When I was in Bariloche, a small Argentinian town that serves as the gateway to Patagonia, I had to make a trip through town to book a bus ticket. It was intended as a quick dash through the streets, but, as I so often found in South America, a diversion quickly distracted me.
I traced the sounds of rhythmic drumming and high-pitched whistling to the town’s own pathetic interpretation of Carnival. A piddling group of dancers (some more enthusiastic than others), drummers, and a large puppet commandeered the street, making a racket worthy of the real deal.
About a month later, in Potosi, Bolivia, loud music beat through the thin walls of my hostel as I lay in bed. By the time I dragged myself out onto the streets, music echoed around the city.
I followed it to the main plaza, 10 de Noviembre, where I discovered a rainbow of vibrant costumes, rhythmic music, and dancing. In the sweltering heat, performers in heavy, bejewelled costumes and masks paraded the street, spinning matracas (a type of wooden rattle).
Another day, another religious festival.
That was 6 years ago now, but those colours still pervade my memories of South America. Those haphazard festivities helped define my trip. In Cuzco, the neighbouring towns coming together to show off their unique regional costumes. In Copacabana, near Lake Titicaca, the pilgrims descending on the tiny lakeside town to participate in Good Friday processions through the streets.
Just thinking of that patchwork of events has me itching to return to that continent.
The event to end all events is, of course, Rio’s big Carnival. But few people know that Carnival is celebrated across the continent. The processions might not be as big, but then neither are the crowds.
If its high-altitude, sensational fun you crave, why not head for Bolivia’s mountain town of Oruro instead?
The Devil’s Carnival in Oruro
The ‘Devil’s Carnival’, locally called La Diablada, is held annually in Oruro – a slumberous mining town at dizzying heights in Bolivia’s arid Altiplano region. It’s generally held in February, though dates vary each year.
It’s a good place for a carnival to showcase different customs, since Oruro is declared the Bolivian ‘folklore capital’. In 2008, UNESCO declared the Carnival of Oruro a ‘Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’. Quite the mouthful, I know.
Representing Bolivia’s many indigenous groups, the Carnival highlights over 50 folkloric groups comprising nearly 20,000 dance participants.
Fun fact: ‘Carnival’ is derived from the Spanish carne levare, meaning ‘taking away meat’. This refers to Lent – the 40 days when devout Catholics avoid eating meat till Easter. Nearly 90% of Bolivians are reportedly Catholic.
A unique cultural experience, the Oruro Carnival showcases an extravaganza of folk dances, pageant costumes, gyrating music, toe-tapping tempo and plenty of non-stop partying. Typical Bolivian las bandas or marching bands accompany dances.
The Carnival integrates indigenous pagan expressions with Christian ideals, reflecting Oruro’s diverse cultural heritage. The Carnival symbolises devout religions through a blend of different cultures coexisting and communicating through song and dance. Catholicism takes on various personalities, characteristics and spiritual manifestations.
Festivities begin on the Saturday preceding Ash Wednesday, with a spectacular entrada (entrance procession) and the brightly costumed character of San Miguel leading, followed by dancing devils, bears and condors. Sunday features a less spectacular entrada. Monday sees more dance displays. Shrove Tuesday marks family reunions and cha’lla libations – alcohol sprinkling over worldly possessions invoking blessings.
The procession ends inside Socavon Cathedral, where participants often crawl on their knees to honour Virgin of Socavon.
The Carnival is a happy festival of colour, dance, music, rhythm, streamers and confetti. Costumed children participate in parades, play games and are entertained by pepino chorizo (folkloric clowns) and jukumari bear characters.
The Carnival attracts scores of tourists, and includes over 20,000 dancers and 10,000 musicians who traverse 4 km dancing and making music. The magic, variety and vibrancy of Oruro’s Carnival is impossible to capture in words. So, if you’re lucky to be in Bolivia during the Oruro Carnival, this is one fiesta not to be missed!
If you’re not so confident heading out on your own, you can always plan a trip to South America through a tour company. But I strongly recommend striking out alone. It’s a helluva a lot safer than you’d ever expect and you’ll be surprised at how much you find you’re able to grow (not to mention the personal growth that goes with it!).