The Ch’utillos Festival, or the Festival of San Bartolomé, sees Potosi burst into life with a joyous (and drunken) celebration during three days of costumed and colourful parades around the city. While there are elements to the festival that are familiar from other Bolivian festivals, the uniqueness of Potosi’s history makes Ch’utillos special.
The festival is centred around the Iglesia de Jerusalén, the church that houses a statue of San Bartolomé, said to have been used by Jesuit priests to exorcise an evil spirit at a site outside Potosi called La Cueva del Diablo. Unmarried young men, or Ch’utillos, don their finest clothes and, accompanied by dancers and musicians, ride on horseback to the Devil’s Cave, where the festival officially begins.
Back in Potosi, Ch’utillos is a chance for thousands of people to take to the streets dressed in an amazing variety of costumes and masks. The fiesta takes place over the last weekend of August, on Friday the streets fill with local indigenous groups who dance, sing and play music, while Saturday sees everyone else join in, in a brash and beautiful celebration of life.
Except when being paraded around the city, the statue of San Bartolomé remains at the Iglesia de Jerusalén where all the parades finish, and is the subject of great veneration by festival participants.
We’d arrived from Sucre in the afternoon and only caught the end of Friday’s daytime events, but nightfall brought more parades and entertainment – this being Potosi at over 4000 metres altitude, it also brought plunging temperatures.
One of the risks being a Gringo in a crowd of Bolivians is that you’re easily picked out of the throng for ‘special’ treatment…this was not the only occasion I was ‘invited’ to dance (I use the term loosely) and generally humiliate myself for everyone else’s amusement. I can confirm wearing the hat does not make me a better dancer, although it does make me look ridiculous.
Potosi’s tragic relationship with the Cerro Rico, and its vast silver deposits, is played out in full by miners and their children, who graphically portray their working life in song and dance. This makes Ch’utillos unique and is a reminder of the hardships and dangers of scratching a living from the Cerro Rico in the twenty-first century.
Leading out the first contingent of miners was the Devil or El Tio, a sinister figure who looms large in the lives of Potosi’s miners. El Tio is the king of the underworld, and although obviously influenced by the Christian belief in the Devil, El Tio’s origins pre-date Christianity. El Tio must be placated with alcohol, cigarettes and coca leaves (not unlike some people I know) to ensure the safety of those working in the mines, and as compensation for the minerals and ore removed from ‘His’ domain. There are many statues of El Tio in the mines where daily offerings are made.
The Cerro Rico is riddled with thousands of tunnels, many deep underground, hot, narrow and dangerous. Every so often as the children parade, they throw themselves to the ground and crawl along the street re-enacting life in the tunnels.
As if one Devil wasn’t enough, another made an appearance, this one perhaps a little inebriated – but what else can you expect of the Devil?
The night finished well after midnight with a very loud fireworks display, but by then I was tucked up in bed awaiting what Saturday would bring.