The World’s Oldest Carnival – Oruro, Bolivia

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Oruro, Bolivia is a city that most travelers skip 360 days a year.  But for the week in February each year, hundreds of thousands of people descend on this mining town to be a part of the oldest Carnival celebration in the world. 

I almost decided to skip the party.  I mean I was in Sucre, Bolivia which is an 8-9 hour bus ride away.  Not to mention it is common knowledge that you will either not be able to find a room/bed at all during Carnival in Oruro or you will pay 100 times the price.  Only days before Carnival was set to kick off, a friend at my Spanish school took it upon himself to organize a trip at a great price so I just couldn’t resist. 

The History of the Oruro Carnival

Unlike the festivities in Rio or New Orleans, the Oruro Carnival has a folkloric tradition of costumes and dance that dates back before the times of the Incas.  When the Spanish arrived in Bolivia, and all of South America for that matter, they saw celebrations such as Carnival as pagan and attempted to stop its practice.  The Pre-Incans instead began to incorporate Christianity into the celebration to disguise its purpose.  Today it makes for an interesting mix of history, costumes, and practices that has melded into one ceremony over the centuries.   

Oruro, Bolivia Carnival Traditions

For two full days, dancers and musicians from around Bolivia participate in the second largest Carnival in the world.  In order to participate, these Bolivians must pay $2,000 which is a huge price tag given that 51% of the population in Bolivia earns less than $2 a day.  For those dancers and musicians that participate in Carnival each year it is seen as a great honor and most commit to take part for 3 years. 

As I mentioned Carnival is an interlaced celebration of folkloric and Christian myths and beliefs.  One of the overarching themes of the celebration is that of the Virgin Mary who is the patron saint of the miners in Oruro.  People come to the Cathedral to make offerings and ask for blessings from Mary before, during, and after Carnival.  As the dancers and musicians complete their 20 hour adventure in the parade, they enter the Cathedral on their knees as a sign of reverence to deliver their prayers and ask for blessings. 

The Virgin Mary is so important to the celebrations and the locals in Oruro that this year a giant statue of Mary was opened on one of the tallest mountains overlooking the city.  It is said to be higher than the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio. 

My Favorite Parts of the Carnival Celebration in Oruro

The FOAM!!!  Whether chasing children around, getting absolutely covered in white stuff, or spraying gringos that had almost no sense of humor about it, foam is just fun!  A past time for spectators and even some parade members, you can’t enjoy Carnival without getting a bit foamy.

Globos de Agua….otherwise known as Water Balloons!!!  On the first day, we came prepared with a couple of bags full of balloons ready to go.  Though they had some design flaws (too small so they often bounced off instead of broke) we had a ball pegging people and getting the backlash in mostly foam. 

The Costumes.  Some were simple, some were extravagant, some were traditional, some were modern, and some even shot fire!  The costumes the dancers and musicians wore were just plain impressive. 

The Relaxed Atmosphere.  Even with hundreds of thousands of people in close proximity, the most serious conflicts I saw were over who’s seats were who’s in the stands and were little more than shouting matches that were quickly resolved.   In addition, I like many others, roamed around in the middle of the parade taking pictures, dancing, and at times jumping right into the band.  That’s something that would never be allowed in the States!

Oruro Carnival in Photos

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