The first weekend of March marked Carnaval this year and, in Bolivia, the biggest celebration takes place in the city of Oruro. While I would usually tell people to avoid Oruro as it is not a particularly attractive city and there isn’t really a lot to see, it is definitely the place to be for Carnaval in Bolivia.
Things got off to a bad start when, against my better judgement, I allowed my Bolivian friend to make all of the travel arrangements. After spending so much time travelling on my own and taking responsibility for my own travel, I just thought, “Take a break; let someone else be in charge for this one”. Well, two days before we were supposed to leave, I tentatively asked where we would be staying that weekend. The answer was slightly frustrating: “I don’t know, I haven’t called my friend yet”. Considering the fact that about half a million people descend upon Oruro for Carnival, I was a little concerned. The next day I was told that we would be staying in a house with his friends who were coming from La Paz. The problem with this was that we arrived 7 hours before them, with no address, no contact information for the owner, and we couldn’t get in touch with the friends from La Paz. Finally, at 12:30am we heard from them and headed off to meet them on a street corner near the house. We waited, and we waited. Two hours passed sitting on a street corner in the cold, Oruro night until a woman walked passed and asked if we needed somewhere to stay. Angry and cold, we gave up and followed her to a dive bar that was open after hours where we waited for her to call her brother-in-law who had a room to give us. By 4am I was finally in bed and not particularly looking forward to getting up four hours later to see the parade. But, I did. And despite being unbearably exhausted I was able to appreciate how amazing Carnaval in Oruro really is.
Carnaval is basically the devil trying to tempt the weak with carnal sins before Lent or Cuaresma. There are various dances from various parts of the country and they all tell different stories as the dancers make their way down a 5km stretch of the city to the cathedral. The main parade takes place on the Saturday from around 8 or 9am and continues on into the night and early the next morning. The dances are repeated in a different order on the Sunday but there is slightly less importance placed on the second day.
Sadly, this year, events took a tragic turn as a fatal accident suspended the celebrations. At about 6pm on the Saturday one of the pedestrian bridges crossing over the main street of the parade collapsed due to excess weight. There were too many people on the walkway and the bridge came crashing down onto a marching band as it passed underneath killing 3 band members and 2 members of the public. The evening parade is said to be even more impressive as the dancers use fire and lights to illuminate their displays. However, due to the tragic event, the parade was suspended and, instead, the dance fraternities held a vigil as they walked, rather than danced, up to the cathedral. When I heard about the accident, I was shocked, deeply saddened, and realised that I was very lucky that the worst thing that had happened to me that weekend was being cold and grumpy the night before. My problems were quickly put into perspective.
Though the weekend didn’t turn out exactly as I had expected, and was a bit more traumatic than I had anticipated, I really enjoyed what I saw of Carnaval and wanted to share the amazing dances and costumes that were on display in Oruro. There are hundreds of groups of dancers, called fraternidades, that take part in the parade and not a single group has the same outfit as another. Artisans across the country spend the year producing original outfits for each of the fraternidades and they are always different from what went the year before. The amount of work and creativity that goes into producing all of these costumes is incredible and I was blown away by how beautiful it all looked.
Here are some of the dances:
The caporales is probably the most popular dance and is inspired by an ill-humoured capataz, or overseer, who whips and orders his slaves into action. It is a sort of spin-off from the Afro-Bolivian dance, the Saya, where the character of the capataz first appeared.
Then there’s the morenada, which was one of my favourites. The morenada originates from Potosí and Oruro and represents the rebellion of the slaves that worked in the mines.
Next is the diablada. This dance represents the struggle between good and evil. The archangel San Miguel leads the way in front of the devils to illustrate who won.
The tinkus is a dance with very traditional costumes and is danced in order to encourage the Pachamama, Mother Earth, to produce food. The word tinkus is a Quechua word for ‘encounter’ and the dance is so called because of the fight that would traditionally take place between communities.
Although slightly less extravagant in terms of costume, I still had a soft spot for a dance called the llamerada. It’s a dance about llamas! It has Incan origin and is danced for the people who take care of Bolivia’s llamas.
The tobas is a high-energy dance that originated in the south of Bolivia. It represents the toba, a tribe of warriors and turns around hunting and fighting.
Finally, the suri sicuri is a dance that combines the aymara words suri, meaning ostrich, and sicuri, which derives from sicu, which is an indigenous instrument. Enormous crowns of ostrich feathers adorn the heads of the dancers as they move to the slow rhythm associated with the suri sicuri.
So that’s it for Carnaval 2014! Now that I’ve seen one carnival, I’m hooked. My next carnival: Brazil. Or maybe Notting Hill is a bit more realistic… we’ll just have to see!