In South America, the highlight of the year is Carnival! Since most of the countries are Catholic*, the whole period between Christmas and Easter is actually full of various holidays. Every city in Bolivia has their own celebration. They usually focus on costumes, parades, dancing, singing, food, fireworks, and, of course, drinking! Out of all the cities, Oruro has the biggest festival. Everyone goes there for carnival, so we figured we should check it out!
*As explained in other blogs, the Catholicism in these countries is very different to Italy for example. There a mix of Christian teachings with traditional indigenous beliefs like Pacha Mama (mother earth).
Note: I tried to keep this blog short and just focus on lots of fun pictures instead of heaps of text. Let me know if you like the format! 🙂
Oruro: Getting There and Back (from Sucre)
Getting to Oruro from Sucre was our original plan, but it didn’t work out. I guess the bus is like 6-8 hours but it only leaves Sucre at 9pm latest. So, you end up arriving at 3am, and there are no hotels (see below), so what are you going to do then? If you leave that morning at 8am, say, then you won’t arrive until 4pm, which is a bit late. Plus, you’ll be too tired from the bus to enjoy your day (and you still have to find your way home at some point). Another option is taking a 4-hour bus from Potosi in the morning, but that would require you spending at least one night in a hotel in Potosi. Since we knew people going from La Paz, we decided that might be the best bet!
Oruro: Getting There and Back (from La Paz)
We took flights from Sucre to La Paz (which is only about 1 hour by plan but 12 hours by bus), and spent the whole weekend there. Hostels are cheap ($10/person/night for a dorm), but the flights and taxi from the airport are quite pricey. We left Friday afternoon after work and stayed until Tuesday morning. At our hotel, they told us we had to get to the bus station really early. However, because of the festival, it seemed like there was TONS of buses going to Oruro with every company, so I wouldn’t worry about that. We had breakfast at the hostel, left our bags there, and only packed one backpack to share for the day (with rain clothes, snacks, drinks, books for the bus, camera, etc.). After taking a taxi to the bus station, we picked one that was around the price we expected (around 40 Bs. I think – $8) and was leaving in 20 minutes. Because of all the traffic leaving the city, it was a bit slow at first. But I think it probably took about 3 hours to get to Oruro.
On the way back it was about the same. We walked to the station, got a bus on the street outside, and paid right there. They said I had time to go to the bathroom, but after waiting in line I got an urgent call from Steve. Thankfully, I knew what our bus looked like, and I RAN as fast as I could to the front of the station. Thankfully, I saw Steve in the doorway of the bus just out front and I hopped on for the journey home with no problems. Within two hours we were back in La Paz, and went out for dinner nearby. It was nice to relax and warm up, before heading back to our hotel. We spent the rest of the weekend chilling and doing a day tour to Valle de La Luna and Mount Chacaltaya because most actual things in the city (like museums, restaurants, and even streets) were closed for the festivals.
Food and Drinks
Anything you want can be found on the street. Whether it’s cakes, meat, potatoes, candy, or drinks, there are small stands and hawkers set up along the parade route. The beer salesmen walk around with buckets and coolers full of Carnival branded cans of Pacena! We ended up going to another area so we could sit down, and there were little booths and tables set up all over the place. I ended up buying salchipapas (hot dogs pieces on fries) out of the back of a truck, and was happy that I had brought my own vodka coolers because only beer was on offer. Afterwards, the rain was really coming down and we were cold, so we found a restaurant selling tea and stayed there for about an hour to warm up.
Weather and Foam
The parade and festivities will run rain or shine! This year, it was raining quite a bit when we went on the Saturday, but they partied on. We were wearing jackets, but many disposable ponchos and cheap umbrellas were for sale on the streets. The ponchos are also good for protecting your clothes from foam! The kids all have an infinite supply of spray foam. Mostly for attacking other kids, but also for spraying random ladies walking by in the face. Oh well – all in good fun….
Carnival is celebrated about 40 days before Easter (so dates change every year based on the dates of Easter). It’s very similar to something like “Mardi Gras” is New Orleans, and is a big celebration before the lent period. In Bolivia, it’s a 5-day holiday (including 2 weekend days), but not everywhere gets every day off (we got 4 out of 5). The Saturday is the big parade, and the Sunday is the same parade groups again (but apparently, a lot more casual and drunken). It’s also a time where lots of people make an excuse to visit family in other cities, and there are lots of family lunches and things like that (we were invited over to our landlord’s house to have lunch with their family on the Tuesday).
It’s almost impossible to find accommodation in Oruro during Carnival. It’s not a very big city and tourists don’t visit very often during the rest of the year. Therefore, there’s not a lot of hotels or hostels to choose from. If you do want to try you’ll have to book months and month in advance. Apparently, once you arrive, there’s a whole list of apartments you can book for that night. However, it’s not guaranteed and you’re probably going to be crashing on someone’s floor. Not ideal… That’s why we just decided to go for one day.
Being in the Audience
Anyone can come and join the audience at the parade. There’s no entrance fee to the event. You only have to pay if you’re planning to grab a bench seat. The stands are set up the day before and can be made of plastic, metal or wood, and are either uncovered or covered. The price varies accordingly. If you don’t want to pay (we didn’t) you can bring your own stool/chair (if you’re local), stand, or just sit on a curb if you can find a spot.
Enjoying the Parade and Fancy Costumes
The biggest draw to Carnival is the parade! Every big city has their own parade, but Oruro has the biggest one of all with the most groups and dancers. Some groups are hundreds of people long, all with matching costumes. The men and women usually have “gender appropriate” versions of the same costume (similar theme, colour, etc.). Young women usually wear high heels and tiny skirts, while the older women tend to wear longer skirts and cardigans (but still in matching colours). Men are always fully covered, and often have large masks, costumes, etc. that cover their entire body (like dragons, old men heads, etc.). Many costumes are specific to the region where the group comes from, and you’ll find many groups with similar themes (sometimes in different colours). Many of the themes are based on history. Every group has at last one marching band (normally all guys) and they all know the same 5 songs…
Making Plans with Friends
People in Bolivia are not very reliable or good at making plans. That includes both locals and foreigners! There’s not really a culture of being on time or things happening on a set schedule. The fact that Carnival (the biggest festival of the year) is on makes it even worse! We originally tried to make plans with friends from Sucre – fail. Then plans with people from La Paz – fail! Nobody would commit to anything, so we just went to the bus station and got our own way there. It turns out about 20 people we knew were there while we were but we didn’t see any of them, and the one person we tried to meet up with… well, it just didn’t work out. If you want to hang out with people you know at Carnival, you’ll have to arrive together…
How Long Should You Stay?
We heard that it’s a HUGE party and you should stay for days. I guess we’re not big partiers… We arrived just after lunch (maybe 1pm) and left before dinner (around 5pm), including grabbing food and stopping for tea in a restaurant. I guess if you want to stay on the street all night and drink in the rain you’re more than welcome to, but I didn’t see the appeal. It was fun to see the costumes, but there’s only so many hours you want to stay at a parade before it gets a bit repetitive…
Should I go to Oruro for Carnival?
That depends. Do you love colourful costumes and marching bands? Do you like drinking beer on the street and getting sprayed with foam? Can you watch parades and party for days? If yes, then Carnival in Oruro is for you! If you answered no to any of these, you should think about it. We went because it was something to do and everyone raved about it. We thought it was mediocre. It is similar to the parades we have in Sucre. For example, the festival of the Virgin of Guadalupe in September was comparable. Plus, I could watch for 2 hours, go home and chill, then come back in the evening (which isn’t really possible in Oruro). But if you happen to be visiting Bolivia in February, and you’ve never been to a big Bolivian parade, you should totally check it out!