Carnival in Oruro Bolivia

As towns go, the mining town of Oruro in the Western Andean highlands of Bolivia has put its best days behind it. Nowhere near as rich as its neighbour, Potosi, and with a mine that has closed creating a downturn in the local economy; the people of Oruro don’t appear to have much to celebrate. Come carnival time, though, and Oruro forgets its woes as the town really bursts in to life to become the place to go in order to join a vibrant and colourful fiesta.

Partying in Oruro takes some energy, particularly as it is located at an altitude of 3,600 metres where the air is thin and the climate cold. Carnival is the annual precursor to Lent which is timed to end on Pancake Tuesday, which is also known as Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras in French. It is, however, the day before Ash Wednesday.

In Bolivia it is known as Carnaval, which means `take away the meat’ in Spanish, to remind believers that no red meat is to be eaten in the 40 days prior to Easter. Carnaval celebrates the last opportunity to lead a full life before fasting for Lent, and is a time when people readily let down their hair by singing, dancing, parading and over imbibing.

Although the Carnaval is ostensibly a Christian festival, in Oruro they tell the story of how the Spaniards conquered the Aymara and Quechua populations of the Andes. Participants dress as Catholic clergy, conquistadores, others dress as devils and slaves, who were used by the Spanish to work the rich silver mines, and this is why the Oruro Carnaval is so important.

These dances are repeated each year and represent Bolivian folk stories.

One dance is the Morenada. The Morenada’s is immense, weighing over 50kg which makes it very difficult to dance in, so it is performed at a tardy pace. The slow movements represent the toil of the black slaves who worked the mines, often with little food or water. Their masks have enormous bulging eyes depicting the slaves’ inability to breathe at such high altitude.

The featured dance though, which is exclusive to Oruro, is the Diablada, or the dance of the devil. This dance is performed by a troupe of costumed dancers who are led by Lucifer. He wears a grotesque, papier-mâché mask with sharp silver teeth and horns. It’s an epic performance lasting seven acts, depicting the battle between good and evil, for which good eventually triumphs.

The performance lasts for 20 hours, after which they celebrate for a further 72 hours before the official start of Lent. Carnaval in Oruro, although little known outside of Bolivia is, like its counterpart in Rio de Janeiro, one festival that should definitely be experienced just for the fun you can have.

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