The largest carnival of the Bolivian highlands is celebrated in the Oruro city. It has been designated as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO, and it is considered one of the most important carnivals in the world; you will understand why while reading this article.
Some consider this festival the oldest carnival in history, but let me explain why. The carnival tradition did start in Europe, before the colonization of America, but the symbolism and traditions of this specific one, come from an ancient culture, that used to celebrate a religious festival in that same region, formerly called Uro Uro, long before the colonial period. When the Europeans arrived there, in order to bring the catholicism in the region, they made analogies between their beliefs and the local ones. That is how this carnival was born, as a combination of religious celebrations from both cultures.
This carnival brings together tens of thousands of dancers and musicians from different places of Bolivia and also from other countries. These artists perform for more than half-million spectators.
The main folkloric expression of the carnival is called “diablada”, a dance with an army of demons and other characters which, undoubtedly, reflect the mentioned combination of two cultures. Specifically, characters and symbolism of both are being implemented in the dances. Besides diablada, there are many other rhythms and dances performed in the Oruro Carnival, such as "caporal," "morenada" and "tinkuy," to name a few. Each one of them was born in a different period of history and carries a specific meaning.
The performers do not only participate in the carnival for fun, but they also do that because of a faithful promise they make to the Virgin of Socavon, the local patron, who was originated as a combination between the catholic Virgin Mary and the ancient protectress of the region, called Ñusta. After the musicians and dancers finish the carnival route, they enter the Virgin's sanctuary on their knees and move along towards her in that position, while praying amid tears and emotion.
The colorful and shiny costumes of the carnival dancers are charged with symbolism. It is easy to get impressed by the enormous level of detail of the outfits, but it is impossible not to end up shocked once you find out that all those costumes are handmade!
Soon after the carnival is over, thousands of artisans, start to work untiringly, to have their creations ready for the next festivity. Some of them embroider each thread and sequin of the dresses. Some others, mold and paint plaster and fiber masks; others forge metal masks, rattles, and other pieces for the costumes, while the rest develop hats full of ornaments and feathers.
Most of these artisans come from families with several generations of experience on these laborious artistic tasks, where each costume can take from a week to a month to be completed.
Attendants accompany the performing groups by chanting carnival songs, dancing, and asking for kisses from the caporal dancers. Even though Oruro is a cold city, for some reason, while playing with water and foam during the festivity, no one seems to feel it.
Paying for a seat in a good location is totally worth it in this carnival. It is necessary, however, to acquire it in advance! It will definitely be an unforgettable experience.
Strong beliefs impulse artisans, musicians, and dancers to prepare for months and to do their best on the streets during this big festivity. As spectators, we get goosebumps with the strong beat of the music and the sonorous steps of thousands of dancers. The Oruro Carnival is so important for the locals, both as a cultural expression and an act of faith.
Did you like the travel story?
Get more! Subscribe to our monthly inspiration newsletter.