South America loves it’s festivals! For those who don’t know, most of the countries are predominantly Catholic* and they love to celebrate all the different saints at various times of the year. Sometimes it’s a bit annoying (church bells early in the morning, and marching bands practicing late at night when you’re trying to sleep) but mostly it’s really fun. I love how much energy it brings to the city, and it can turn a sleepy town into a vibrant explosion of colour, music, and dancing – it’s really quite a sight to see! In early September, Sucre celebrated it’s patron saint – the Virgen de Guadalupe.
* In Bolivia, they identify as Catholic, but the rituals are not all the standard ones you would find around the world. When they were first colonized, they already had their own beliefs – especially related to Pachamama (or mother earth). Therefore, they call themselves Catholic or Christian but still retain a lot of the rituals and beliefs they’ve had for hundreds of years.
So many colourful costumes!
Note: All photos and videos in this blog were taken by me (on my phone), except for the map of the city.
Last month there was a big festival in the streets! The whole downtown core was closed to cars, and thousands of people from the nearby areas danced through town – ending in the main plaza at the big Cathedral. They had been practicing their music and dancing for weeks, but this time they also added beautiful costumes. The dancers actually make a route around the city that takes 6 hours – dancing the entire way! Very impressive…
Traditional costumes come in many different colours.
I found this article that details all of the major festivals happening in Bolivia in the month of September. It seems that every major city/area has it’s own festival celebrating something different during this month. I found another good article that talks about the history and the significance of the festival in Sucre. Here’s what they have to say about the festival of the Virgen de Guadalupe:
- The festival in Sucre always takes place on the weekend that is closest to September 8th, so this year it was September 10th and 11th. Though the people in the parade practice for months beforehand. The weekend before is called the “convite” and it’s the final dress rehearsal with all the costumes and full bands. It was amazing to watch even that, with lots of fireworks, confetti, and vendors selling local food on small grills set up around the plaza.
- Some of the activities in various areas include: bull fights, traditional food stalls, non-stop folk dancing and music, parades, elaborate costumes, fireworks, and other festivities.
The parade route is highlighted on the map.
- The major parade lasts about 6 hours and goes through 7km of the city (from the Mercado Campesino to the Plaza 25 de Mayo cathedral). The parade has been taking place since the 17th century.
- At the shrine, the women and men separate to form a tunnel (that the men dance through), and then all the dancers crawl the final 30m to show their respect and devotion to the virgin.
- They recommend that you: wear a hat (Sucre is hot during the day), wear comfortable shoes (you’ll probably be out all day), book accommodation in advance (thankfully, I live very close to the main square, and can walk everywhere in the main part of the city)
Apparently, in 1601, Reverend Fray Diego de Ocaña created a painting called the “Black Madonna” which showed the Virgin with brown skin (like the local Bolivians). The locals started to show their devotion to the Virgin and they built a shrine where people could go to pray to her. The shrine was moved, and now it rests beside the central cathedral in Sucre. Over the past 400 years, various people have adorned the shrine with precious jewels including “an estimated 298 thousand pearls and about 21 thousand diamonds.”
“The total value of the shrine is so valuable it is believed the sale of these gems would make Bolivia one of the richest countries in Latin America” (!)
The young and old all come into town to celebrate during the “entrada”.
The local legend is a bit different. It said that there was once a lost mule in the bushes with a big bundle on it’s back. Everyone thought the bundle might be valuable, so they all struggled to catch the mule. Then they opened up the package, they found the beautiful painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Ever since that day, they’ve had a lavish festival each year in honour of the Virgin.
Costumes + Dance Groups
For the most part, each large group is broken down into at least 3 but sometimes up to 12 different smaller groups. The large group all has a theme, and usually a reason why they’re dancing together (school, church, etc.). They all have at least 1 group of women, 1 group of men, and a marching band (though some of the younger groups only have a truck with a large stereo). In general, the women and the men dance separately, but their costumes often match or have the same theme. At the beginning of each smaller group is a leader with a whistle, and it’s their job to make sure all the dancers know what moves or songs are coming up next so everyone can switch dance moves in unison – it’s pretty impressive!
Most older women wear traditional costumes – with bowler hats, shawls, and skirts with lots of layers.
- Traditional dresses with lots of layers underneath in different colours (you can see them when they spin)
- A traditional shawl with fringe on the ends
- Bowler hats
- Braid their hair down the back in 2 long braids
- Carry a decorated, spinning noise-maker
The mens costumes are a bit less exciting, but glowing is always fun. 😛
- High boots covered in bells
- Long, ornate gloves
- Business wear (long-sleeved, button-up shirts, nice leather shoes, suit)
- Hats (similar to a cowboy hat)
- Carry a long staff of sorts
- The marching band is usually also men, and they wear what any marching band does. Usually pretty formal, with white or black pants, and a coloured jacket.
Younger people wear:
- For the most part, the young people are not wearing traditional outfits when they’re practicing, but switch to more traditional costumes for the big day. When practicing they tend to wear matching t-shirts.
- Many girls have the sides of their head braided (close to their face)
- The women often wear very high-heeled fancy shoes (in the same colour as the outfit)
- Both genders wear jeans (baggier for men, tight and faded in the right places for women) and t-shirts with the logos of their groups on it.
- Some women dress sexy, with leopard print, strapless crop tops + tight jeans + high-heels. Others dress a bit more conservatively.
But the festival isn’t only about dancing. There’s also hundreds of vendors all over the street. They sell everything from house wares to cheap sunglasses, from bubble machines to second-hand clothes, from giant cakes to steak with potatoes. The sellers line the street and people can be seen buying everything while they watch the parade go by.
A sampling of some street vendors.
We checked out the festival a number of times. We first saw bands and dancers practicing in Parque Bolivar weeks before the big event. Then one weekend before the festival we saw the whole rehearsal from the plaza. It was actually a bit more exciting, because there was more fireworks, confetti, and it was easier to see everything (because there was less people). Then on the actuall weekend of the festival we went to see the parade 3 times; once on Friday night for a few hours, then Saturday morning we met up with a friend along the route to snap some pictures but the sun got really hot so we went for ice cream, and the last time we went for a few hours Saturday night (until my legs were sore from all the walking so we headed home). Originally we were told to buy seats in advance. I wouldn’t recommend it, so I’m glad we didn’t. It’s quite expensive and you need to stay in one spot all day. Plus the seats are very sketchy, patched together an hour before with spare wood, not trustworthy. It’s bad enough to be near the fireworks when they go off – safety is definitely not a major concern in Bolivia! 😉
The streets are packed with people, some standing and others sitting on temporary bleachers that are constructed for the event.
If you’re in Bolivia in September, I would highly recommend checking out this festival. It’s a great chance to learn a lot more about the cultures of Bolivia, and check out a very lively event. There’s lots of food, music, dancing, costumes, and people. I especially love the fireworks and all the colours.