Carnival in Sucre was a blast. Carnival in Oruro was completely over the top.
For most of the year Oruro is a grim mining town with nothing much to recommend it, but a week before Lent it explodes into a frenetic fiesta of colour and music. It’s the most raucous and outrageous party of all. Aida urged us to go, telling us it was ‘different’. She though, was content to watch it on the TV. We dithered; wandering about the cost – hotels put up their prices five-fold – and worrying about all that water-throwing. Finally, we bit the bullet, booked a hotel and seats for the procession, and off we went.
‘What time does the Entrada begin’? I asked the man in the hotel lobby on the Saturday morning. He nodded towards the street, took my elbow, and leading me outside, pointed to a handful of devils gyrating down the road. It was barely 07.00. There were no spectators, no fanfare, no excitement. We found our seats and waited. I can’t say when it all kicked off. Throughout the morning, the trickle became a stream, the stream a river, and by lunchtime the stands were full and the dancers and bands were in full flood. Representations of Lucifer and St. Michael followed by hundreds of devils, who rotated and stepped, ducked and dived in a blaze of vibrant colour and embroidered costumes, all proceeded and followed by brass-bands. Staring out from behind masks with long twisted horns, and popping eyes, adorned with lizards and snakes, men assumed demonic proportions. The sun burned, and Dante’s Inferno seemed close by. ‘She-Devils’ danced amongst the demons. Temptresses in short skirts, with long eyelashes, red lips and flowing blonde hair. It’s a heady mix of Christian morality and Andean folklore. Archangel Michael triumphs over Lucifer, but the dance is also a celebration of the devil in the form of Huari, a pre-Columbian god of the underworld. It’s this god who owns the mineral wealth of the mines surrounding the town, and the miners dance to honour him.
A wealth of troupes follow behind the devils, each with their own costume and story – and musicians. Always the musicians. There were Incas; wild tribes of the Amazons, with feathered headdresses; Morenadas, faces blacked to represent the African slaves the Spanish bought to work the mines; llama herders, Spanish senoritas, cabelleros and cholitas. Each region and all of Bolivian history, has a place in the parade. The scale of it all was staggering. For hour after hour the dancers passed, cholitas in high-heeled suede boots, cabelleros flourishing sombreros, devils prancing, trumpets blazing, clapping, stomping, jumping and leaping. They just kept coming. Thirty-five thousand of them. For twenty four hours. Always smiling. It’s considered a sacred religious duty to dance. Rehearsals take place every Sunday from November onwards, and dancers promise to dance for three consecutive years.
The crowd, fuelled by alcohol, grew wilder as the day progressed. Cheering the dancer’s best moves, shrieks and cries grew to a crescendo, and spray foam showered us and everyone else like champagne bursting from a bottle. We couldn’t even watch for 24 hours. In the early evening we snuck back to the hotel to sleep, lulled by the rhythmic banging of drums. The parade started outside our window, and in the cold early hours we got up to watch some more. More quiet now, but still dancing, still smiling. And on Sunday, they did it all over again.
This was one party we’re glad we didn’t miss.