As one of UNESCO’s Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, the Oruro Carnival in Bolivia (Carnaval de Oruro) is definitely one for your bucket list. A feast for the eyes, this 2000-year-old religious festival culminates in a parade with over 28,000 dancers, 10,000 musicians, and 400,000 visitors. The best-known dance is the Diablada, or the Danza de los Diablos (Dance of the Devils).
Oruro is an ancient mining town in the altiplano region of Bolivia. Although it was founded in 1606 by the Spanish, the area was already populated by the Aymara and Quechua people.
The region, called Jururu or Uru Uru, was a religious pilgrimage site for the Andean world. Pilgrims visited in order to contact deities called Wak’as. They included the toad, lizard, viper, and condor, some of which continue to play a part in the Oruro carnival festivities.
Origins of the Carnival
As was common during Spanish colonialism, native Hispanic culture and rituals were banned or, as happened with Oruro carnival, were altered to incorporate Catholic saints and other aspects of Christianity.
In the case of Oruro, the apparition of a Virgin Mary in a local silver mine in 1756 added to the Catholic component, and the Oruro carnival has since been held in honor of the Virgin of the Mineshaft, with important aspects of the carnival relating to the location of the mine.
The Diablada is a direct descendent of this amalgamation of the indigenous religion (Wari) and Catholicism.
According to one story, after the Virgin of the Mineshaft was made the patron of the Carnival, the indigenous miners were worried that this would anger their deity Supay and so they chose to honor him, as well. The Catholic priests had called Supay el Diablo, so the miners dressed as devils for the festivities.
Elements of the Diablada
The choreography and costumes of the Oruro Diablada are a mixture of both indigenous Andean religious presentations and Spanish religious theater, and the Diablada is unique in that it is believed to have held onto much of its pre-colonial artistry.
Originally accompanied by musicians playing the siku, the Diablada is now part of a full-on parade with marching bands and orchestras.
Highly stylized, the choreography tells the story of the confrontation between good and evil, as represented by the battle between Saint Michael and the Devil.
Masked, brightly-colored representations of angels and demons share the stage with the seven deadly sins, personified and eventually defeated. Interestingly, both Lucifer and Satan are represented, as are indigenous religious figures the Condor and the Bear.
The dance itself has the performers moving constantly, forming complicated shaped like spirals, S-shapes, and circles.
Visiting Oruro for Carnaval
Although Carnaval celebrations go on for weeks, the most exciting events begin the Saturday before Ash Wednesday. In most cases hotels and hostels will require you to stay at least 3 nights from Friday to Monday, which will give you the chance to see the highlights of the Carnaval.
How to Get to The Oruro Carnival
A four-hour bus ride from La Paz will get you to Oruro easily, and during Carnaval there will be plenty of departures. You might also consider taking the train from Uyuni to Oruro if you are on an extended tour of Bolivia.
Where to Stay
You will find many different lodging options in Oruro, ranging from hostels with 1 bathroom for 30 people to nice hotels. If you speak good Spanish, you could even get a room in a private home—ads for rooms will show up all over town a few days before the festival, so if you want to arrive early you could check out this option.
In my opinion your best bet would be to book a hotel far in advance to make sure you get something nice. Try to book direct rather than through a tour agency in La Paz as some agencies unfortunately do not always deliver on their promises.
What to See at the Oruro Carnival
Obviously, you must see the Carnaval Oruro with the Diablada! Be sure to reserve yourself a seat along the parade route so you get a good view. Besides the parade, you will want to see the Santuario de Virgen de Socavón, where you will find very interesting museum exhibits on folklore, religion, and mining.
If you have extra time, visit the tiny Zoológico Andino to see Andean animals and then stop next door at the Museo National Antropológico to see a creepy collection of mummies and skulls. Don’t forget to visit the shops along Calle La Paz to pick up your souvenir diablada mask.
If you love Hispanic Carnivals you are going to appreciate Carnival de Oruro. Normally the festivity runs for about 10 days around Ash Wednesday every year. At three hours from the capital La Paz, Oruro is considered the folklore capital of Bolivia and is worth a visit, whether during the carnival or the rest of the year.