The Fiesta del Santo Patrono de Moxos must rank as one of Bolivia’s finest, most spectacular and fun festivals, and, after having lived through it, would alone be reason enough for me to come to Bolivia. Hosted in the normally sleepy village of San Ignacio de Moxos, the fiesta brings the village to life, literally with a bang, as people ignite fireworks and thousands of Bolivians and a handful of Gringos pour into the village to party and celebrate one of the great cultural events of the Bolivian Amazon.
Ask around, even at the tourist office in the regional capital, Trinidad, and people will tell you the festival starts on July 25th, July 28th or July 30th. Some will tell you the big day is July 31st. Even the guidebooks don’t really know when it starts. Our experience was that it gets going on July 29th, the big day is July 30th, but don’t leave on the 31st, because then you’d miss the bull teasing!
At first sight, San Ignacio is a little underwhelming and it’s difficult to imagine the transformation when the festival kicks-off in earnest. It does have a beautiful old Jesuit Mission overlooking a large and shady plaza, which would be the focus of the festival, and would make for an interesting visit if you found yourself passing through en route to Trinidad or San Borja.
There aren’t many places to stay in the village, and even fewer beds at this time of year, so we were lucky to have a room in the Residencial Don Joaquin on the corner of the plaza nearest the Mission. You’d struggle to describe the accommodations as anything other than ‘basic’, but it had a ceiling fan for the hot and sticky Amazonian nights, its location at the heart of the fiesta action can’t be beat and it has a restaurant and bar.
One of the more unusual things in the Mission was a collection of statues of San Ignacio that are brought from the homes of local residents and left there for the duration of the fiesta. Other than that, the Mission was decorated with some lovely naive paintings and a beautifully painted nave.
After a few preliminary events on July 29th, including the first appearance of costumed festival goers, the main event started on the dot at 4am (yes, in the morning) on July 30th, with a deafening round of firework explosions and the incessant ringing of the Mission bells – one downside of being so close to the action. Dragging ourselves wearily from our slumbers we joined the throng in time to see one of the saints being liberated from the church and taken on a procession around the town.
Once the icon is on his way, the Mission is visited for the first time by Macheteros, dressed in beautiful radial headdresses, traditionally made from Macaw feathers but today, after conservation efforts, often made with synthetic feathers. The Macheteros arrive at the church, playing pipe music, chanting and dancing. In their ‘pagan’ condition they aren’t allowed into the church – for that they’ll have to wait two whole days.
More people arrive carrying a large lantern and playing huge reed pipes, traditional to the region. In turn they are joined by Achus, wearing wooden masks and leather hats on the top of which are fireworks. These are set off at intervals and the Achus run through the crowds, heads ablaze, terrifying people. Much of the symbolism was difficult to understand, but you can’t help getting caught up in both the emotion and fun of the whole celebration.
To the wild excitement of just about everyone, a group of Achus appeared next, heads ablaze with fireworks a little like Catherine Wheels but far more basic and dangerous. As the fireworks whiz and bang the whole throng of people begin a two or three hour parade around the village – no one gets a good nights’ sleep tonight. After joining in for the first hour, we decided we’d need our strength for the rest of the day and headed back to get a couple of hours sleep – as it turned out, a very wise decision.
Then off on a tour of the village, singing, dancing and playing music – not forgetting the fireworks.