia.com. However, there are more bus companies in Bolivia than those registered on this website. They offer a different level of service from low-cost public buses to tourist class with air-conditioning and comfortable seats. Prices range from approximately 3 to 30 US dollars. If you fail to find suitable tickets on this website, do not worry. You can come directly to the bus station and get a ticket for the next bus right before the departure as buses leave regularly every hour or so.
However, there is one thing that you have to take into account. The Tuesday after the carnival parade is always a bank holiday. All businesses close down for the day, including public transport. Buses do not depart from Oruro until Wednesday morning. So you should either leave the town on Monday, or you will have to stay there until Wednesday.
Accomodation in Oruro
Due to the large influx of visitors during the carnival, I strongly advise you to book your accommodation in Oruro at least a few months in advance. The town does not get a lot of tourists during the rest of the year so the hotel infrastructure in the city is underdeveloped. There are not many hotels available. Their quality is pretty low.
That is why the earlier you start researching your hotel options, the better. Do not repeat my mistake of doing it at the last minute. Because of some uncertainty concerning our trip to South America, I started searching for a place to stay in Oruro just two weeks before the carnival. At first, I could not find any available rooms. By pure luck, I eventually grabbed a basic room with a shared bathroom, which appeared on booking.com a few days later due to a previous cancellation.
Due to the high demand for accommodation during the carnival, the hotels charge three or four times more than their usual price. However, you cannot help but accept it if you want a first-hand carnival experience. Also, bear in mind that most hotels only sell what they call carnival packages. This means a 3-night stay from Friday to Monday. If you want to stay only one or two nights, you will still pay the same amount of money. Some hotels that are located along the carnival route may also include seat tickets for the parade. Check with your selected hotel if such an option exists.
Those who have not got a hotel room can find private accommodation. On your arrival at the Oruro bus station, you will see a lot of local people offering visitors a place to stay at their homes for some fee. However, in this case, you’d better be fluent in Spanish to negotiate with them. They hardly speak any English. Do not expect much in terms of comfort and beware of scammers.
How to Get a Ticket to Oruro Carnival
As a matter of fact, if you are happy to stand or walk, you can watch the carnival free of charge. Some visitors just follow the dancers along the carnival route while mingling with them, dancing and singing. However, access to the streets where the parade takes place is blocked with viewer platforms and guarded by the police. During our visit in March 2019, I found that policemen were reluctant to let you inside this route unless you had a ticket. So I advise you to buy a ticket with a seat on one of the platforms. This way, you will have no problem coming or leaving the carnival whenever you want.
The ticket prices range somewhere from USD10 to USD150 and depend on the location and seat comfort. The best and most expensive seats are found in the Plaza Principal 10 de Febrero, encircled in blue color on the map below. This is where the streets are the widest with the best view of the parade. There the dancers give it their all by showing their best moves.
However, you do not need the priciest tickets to enjoy the carnival. Just go along the carnival route on Friday night, check out different price options from different vendors. Do not forget to bargain with them to get a better value for your money. Once you have a ticket, you have freedom of choice. You can either stay in your seat all the time or walk pretty much anywhere along the carnival route. In fact, we found it interesting to do both and enjoyed watching the parade from different points on the route.
More Tips on Visiting Oruro Carnival
Let me share with you a few more tips to help you prepare for your trip to Oruro and make your carnival experience more pleasant and smooth.
Moneywise, bring some cash with you to Oruro. Card payments are either not accepted, or charged with an extra commission. It is extremely difficult to find money exchange points during the carnival, and the banks are closed. So it is better to get your bolivianos in a bigger city like La Paz before your trip to Oruro.
Do not forget about the standard safety measures. While I found traveling in Bolivia pretty safe, as a foreign tourist you can always be a target for pickpockets and street hustlers, particularly, during such jam-packed events as the carnival. Therefore, leave all your valuable things and travel documents in a safety deposit box of your hotel. Only carry small amounts of cash with you. Always keep your bag, camera or phone in front of you. Be aware of your surroundings. If you find someone looking suspicious, move away from them in a different direction. Try not to stand out as a foreigner. Rather leave all your expensive outfits at home. Put on your cheapest and most comfortable clothes and try to blend in with the locals. Do not stray away too far into unknown areas of the town. Stay close to the central streets where the carnival takes place, particularly, at night.
Just in case, keep your raincoat at hand during the parade. The Bolivians have a slightly annoying carnival tradition of bursting water bombs, shooting water pistols, and spraying foam on all passers-by, except the performers. Both children and adults do it alike, and you cannot do much to avoid it. So wear clothes that you will not regret having covered in foam stains. Put on a raincoat and join in the fun by getting your own bottle of foam spray.
Beware of the altitude sickness. Oruro is located at 3735 m above sea level. At such a high elevation you should take it slow and let your body acclimatize. Thus, avoid overstressing your body with too much physical activity. Stay away from alcoholic beverages. Instead, drink lots of water to keep yourself hydrated. Drinking coca tea or chewing coca leaves can also help you adjust faster to the altitude.
Also, remember that staying sober is the key to your safety. Do not follow the example of the locals who have a habit of getting boozed-up at the carnival until they pass out.
The last but not least: if you are not fluent in Spanish yet, learn at least a few useful phrases in this beautiful language. You can also install a translator app (for example, Google Translate or iTranslate) on your phone as hardly anybody in Oruro speaks English at all, let alone other languages. Even the hotel staff is, most of the time, only Spanish-speaking.
I hope this article will be a helpful tool for planning your trip to Oruro. I, personally, struggled with finding the essential facts about the carnival and the town itself on the Internet when I was planning my trip. That is why I tried to put here together all pieces of advice I could think of so that you should not scour the internet yourself for isolated scraps of information.
If, until reading this article, you had never heard or thought of visiting the Oruro Carnival, I hope my story has inspired you to go there and check it out for yourself one day. It is a unique experience that will open for you a door into a captivating world of fantasy and magic.