A Devil Of A Good Time

Oruro’s Carnaval has become Bolivia’s largest and most renowned annual celebration. There are two sides to this party of all parties. For the angels in all of us, there are processions, dances and religious pageantry; for our inner devils, there’s plenty of drinking, debauchery and water-fights.

In a broad sense, these festivities can be described as reenactments of the triumph of good over evil, but the festival is interlaced with threads of both Christian and indigenous myths, fables, deities and traditions.

Orureños (Oruro locals) maintain that the festival commemorates an event that occurred during the early days of their own fair city. Legend has it that one night a thief called Chiruchiru was seriously wounded by a traveler he’d attempted to rob. Taking pity on the wrongdoer, the Virgen de Candelaria gently helped him reach his home near the mine at the base of Cerro Pié del Gallo and succored him until he died. When the miners found him there, an image of the Virgin hung over his head. Today, the mine is known as Socavón de la Virgen (Grotto of the Virgin), and a church, Santuario de la Virgen del Socavón, has been built over it to house the Virgin, the patron saint of the city.

This legend is combined with the ancient Uru tale of Huari, the spirit of the hills who sent four plagues – a lizard, a giant frog, a serpent and a hoard of ants – to destroy the Urus (they were saved by a princess who turned the monsters to sand or stone) and the biblical story of archangel Michael (San Miguel), who leads the angels in a war against Satan and the seven deadly sins.

Ceremonies begin several weeks before Carnaval itself, with various processions as dance groups practice boisterously in the city’s streets. On the morning of the Saturday before Carnaval (10 days before Ash Wednesday, in February or March), thousands of bands gather to play together in the Festival de Bandas on Plaza de Folklore. The next day, the dance troupes meet for a final rehearsal along the entire 3.5km Carnaval parade route. On Thursday, locals from the surrounding villages arrive in Oruro to perform their traditional dances in the Anata Andina procession. The following day, miners perform cha'lla libations, in which alcohol is sprinkled over worldly goods to invoke a blessing.

The main event kicks off on the Saturday before Ash Wednesday with the spectacular entrada (entrance procession). For 24 hours, some 50 carnival troupes of dancing devils, bears, condors and a host of colorful characters make their way down the parade route to Santuaro de la Virgen, which they enter on their knees to receive a blessing. At dawn on Sunday a mass is held in honor of the Virgin.

There’s another, less spectacular entrada on Sunday afternoon, when anyone can put on a mask and join the dancing. Yet more dance displays take place on Monday, including a series of dances in which San Miguel fights off the Diablada (dancing devils), telling the story of the battle between good and evil. The next day, Shrove Tuesday, is marked by family reunions and cha’lla libations, and the following day people make their way into the surrounding countryside where four rock formations – the Toad, Viper, Condor and Lizard – are also subjected to cha’lla as an offering to Pachamama (Mother Earth).

Tickets typically cost between B$200 and B$350 for the seats along Av 6 de Agosto. On the main plaza, prime seats cost between B$800 and B$1200.