Wild, wet and foamy, Carneval in Tarija

Carneval is exhausting, a lot of fun, but exhausting fun. I don’t know about the performers, who have to dance and sing their way around town while being soaked with water and foam, but a few more days of this and I’ll need a holiday.

Sunday saw the big carneval parade in Tarija: the stands along the parade route were packed, the water guns loaded and cans of foam spray were selling faster than hotcakes. First though, the gathered thousands had to endure a torrential downpour, but since everyone expected to get wet (and covered in foam) at some point during the festivities, summer rain was greeted like an old friend.

Like most fiestas I’ve been to in Bolivia, carneval had its elements of chaos, but that makes it all the more human. I’ve not been to Rio or Salvador for carneval, but I imagine they are more managed. The parade route in Tarija was constantly being plied by a host of people selling everything you’d ever need for several hours of sitting in the stands: food, drink, waterproof clothing, foam spray, masks.

The endless processing of sellers mingled with the performers and spectators alike. Small children ran a-mock amongst the stands and performers. Foam and water were constantly being sprayed at just about everyone who passed by and, every now-and-then, a section of the stands would suddenly erupt into a mass foam fight.

Part of the stand erupts with a foam fight, carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Part of the stand erupts with a foam fight, carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Our section of the stand did this regularly, seemingly with the sole intention of covering me in foam. I was nearly drowned in the stuff – this photo is after the nice woman behind me had lent me her child’s blanket to wipe most of the foam off.

Foam victims at carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Foam victims at carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

A lot of the carneval is non-traditional, with people dressed in a variety of strange costumes, others as mythical creatures, Egyptians, mummies, etc. One unexpected element though is the number of young men who cross-dress for the day, the antics of whom made the crowd hysterical. There is a very strong element of transitory transvestitism in the whole parade.

Anyway, here are some photos from when I was still able to have the camera out without fear of getting it soaked in water or foam.

Performer at carneval in Tarija, Bolivia

Performer at carneval in Tarija, Bolivia

Performer at carneval in Tarija, Bolivia

Performer at carneval in Tarija, Bolivia

Performers at carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Performers at carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval Queen and her princesses, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval Queen and her princesses, Tarija, Bolivia

First and second 'princesses' of the carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

First and second ‘princesses’ of the carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Performers at carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Performers at carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

King Kong float, carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

King Kong float, carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Performers at carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Performers at carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Candy floss seller at carneval in Tarija, Bolivia

Candy floss seller at carneval in Tarija, Bolivia

Jello and cream seller at carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Jello and cream seller at carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Foam victims at carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Foam victims at carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval in the campo, fiesta in San Lorenzo

If you want to know Bolivia, go to the campo, or the countryside as its known. If you want to see tradition during carneval in the countryside around Tarija head for the small country town of San Lorenzo, where ‘tradition’ is built into the fabric of the town and its people.

I hadn’t expected to witness 20 or 30 horses charging down a street crowded with people, most of whom had been imbibing heavily, but in San Lorenzo the health and safety officers seemed to have taken the day off. I’m grateful that they did, because this turned out to be a fabulous day in the company of people who know how to have fun.

 


The other great thing about being in the country is the opportunity to try ‘artisanal’ wines – made the traditional way with the grapes being crushed by feet. I was assured they used plastic boots these days rather than bare feet, but judging by the taste of some of the wine I’m not convinced. Below is a photo of my recommended carneval outfit, complete with a pint of homemade wine.

Popular carneval outfit with artisanal wine, San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Popular carneval outfit with artisanal wine, San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Wearing a plastic poncho is a necessity to protect you from occasional torrential downpours during the rainy season, and, much more importantly, from gangs of people spraying you with foam and water. As we strolled into San Lorenzo I heard the the shout, “Gringo, gringo”, and before I could react was viciously attacked with foam. My attackers stayed long enough to ask where I was from, to wish me a good carneval and to pose for a photo. They were charming, but I was still covered in foam.

Carneval assassins, San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval assassins, San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

After a couple more foamings and a lot of water spraying I decided to invest in some protection – a large can of carneval foam with a range of about 10 meters.  It is a lot of fun to get your own back. One thing is for sure, they start them young on foam around here.

Child with foam, Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Child with foam, Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

The start of proceedings had been delayed by an hour or so due to a huge cloudburst, but once the rain stopped and the sun came out again the carneval
got underway properly with traditional dances, music, horse riding and lots and lots of water and foam.


The music, using a horn and small drum, often played while riding a horse, is unique to this part of Bolivia and while lively is also quite mournful.

Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

 


A little like the Brazilian carneval there are some floats in the parades, but these are largely for small children to ride on and have the occasional tableau relating the the countryside.

A young girl on a float, Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

A young girl on a float, Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

No Bolivian fiesta would be complete without a large amount of traditional food being served. All around San Lorenzo the smell of cooking, especially the barbecuing of meat, was in the air. A typical dish is pig barbecued ‘a la cruz’, a sight that welcomed us to the main street of the town.

Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval in Tarija, Dia del Ninos

With only a few hours sleep under our belts following the comadres festival, which marked the start of four days of festivities for carneval, we found ourselves back at the scene of the previous night’s crime for the children’s parade.

After ten months in Bolivia I should have known things wouldn’t start on time. Billed to start at 9.30am, the parade finally got off to a somewhat shambolic start around 11.00am. Not that anyone was sat under a relentless sun for over an hour waiting, oh no. Still, once it got going it was fun, despite the ever present danger of being splattered by water bombs, blasted by high powered water guns, or sprayed relentlessly with canned foam.

In fact, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to argue that carneval is predominately about getting wet and foamy for three or four days before the authorities step in and make everyone go back to school/work. Huge fun for the kids and quite a lot of fun for adults.

Children's float, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Children’s float, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

A sugary float, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

A sugary float, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Everywhere you go unscrupulous people are selling cans of foam to anyone with the money to buy, regardless of age and whether the foam will be used ethically and only for defence. After being foamed several times I started to view these people as ‘arms dealers’ or ‘dealers in foamy death’. Although to be fair to them, I did use there services from time-to-time.

Arms dealers selling spray foam, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Arms dealers selling spray foam, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

You've been foamed, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

You’ve been foamed, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

More foam, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

More foam, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Note the sheer joy on the face of this child assassin…

Gangland killing carneval-style, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Gangland killing carneval-style, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Meanwhile, back at the parade, the children’s event is something of a curtain-raiser for the real thing on the Sunday of carnvel, and although not that well attended everyone involved seemed to have fun.

Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

An alcohol-aware zebra, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

An alcohol-aware zebra, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Disney does Tarija, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Disney does Tarija, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Disney does Tarija, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Disney does Tarija, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Disney does Tarija, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Disney does Tarija, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Clown, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Clown, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Armed and dangerous, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Armed and dangerous, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

The world’s biggest hen party, Tarija’s Comadres festival

“There are no wives or girlfriends today, only singles.” Was how one Chapacos (the name given to residents of Tarija) explained the comadres fiesta to me.

“The women start gathering in the square in the morning, there is much drinking. In the afternoon the men come and hang around the square waiting for the women.” Was another attempt to explain an event that was taking on an increasingly sinister vision in my mind.

Comadres is traditionally held the Thursday before carneval and seems to mingle elements of a school disco, a giant hen night and a female drinking Armageddon. During the day the action is centred on Tarija’s beautiful Plaza Louis de Fuentes y Vargas, a plaza that wouldn’t be out of place in a provincial Spanish town. For comadres however, it more resembles Liverpool city centre on a Friday night.

Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

The plaza slowly filled with women, and some men, throughout the day and there was indeed an indecent amount of drinking and drunkenness, but, unlike Liverpool on  Friday night, not a hint of trouble. One side of the plaza featured a huge disco that seemed to have the volume set at a level intended to communicate with outer space. On the opposite side of the plaza things were more sedate, with an older crowd, a traditional band and much dancing.

Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

There is a real purpose to comadres, I’m not sure what it is, but it involves friends giving large baskets of fruit, vegetables and other goodies to each other. Although not before they have danced the night away with the basket. The baskets often feature a largish cucumber as a not-so-subtle sexual reference…it really is a hen night.

Everyone seems to be carrying one of the baskets, decorated with flags and balloons. The one below even came with a bottle of whisky.

Basket of traditional items, comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Basket of traditional items, comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

As the curtain closed on the festivities in the plaza, and the sun started to set, the focus of attention turned to the Avenida de las Americas. All the comadres who could still stand joined a parade and danced up and down the street in a more-or-less organised way. Festivities go on long into the night and a lot of the dancers carried grapes – the symbol of this wine producing region.

The women also wear a rose over one ear. A rose over the right ear indicates that she is married, over the left ear that she is single. Although it may be the other way around, the person who explained this to me had drunk her own body weight in booze. As I said, a hen night.

Dancer, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancer, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancers, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancers, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancer, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancer, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancer, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancer, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancer, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancer, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancer, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancer, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancer, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancer, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancer, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancer, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancers, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancers, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Nearing the finish line, comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Nearing the finish line, comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Men do get to participate in the comadres parade, but their role is limited to that of musicians or to carrying cans of beer for the ladies.

Musician, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Musician, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

The many faces of fiesta

Fiesta is a serious business in Bolivia and in the six months we’ve been living here we’ve been lucky enough to take part in several. Some, like the Fiesta de San Ignacio de Moxos in the Bolivian Amazon, we went out of our way to get to; others, like Sucre’s Fiesta de Virgen de Guadalupe, were right on our doorstep; yet others we just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

Fiesta is a glorious expression of deeply held traditional and modern beliefs, as well as being an occasion for an outpouring of joyous fun. People take it seriously but at the same time it is about making sure the party goes with a swing – bands play, dancers dance and both participants and onlookers drink heartily.

Every country in Latin America has its own traditions and costumes – think of the outrageous carnival floats in Brazil – and one of the striking features of Bolivian fiestas is the variety of elaborate masks coving everything from pre-Hispanic mythical creatures to Spanish Conquistadores thenmselves. There’s even a museum in Sucre which dedicates a whole floor to masks of the region, a visit to which made me want to share some of the faces of fiesta that we’ve seen.

This first selection comes from the Fiesta de Virgen de Guadalupe in Sucre.

Mask, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

Mask, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

Bird Mask, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

Mask, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

Mask, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

Mask, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

Mask, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

Mask, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

Potosi’s Ch’utillos Festival, or the Festival of San Bartolomé to give its correct name, is a three day extravaganza held in the highest city in the world. It is home to some unique  costumes and masks, and also to some of the hardest drinking you’ll ever see at a Bolivian fiesta.

Masks, Ch’utillos Festival, Potosi, Bolivia

Masks, Ch’utillos Festival, Potosi, Bolivia

Masks, Ch’utillos Festival, Potosi, Bolivia

Masks, Ch’utillos Festival, Potosi, Bolivia

Masks, Ch’utillos Festival, Potosi, Bolivia

Masks, Ch’utillos Festival, Potosi, Bolivia

The Fiesta de San Ignacio de Moxos in the Bolivian Amazon is one of the highlights of Bolivian festivals, imbued with typically Amazonian themes and taking place in a small village with hardly any tourists in sight. One of the outstanding features are the wooden mask and leather hat wearing Achus who represent the Spanish and cause mayhem wherever they go.

Masks, Fiesta de San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

Fish Masks, Fiesta de San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

Sheep Masks, Fiesta de San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

Jaguar Mask, Fiesta de San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

Finally, walking through La Paz one day we just bumped into a small fiesta in a barrio near the San Pedro prison.

Masks, La Paz, Bolivia

Masks, La Paz, Bolivia

Anyway, we’re off on an overland trip to Chile tonight so hopefully lots to report in coming days…

Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead

Bolivian hospitality is something to marvel at and there is no better example of this than on Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead or All Souls Day – whichever name you prefer. After the very public display for Todos Santos (All Saints Day) the previous day at the cemetery, Sucre’s citizens retreat to their homes on November 2nd for the Day of the Dead and invite people to join them to commemorate their deceased relatives.

It is a lovely tradition that is part commemoration, part celebration, and while it is a fairly formal occasion it is clear from the moment you set foot into the house that it is also a party – a party where it is firmly believed the deceased is present and participating. Accompanying several Bolivian friends we visited four separate homes where we were welcomed like long lost family members – the hospitality is real and overwhelming.

A shrine to a deceased relative, Dia de los Muertos, Sucre, Bolivia

First you are greeted at the door by two or three people offering you a hollowed out pineapple or a gourd full of chicha (Bolivian homebrew), and a shot of singani (a powerful Bolivian spirit made from grapes). You don’t have a choice about whether you want to drink it, you MUST drink it to honour the dead and gain entrance.

Once you’ve finished the entrance drinks it is traditional to greet the family and thank them for inviting you, then visit the shrine where prayers are offered up to the deceased. Elaborate altars are erected in people’s homes and are decorated with all the foods and drinks that the deceased most loved in life, added to this are religious objects, both traditional and Catholic, and many symbolic bread objects that are baked only for this celebration.

A shrine to a deceased relative, Dia de los Muertos, Sucre, Bolivia

Once this is done you are served a delicious plate of mondongo – pork cooked in a spicy red sauce and served with rice, potatoes and choclo (a sort of creamed corn dish). While you’re eating the mondongo there is a constant stream of people bringing more chicha and sangani which, again, you’re obliged out of politeness to drink (this really is my sort of country). Eventually someone will place a bucket or washing-up bowl full of chicha by your seat so you can just help yourself.

A shrine to a deceased relative, Dia de los Muertos, Sucre, Bolivia

Bread baked specifically for Dia de los Muertos, Sucre, Bolivia

The drinking is quite ritualised, with the server toasting your health with a drink then inviting you to drink, once you’ve drunk you invite the next person to drink, and the person serving the drinks gives them a glass of chicha or singani. At every house when you try to leave some of the older women will feign shock and insist on you having one more for the ‘camino’.

To refuse would be the height of impoliteness, and by the time you make it to the exit you may have had three or four more drinks poured down your throat. Needless to say, people get quite squiffy.

Similarly, it would be incredibly rude, and mortifying for the family, if you didn’t eat the mondongo, luckily people don’t mind if you can’t finish everything on your plate. By the time we reached the fourth house the prospect of yet another plate of mondongo was weighing heavy on my stomach, but some of the people I talked to had been to the houses of ten friends or family and were planning to visit several more before the day was done. You need stamina to be Bolivian.

A plate of mondongo, Dia de los Muertos, Sucre, Bolivia

After several hours, four plates of Mondongo, numerous shots of singani and enough chicha to re-float the Titanic our merry band rolled out into the street and headed for a well deserved lie down – well, the gringos headed for home, remarkably the Bolivians in our group headed off to visit another couple of relatives for more of the same.

Fiesta in the Cemetery: Todos los Santos

I’ve never been invited to a fiesta in a cemetery before, not sure I ever wanted to be, but sometimes exceptions have to be made. It was Todos los Santos, All Saints Day, when Bolivians pay homage to their departed relatives and the focus of attention in Sucre shifts several blocks west of Plaza 25 de Mayo to the city’s cemetery.

Typically Bolivian, this was as much a celebration of life as a commemoration of the dead.

Technically November 1st is the Catholic festival of All Saints Day (followed on November 2nd by All Souls Day, or as it is better known, Day of the Dead), a huge event across Latin America. In reality this is another example where Catholicism appears crudely bolted on to more deeply held traditional beliefs. As an neutral observer it’s hard to see where pre-Hispanic beliefs end and Catholicism begins, and it highlights the cultural and religious fusion (perhaps confusion) that exists.

A shrine decorated for Todos Santos in Sucre’s main cemetery

A shrine decorated for Todos Santos in Sucre’s main cemetery

Add to this mix the North American tradition of Halloween with its witches hats, plastic pumpkins and spiders webs which was celebrated the day before All Saints Day, and the picture gets even more opaque. Walking through the centre of Sucre on October 31st it seemed like every child in the city had been dressed in ghoulish costumes for Halloween.

Todos los Santos starts on October 31st when people buy bread effigies to decorate shrines to the dead found in most Bolivian homes. It reminded me of the harvest festival in the UK which features food offerings and which was also a pagan festival co-opted by the early church. The bread effigies are supposed to bring good luck, so we got several to make our own shrine.

Bread effigies for Todos Santos, Sucre, Bolivia

The bread ladder allows the soul of the dead to ascend to heaven, while the bull represents prosperity and the two figures are supposed to be angels. There are also a wide number of other bread and cake delicacies that you can only purchase on this one day of the year.

On the day of Todos los Santos everyone – and I mean everyone – in Sucre heads for the cemetery to commemorate the dead. All the streets leading to the cemetery were closed by the police creating spectacular traffic jams. Inside, the cemetery was packed with crowds of people, many of them bringing bread, cake, popcorn, fruit and sweets to place in front of their relative’s graves – like a picnic for the departed.

Crowds flood into Sucre’s cemetery for Todos Santos, Bolivia

A woman lays out food in front of a relative’s graves, Todos Santos, Sucre, Bolivia

The festival existed before the Spanish arrived and traditionally it was to ensure good rains and abundant harvests – although in pre-Hispanic times the dead were actually removed from their tombs and their families ate, drank and danced with the corpse.

Today, family members sit by the grave drinking fizzy drinks and smoking (smoking is supposed to have a spiritual dimension, and people who wouldn’t normally touch a cigarette develop 20-a-day  habits). As the crowds swirl past the tombs, people who may-or-may-not know the family stop at the grave and pray for the soul of the deceased. Prayers are rewarded by gifts of food, and all the food should be gone by the end of the day.

People pray in front of a grave, Todos Santos, Sucre, Bolivia

We visited the cemetery with Bolivian friends and their small children, all of whom managed to scoop up their own body weight in goodies. It is a bit like the trick-or-treat of Halloween, just with prayers. Families encourage people to pray for them and on several occasions we were called upon to pray in English (cue embarrassed mis-rememberings of the Lords Prayer), for which we received food as well. No one goes hungry on Todos Santos.

Praying for the soul of the departed on Todos Santos, Sucre, Bolivia

In one corner of the cemetery a woman called Margarita is buried and is the subject of devoted worship. Margarita was murdered by her husband who cut her body into pieces, some of which were never recovered. Since she was interred in the cemetery people claim she has performed several miracles and judging by the crowds at her tomb there are plenty of miracles people want her to perform for them.

Crowds in Sucre’s cemetery, Todos Santos, Bolivia

Relatives gather by the grave of the deceased, Todos Santos, Sucre, Bolivia

Todos Santos, Sucre, Bolivia

Crowds leaving the cemetery, Todos Santos, Sucre, Bolivia

The following day, November 2nd, was Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, and people retreat to their homes to pray for the souls of their relatives. Friends and family are invited to visit the house to pray and much food and drink are taken…of which, more later.

Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe…and all of the night

A Bolivian fiesta is not to be taken lightly and you have to marvel at the stamina of the dancers and musicians who, after performing around the city for hours under a relentless sun and often in heavy costumes, reach Plaza 25 de Mayo with enough energy to dance, sing and play harder than ever.

From experience fiestas start early and finish late, and as the sun set on the second day of Sucre’s Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe there were hours of fun yet to be had. Plaza 25 de Mayo was still buzzing with activity at 2am on Sunday morning, which is when I went home, but which was by no means the end of festivities.

A group of dancers arrive in Plaza 25 de Mayo, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre

The night saw an increase in the intensity of celebrations, with more fireworks, bigger dance routines and more intense veneration of the Virgen de Guadalupe, with some people crawling the last 20 or 30 metres to her shrine on their knees.

Do not try this at home, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre

Dancers arriving in Plaza 25 de Mayo, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre

The Sucre Shimmy, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre

One of the defining dances of the fiesta is when a large dance troupe of both men and women hove into view of the finish line. The women dance down the street first and then create a tunnel down which the men (all of whom have bells strapped to their legs) then strut their stuff. It is a brilliant climax giving the men an opportunity to show off their moves – I’m secretly envious of men who can dance, since I’ve inherited two left feet, but without the bells perhaps.

Men with bells prepare to do their thang, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre

Spanish dancers, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre

Fireworks, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre

Please don’t try this at home, or anyone else’s home for that matter.

Fireworks, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre

Dancers shimmy into Plaza 25 de Mayo, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre

This mask had spooky lights illuminating the eyes, it made for a great nighttime effect.

Dancer with red eye syndrome, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre

For 300 years during Spanish colonial rule Sucre’s fortunes were tied closely to the those of the silver mines in Potosi – the silver built most of Sucre’s beautiful buildings and made many people very, very wealthy. To keep the silver flowing, the Spanish shipped millions of African slaves to work and die underground in the mines. That terrible heritage is remembered in the fiesta by performers dressing as Africans, many of them wearing chains – while others went for the big hat with giant spider look.

Performers dressed as Africans, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre

Giant spider hat, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre

A performer dressed as an African drummer, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre

A brilliant feather headress, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre

Of course, it’s easy to forget amidst all the fun and frivolity (not to mention consumption of delicious cerveza) that this is all about Our Lady of Guadalupe who, ironically, is also crafted from a from a large chunk of Potosi silver. Reaching her shrine at the finale of the fiesta is the most important part of the day, and the sincerity and fervour people express when they reach the shrine is astounding…with prayers offered up in the fervent hope the she will deliver on them.

Walking the last 20 metres on your knees for the Virgin, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre

Photographing the Virgin, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre

Venerating the Virgin, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre

Venerating the Virgin, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre

Red hats, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre

Feathers and the Virgin, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre

While things continued into the wee-hours of the morning I headed off to bed leaving behind a crowd of fiesta-goers still going strong. Thanks to the fireworks going off until 4 or 5am it wasn’t actually possible to sleep but after a tremendous day of fiesta who cares? So it’s goodbye to the Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe for another year…out with a bang and a shimmy.

Drummers dancing, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre

Shimmying the night away in Plaza 25 de Mayo, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre

Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe…all day…

The Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe is the biggest event in Sucre’s calendar and draws people from all over Bolivia, as participants wearing an amazing array of folkloric costumes and as spectators. Sucre’s population seems to double as people flood into town, the noise intensifies, street stalls spring up to feed the masses and this normally tranquil city descends into seventy-two hours of party madness.

Fiesta in Sucre for the Virgen de Guadalupe

The atmosphere is fantastic and it’s a great time to be in the city, but fiesta is an exhausting enterprise for participants who have to sing, dance and play music as they weave their way around the city from the Mercardo Campasino to the Plaza 25 de Mayo, where terraced seating holding hundreds of spectators and national TV news await. Also in the plaza is the Virgen de Guadalupe herself, as a reminder that this is a Catholic festival despite all the pre-hispanic themes running through it.

People line the streets leading to the Plaza, constructing makeshift seating from wooden planks and beer cases, cheering on the parades and eating their way through a variety of foods from the many stalls.

Each section of the pavement is owned by someone – it’s not clear who but mobile numbers are chalked on the pavement and if you want to rent it for the festival you just need to call. Getting a piece of roadside legitimately is impossible, and a two metre section of roadside on the ‘black market’ will set you back around 1000 bolivians (approximately US$150) for the day.

A group of dancers from Oruro, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre

Things got going early for day two of the fiesta, firework explosions signalled the start of proceedings around 9am. It took a while for my head to clear after the previous evening’s entertainment, which had started with the first day of the fiesta and ended playing Cacho (the Bolivian Yahtzee) with friends until midnight in Bar Amsterdam. A banana and a couple of cups of coffee later it was time to join the crowds watching the parades.

There were brilliant costumes, amazing masks, great dancing, big band music and fireworks at every turn…not to mention thousands of spectators lining the streets.

Masked dancer, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre

Masked dancer, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre

Dancer in traditional costume, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre

Cholla costumes, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre

Mythical creature, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre

Drums, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre

Masked performers, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre

Masked dancer, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre

This being Bolivia it wouldn’t be fiesta without implausibly short skirts, lots of shimmying…and cerveza. Although Sucre implemented an anti-drinking campaign for fiesta, and it was noticeably less drunken that the recent fiesta in Potosi, there was still plenty of drinking on display especially amongst participants.

Short skirt shimmy, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre

Dancers, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre

Beer helmet, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre

The Sucre Shimmy, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre

Dancer takes a beer break, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre

Dancer in colourful costume, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre

There were lots more costumes, masks, mythical creatures and men with bells on their legs before the sun set and night time festivities got under way.

Dancer in traditional costume, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre

Masked performer, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre

Mythical creature, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre

Men with bells, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre

Time for a ciggie and beer break, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre

Dancers shimmying towards the sunset, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre

With that, the sun descended but the party continued into the small hours of Sunday morning with more parades and bigger and better fireworks bringing proceedings to a close…more on the night to come.

Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe: Day of the Ninos

Fiesta, it seems, is ingrained in the Bolivian psyche. There is a fiesta somewhere almost every week and festivals here simply aren’t geared towards tourism. If all the tourists (not that there are many) were abducted by aliens and never seen again Bolivians would continue to fiesta regardless, and that makes Bolivian fiestas all the more special.

It also explains why there is virtually no information available to help outsiders understand what is happening and when. The first most foreigners know about a celebration is the sound of fireworks exploding. Following the explosions generally results in finding something fun happening – normally drunk people setting off fireworks.

However, Sucre’s civic authorities decided to take a more inclusive approach for the Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe and promised to print a programme of events.

The highly prized programme for the Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe

After trying for a week to get our hands on one, we finally managed to wrestle a programme away from a nice woman at the Casa de Cultura. So highly prized are the programmes that she advised us not to walk down the street with it openly on display – presumably for fear of being mugged by programme-less citizens.

A quick read-through quickly confirmed that there have been activities taking place since August (who knew?) but the big folkloric parades would be starting on Friday 14 with local indigenous groups, university and school students. There is even a map of the route and a schedule of start times – although I’ll be taking those with a pinch of salt.

Armed with this precious information, off we go to join the celebrations. In fact, I can already hear drums and fireworks…walking out to the Rotunda church we were greeted by wave after wave of school and college groups, some very young to be walking the whole route!

Small child in flowery hat, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre

Feathers, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre

Masked performer, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre

Whistles, rattles and sharp moves, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre

Rattles and twirls, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre

Young Cholla, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre

Rattles and twirls, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre

Masked performer, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre

Musicians, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre

Trombone player, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre

The parades wind their way through the streets of Sucre for several hours, before the big climax in Plaza 25 de Mayo, where crowds and TV cameras are waiting. Everything finishes outside the Cathedral where a version of the Virgen de Guadalupe is waiting to greet  everyone.

Some of the younger children look exhausted at the finish, but thanks to the appreciative crowds all the performers seem to rally at the end and the dancing seems to get faster and more energetic.

Dancers, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre

Dancers, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre

Dancer, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre

A very small and tired looking miner made his entrance into the Plaza 25 de Mayo but was swinging his hammer with vigour much to the delight of the crowd.

Minor miner, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre

Virgen de Guadalupe merchandise, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre

Sales of Virgen de Guadalupe merchandise were strong, and have been all week, but that’s not surprising since everyone wants her to perform some task for them and every performer wants their photo taken with her…

The Virgen de Guadalupe and admirer