Bolivia loves festivals of all types! The Pujllay festival is a wonderful festival in the city of Tarabuco (just an hour outside of Sucre, Bolivia). The area is known for its Yampara culture, and people from far and wide flock to the city for the yearly festival. The main part of the festival is the parade, with dancing groups in amazing costumes visiting from 60 nearby cities around the district. Last weekend, we were able to take a day trip to Tarabuco to join in the excitement!
History of the Festival
Meaning – The word “Pujllay” is a Quechua word (one of the most spoken indigenous languages in Bolivia) for play or dance. The festival signifies the harvest season, when the wind plays with the clouds in the sky and the blossoms dance in the fields. This time of year in the central Andes of Bolivia is a time where the rainy season is coming to an end and the crops are ripe for harvesting. The festival begins with a Quechua mass, followed by a marching progression of dancers in costumes. Quechua doesn’t translate perfectly to English and is more of an oral language, so you’ll often find alternative spellings to all Quechua words on various signs around Bolivia. Pujllay (the word for play/dance) can sometimes be spelt phujllay, pugllay pujhllay. or pukllay.
Symbols – One of the most interesting parts of the festival is a large field where most of the event happens. In the middle of the field is a large wooden tower call a “pukara”. They cover the tower in fruits, vegetables, and even huge hunks of meat (almost whole animals). I’m guessing it used to be all natural products, but they now also attached things like Tampico (orange tang), and cans of processed food. This is seen as a symbol/sacrifice to ensure fertile land and a good harvest the next year. At the end of the ceremony, the food is taken down and shared with the people in the crowd.
Timing – The festival occurs every year on the third weekend in March (which means that dates change every year). This time signifies the height of the rainy season, which is when the crops are most abundant in the region. It also takes place just a few weeks after the Carnival events (Christian holiday), which are very popular in Bolivia. Together, all of the associated events make an entire “Carnival season” across the country which lasts for about 2 months (from 2 weeks before Mardi Gras, all the way up until Ash Wednesday and into the Easter season).
History – Although the celebration relates to the harvest, it is also meant as a festival to remember a historical event. It’s a celebration of a battle won by the Quechua people over the Spaniards. The Battle of Cumbate was won by the community of March 12, 1816. This helped to liberate the town and the festival also remembers those who died in the battle by expressing gratitude to Pachamama (Mother Earth). This battle is commemorated by a statue in the town square of a man pulling out the heart of a Spaniard and eating it to show his strength. Some elements of this battle are still seen in the festival, with many dance groups wearing Spanish helmets and spurs. Important politicians often attend this event, such as the president. When we were there, the mayor of Sucre was just arriving. Apparently, Evo Morales (the current president) has even nominated the festival to receive international UNESCO recognition (in 2011) as part of the “cultural and intangible heritage of humanity”.
Getting to Tarabuco
On Sunday morning, two other volunteers (Wara and Julie) showed up at our house and we headed out. We were planning to take a taxi to the bus stop (Parada Tarabuco), but there weren’t many cars on the road. After waiting for about 10 minutes for an empty taxi to come by, we happened to see one with a sign that said Tarabuco on the dashboard. We asked for the price and he said 20 Bs. ($4) per person. We agreed that it was worth it, so we got a taxi all the way to Tarabuco. Normally it would have been 5 Bs ($1) for the taxi to the bus stop, and then about 10 Bs ($2) for the minibus. We figured the direct route and lack of stops/waiting was worth it for the extra 5 Bs ($1). It took a bit longer than usual because it seemed like every car was heading to Tarabuco and there was a lot of police check points. However, we still managed to arrive in Tarabuco by 10:30am.
Lots of Shopping to Do!
Tarabuco is already known for its craft market on Sundays. However, during the festival it’s a lot busier than usual with more vendors setting up blankets to display their wares in the main plaza. We managed to buy a few gifts for people back home. 😊 They also have a lot of stalls selling things for the local market. These include huge varieties of leather sandals (made locally) and a lot of second-hand clothes and stuffed animals (probably bought in bulk from “developed countries”). There was also a ton of people selling random stuff for the festival like cowboy hats, fruit (pomegranate was only 1 Bs – $0.20/fruit), and sunglasses. Bolivia also loves their photo booth things they construct everywhere for big events. Basically, it’s a big backdrop (see above) with a nature scene in the background. Normally a waterfall, forest, or peaceful stream. Then there’s tons of wild animals like lions, flamingos, parrots, deer, and horses photoshopped in. They decorate the whole thing with artificial flowers and stuffed animals. I guess people take family photos there – pretty interesting!
Street Food + Drinks Everywhere
There’s plenty of options for food, but not many if you have a super weak stomach. You’ll have to deal with the street food this time around. The most popular options are barbequed meat on a bun (sometimes served with corn or potatoes), fried chicken and fries, or sopa de mani (peanut soup). I opted for my favourite salchipapas (french fries covered in hot dog pieces). There’s also lots of drink options, including soda, fresh made refrescos (non-fresh-squeezed juices), and alcholic beverages. Most of these events are sponsored by Bolivian beers (like Pacena and Potosina), so cold beer is plentiful. I even got a sexy green paper beer hat! Another local option is chicha (fermented corn). It’s found in large buckets, and it’s common to drink it from a communal glass or gourd (not great for germ-a-phobes!).
Tarabuco is a really small town, you could easily walk around the whole thing in an hour. It’s best known for its Sunday market, where tourists from surrounding areas (mostly Sucre) make the journey to check out the markets selling traditional Bolivian fabrics that are specific to the region. Tarabuco is located about 65 km east of Sucre (which takes between 1 – 2 hours to reach, depending on your mode of transport). Most people only go to Tarabuco for the day and then come back to Sucre, since there aren’t many accommodations and activities to do in the city for an extended period of time.
Dancing Through the Streets!
The dancers in this festival come from all of the surrounding communities in the countryside. It’s one of the largest gatherings of the year. The costumes are a bit more traditional than the ones found in carnival, but the idea is the same. Large groups wearing matching costumes walk down the street singing and dancing in a synchronized way. They didn’t seem to have any marching bands, but the spurs on their shoes were loud enough for all to hear. There is also less diversity in the costumes because they only reflect the local area. Most groups had one of three costume themes:
- A pink and white theme with flowing capes and sequenced embroidery. They also wear specific hats and have the wooden shoes with clanky spurs on the back. They like to stop and dance in a circle with lots of spinning around (which shows off their capes in a cool way).
- The traditional outfits of women is a lacy top with big shoulders and a traditional Bolivian skirt. They often wear sashes around their shoulder as well. The men wear dress shirts in matching colours. These groups are responsible for the very distinctive high-pitched singing (I’m not a fan, but it’s very traditional) – see video below.
- My favourite group has large feathers on their hats and is also decorated in what looks like multi-coloured pompoms. They wear pieces of striped fabric over their shoulders and across their chest. They also often play instruments like flutes.
After about three hours we had enough, had eaten lunch, saw a lot of dancing, did all of our shopping, and were ready to head back to Sucre. We tried to find our original taxi driver but weren’t able to – oh well! We headed up the block to where all the buses and taxis were. There were so many! WAY more that there would be on a normal Sunday. There were buses lining all the roads almost all the way to the toll booth on the way out of town. We found a minibus but there was only two seats left. We decided to hop of the mini-bus directly behind it. Thankfully, since it was so busy, all the seats filled up within 5 minutes and we were on the way. The rocking of the bus put us all to sleep, and we were back in the city about an hour and a half later. It only cost us 10 Bs ($2) each. We walked the 15-minutes home to our apartment and chilled for the evening.
What to Wear
The weather in Bolivia is a bit tricky. You can’t really rely on the forecast because it doesn’t compare to what you would find in other countries. For example, this past Sunday it said the daily high in Sucre was 11°C and that the high in Tarabuco was still only 15°C. Therefore, I decided to wear jeans and a sweatshirt. However, by the time we arrived the sun was blazing and I ended up wearing my tank top. Thankfully, I had brought some sunscreen for my face and shoulders. However, I still felt too hot and I wish I had a hat. A lot of people were using umbrellas to avoid the sun. We ended up getting silly paper hats which actually helped a bit. However, by the end of the day when we got home, Steve and I both realized we were burnt, and we had only been outside for about 3 hours. So, I highly recommend bringing a hat and sunscreen since there’s almost no shade, because the high altitudes in Bolivia make the heat a lot stronger than you would guess from the weather forecast.
Planning you trip
If you live in Sucre (or you’re visiting, but comfortable with taking local transit), I recommend taking a mini-bus. It’s the cheapest way to get around and it gives you more flexibility with timing. Simply ask a taxi anywhere in the city to drive you to “Parada Tarabuco”. The taxi will cost 5 Bs ($1) per person, regardless of the distance. You will then ask the mini-bus drivers which ones are going to Tarabuco (they likely all are) and get in. You’ll have to wait for all the seats to fill up, but this happens quickly on festival days. You’ll pay around 10 Bs ($2) then drive for about an hour and a half to Tarabuco. It’ll be easy to find the main square and festival grounds – just follow the people! Then you can do the same in reverse to get home once you’re all festivaled out. If you prefer spending a bit more money and having your day a bit more organized, you can book a tour with any of the agencies in town. For only transport, it normally costs around 40 Bs ($8) but you’ll have to leave and come back at specific times. You can also opt for a guided tour with transport and lunch, which will normally run you about 130 Bs. ($25) per person. If you prefer to stay overnight for the full two days, I recommend taking the tour guide option because it can be difficult to find your own accommodations. However, we were satisfied after only attending for one afternoon.
Note: All pictures included in this blog are my own. However, some of the facts about the festival were taken from the following websites: