Today, March 3rd 2015, on the stark altiplano region of Bolivia, 3.7015 metres above sea level, takes place one of the biggest Andean Festival in Bolivia, the Oruro Carnival.
Oruro was a mining town founded in 1606 by Spaniards. The Aymara and Quechua people of this area were already working the local mines and became labourers for the Europeans, whilst Spanish priests were introducing Christianity. Indians were encouraged to perform their traditional dances and songs for the Catholic Saints’ feast day observances. By the mid-18th century, carnival became an annual event in Oruro. As Indian labourers joined the celebration, city officials made efforts to control rowdiness by naming the Virgin Mary patron Saint of the festival.
After Bolivia gained its independence from Spain in 1825, upper class citizens of Oruro largely ignored the indigenous population and each group had its own Carnival celebration. In the 1940s, with the rise of a socialist movement in Bolivia, members of the upper class came to view the Indian lifestyle and culture as the model of an idealized society. The Indians’ professional dance dramas and masquerades were now seen as national folkloric pageants. Upper and middle class citizens began to form their own dance groups modelled after those of the Indians and the two separate Oruro Carnival celebrations were combined into one. Today the costumes and performance themes of the various groups reflect diverse aspects of the cultural history of the region, making Oruro’s Carnival one of the most impressive festivals in all of Bolivia.
On Saturday, Oruro Carnival’s main event, the Gran Entrada de Peregrinación, begins around nine in the morning and continues for sixteen hours. Catholic priests followed by the altar boys, swinging lit incense burners, lead the long procession which includes miners, dignitaries, and dance sponsors carrying a glass case containing a statue of the Virgin of the Mineshaft. The oldest Diablo Dance Group (conjunto) then begins the parade. More than forty groups, each accompanied by bands, dance the entire parade route uphill through town, about 35 blocks, more than three kilometres, finally arriving at the plaza in front of the church of the Virgin of the Mineshaft.
Sunday is considered to be more of a casual day; the groups dance in a different order, and not everyone wears their masks. Once again, the procession ends up in the plaza where an outdoor market is set up for food, games, and shopping.
On Monday of Carnival week townspeople construct a tunnel of wooden arches (arcos) on the plaza in front of the Sanctuary of the Virgin of Mineshaft. Each arch is draped with brightly striped woven cloths and hung with silver urns, plates, cutlery, and coins, creating a colourful shimmering passageway for people to walk though to honour the Virgin and receive her blessings.
Tuesday, called Martes de Challa, is a private, family affair. The day is devoted to festive family meals and the offering of ch’allas. In addition to food and beverages, ch’allas include confetti, colourful streamers, and mesas, flammable sheets of paper covered with objects that represent prayers and requests. People also drive their new vehicles to the plaza in front of the church and toss beer and confetti over them before the priest blesses them.
The final celebrations of the Oruro Carnival take place on the following Sunday. On this day local residents gather on nearby hillsides which have rock formations in the shapes of snakes, lizards and toads. To bring prosperity and good luck, people decorate the rock formations with paper streamers, build tiny houses near them, and shake beer foam over them.
— Excerpt from the book ¡CARNAVAL! by Barbara Mauldin —
In Oruro, Carnival is the biggest cultural event of the year. It is a fascinating display of colourful costumes and traditional Bolivian dances attended by tens of thousands of people from all over the world. Do not miss this next year’s Oruro Carnival in Bolivia, plan your trip ahead and experience one of the best Carnivals on the planet!