Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe

To be in Sucre during the build-up to its big festival, the Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, is to witness this normally tranquil and reserved city transform itself and embrace party fever. The fiesta is a huge event in Sucre and people come from across Bolivia to participate in the festivities.

The festival celebrates the much venerated Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre’s patron saint, whose flattened statue began life as a painting early in the seventeenth-century. Over time the painting was encrusted with all manner of precious and semi-precious gem stones until it needed to be reinforced with silver and gold plates. It could probably pay of a large chunk of Bolivia’s national debt.

Our Lady of Guadalupe is also the patron of the whole of Latin America, and is typically portrayed as black or dark skinned. Guadalupe is an early example of recycling and actually originates in the remote Spanish region of Extremadura from where she was exported to Latin America by the Conquistadores, the most famous of whom such as Hernán Cortés, Francisco Pizarro and Vasco Nunez de Balboa also came from Extremadura.

The Virgen de Guadalupe on display in Plaza 25 Mayo, Sucre

The last three weeks have seen a steady increase in activity towards the main festival on 14 and 15 September, groups have been rehearsing and it has been impossible to avoid bands who seem to practice day and night. There’s also been a steady increase in the use of alarmingly loud fireworks, including a series of big fireworks last night which went on until 2am – it wouldn’t be fiesta without singularly dangerous pyrotechnics keeping everyone awake.

This weekend was set aside as a practice run for the main event, and all over Sucre you could spot groups of people putting themselves through their paces. In a fun but unusual twist, there was a large parade of highly decorated cars snaking around the city and creating endless traffic jams in their wake. Most of the cars belong to cooperatives who work in Sucre’s Central Market, and the decorations of fruit, vegetables and meat reflect this.

The convoy of decorated cars for the Virgen de Guadalupe

The fish sellers from the Central Market

The cars are decked out in brightly coloured cloths, stuffed animals, inflatable toys, dolls, silver bowls, plates and cutlery. Many of them have fake money, houses and other desirable items attached, and prayers are offered to the Virgen de Guadalupe in the hope of receiving wealth and success in return. They create a bizarre spectacle as they make their way around the city before being welcomed back to the Central Market by a band and more fireworks.

Money, money, money

Alarming looking doll

Veg and meat car

A mix of dolls and dreams of wealth

Cholla doll and fruit on the car roof

Two ‘stoned’ reggae bananas on the flower sellers’ car

Inflatables, including one or more Teletubbies

I’m not sure what role Bart plays in the Bolivian Church, or what dreams and desires he represents, but he made an appearance on one of the cars.

Bart doll

Potosi’s Ch’utillos Festival (Part 2)

Saturday dawned bright and sunny, and the Ch’utillos Festival started early with a parade around Potosi at 9am with the statue of San Bartolomé accompanied by the town’s mayor and other dignitaries, cue lots of incense and confetti. Afterwards, the festival really came to life with bands and big groups of dancers taking over the streets, many of them dressed to thrill in spectacular costumes and masks of historical figures or mystical creatures.

One of the groups at the start of the day depicted African slaves, who were brought to Potosi to work in the silver mines – literally millions of Africans died alongside indigenous Andean peoples in some of the most inhumane conditions imaginable. This is unique to the Ch’utillos Festival and highlights one of the less well-known aspects of Spanish colonialism in Latin America.

While the Trans-Atlantic slave trade is much better understood in North America and Brazil, the descendents of African slaves still live in Bolivia, mainly in the tropical lowlands. There didn’t appear to be any African descendents in the parade, so, local people ‘black up’ to portray Africans. Seen from a contemporary European perspective, this could make for uncomfortable viewing, but it is good that this aspect of Potosi’s history isn’t forgotten.

Performers depicting African slaves brought to Bolivia to work in Potosi’s mines

Performing as an African at the Ch’utillos Festival

Several thousand people participate in the festival, and thousands more line the streets eating, drinking (lots of drinking) and cheering the performers on. Wave after wave of dancers and bands sweep up and down the streets, but the atmosphere is always fun, informal and relaxed. The performers take several hours to complete the full route, and it must be hard work performing under the harsh Potosi sun, dancing up and down hills at 4000 metres altitude – especially in some of the big, heavy and hot costumes people wear.

A bit like marathon runners, performers need to take a lot fluids on board. Unlike a marathon, most of these fluids seem to be alcoholic – although there is that one marathon in France where you receive a glass of local wine and something delicious to nibble at each mile marker. This was a bit like that.

High energy snacks were everywhere on the route

One of the most impressive aspects of Ch’utillos is the array of extraordinary masks warn by the performers, variously depicting historical figures or terrifying  mythical creatures.

The Devil

The Spanish, also a comic turn

Like the previous day, being Gringo has its price, and once again I was dragged unwillingly into the parade, to dance and provide more hilarious entertainment for the crowds – actually, not that unwillingly. My tormentor…

Tormentress

At least this time I was rewarded with a kiss for providing the comic turn …

Dancing has its rewards

I’m not sure what the origins of some of the costumes are, but typically the costumes worn by women tend to be more revealing than those worn by men – no surprises there, I suppose – although no less dramatic.

Typical costume

Typical costume

Costume with feathers or inny not outy

Although a typical sight in La Paz and on the Altiplano of Bolivia, the bowler hat wearing Aymara women known as Chollas are not typical of the Potosi region. I’d guess this group came from La Paz to perform. Their rattles are in the shape of trucks, and they’re each grasping a can of Potosina beer, in fact they had two people accompanying them with cases of beer – thirsty work this dancing lark.

Chollas storm the streets of Potosi

Truck-rattle toting performers from La Paz

The array of masks at Ch’utillos really was extraordinary – although some came a bit too close to being Gandalf.

Dramatic mask at the Ch’utillos Festival

Dramatic mask at the Ch’utillos Festival

Masked performer at the Ch’utillos festival in Potosi

Masked performer at Ch’utillos Festival in Potosi

Masked performer at the Ch’utillos festival in Potosi

Masked performer at the Ch’utillos festival in Potosi

Feathered performer at the Ch’utillos festival in Potosi

A fun weekend was had by all, except that when I returned to Sucre I realised someone had slashed my coat pocket and stolen my phone…es la vida, as some might say. That aside, Potosi’s Chu’utillos festival was great fun, so to sign off I’ll leave you with a big thumbs up from Potosi…

Feathered and masked performer at the Ch’utillos festival in Potosi

Potosi’s Ch’utillos Festival (Part 1)

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.

Ch’utillos Festival band on Friday

A typical dance group doing a traditional dance

Traditional Bolivian costume

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.

Statue of the moment, San Bartolomé, Potosi

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.

A car dressed for the parade

A traditional flute-type instrument

A wooden instrument the likes of which I’ve never seen before

Condor headgear

A group pray and play music to San Bartolomé

Another traditional dance troupe

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.

Nice hat!

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.

El Tio, lord of the underworld

Minor miners in the Ch’utillos festival

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.

Enacting life in the mines

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?

El Tio – drunk as a skunk

A miner holds up a model of dynamite

More miners parade down the street

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.

Ch’utillos dancer

Potosi: the city of silver and death

Potosi is a must-visit city, yet at best it’s an improbable place. It is both a symbol of Bolivia’s former wealth and, more potently, all the evil that has been heaped upon the peoples of the Andean highlands by centuries of colonialism. Set amidst a bleak, washed-out landscape at over 4000m in altitude (making it the highest city in the world), it’s difficult to imagine that at its height in the early seventeenth-century Potosi had a population as large as London, and was larger than the Spanish capital, Madrid.

The city is literally and metaphorically overshadowed by the Cerro Rico, a mountain that contained so much silver that it bankrolled the Spanish Monarchy for centuries, and eventually undermined the entire European economy by creating hyper-inflation. Potosi’s history is the stuff of legend and gruesome nightmare; blessed and equally cursed by silver and the Spanish Conquistador’s boundless lust for wealth.

Potosi and the Cerro Rico from the roof of one of the city’s many churches

When the Spanish discovered the Cerro Rico in 1544 it was the richest source of silver in the known world. Potosi and Spain grew rich from the proceeds, but this wealth came at an horrendous cost in human lives and suffering. Over the next three hundred years, the Spanish authorities, in collusion with the mine owners and the Catholic Church, pressed millions of indigenous Andean peoples into slavery to work in the mines.

Historians claim that the system of slavery that Spain’s Viceroy Toledo created resulted in a massive depopulation of the Andean highlands. So high were mortality rates in the mines, and so desperate were the Spanish for man-power, millions of African slaves were shipped to work underground in Potosi. It’s estimated that the barbaric conditions in the mines caused the deaths of between eight and ten million indigenous and African slaves. A genocide by any other name.

Potosi’s narrow streets are dominated by the Cerro Rico

Despite centuries of mining, the Cerro Rico is still the workplace for thousands of poor bolivian miners, including many children. Sadly, the conditions that modern-day miners endure are little better than those their forebears suffered. The mines are terrible places to work, full of toxic gases, silica and asbestos dust, and poisonous chemicals such as mercury and arsenic – not to mention tunnel collapses due to overworking and poor maintenance. Yet the promise of scratching a living from lead, tin and other metals (including a tiny amount of silver) is enough to sustain a significant workforce, despite the life expectancy of miners being an astonishing 15 years from when they start working underground.

If you want to know more about the mines, essential watching is The Devil’s Miner (www.thedevilsminer.com).

Many visitors to the city come solely to visit the mines and experience the hellish environment that Bolivian miners endure daily. Although the miners are fiercely proud of their work and generally welcome tourists, I opted not to visit the mines for a whole range of reasons. I know people who have been and found  the experience valuable and deeply moving, but to me it feels like touristic voyeurism…and also I’ve watched the Lord of the Rings and know what happens if you dig too deep.

Potosi street life

Today, Potosi seems to present many different faces to the outside world. At turns it feels proud, vibrant and friendly, yet claustrophobic, tragic and sad.  The silver funded the building of grandiose churches, palaces and mansions, endowing Potosi with some of the finest colonial-era churches in the whole of Latin America – memorials to the complicity of the Church in the suffering of those forced to slave in the mines. It also boasts one of Latin America’s finest museums, the Casa Nacional de Mondera, housed in the former National Mint where the silver was minted into bars and coins before being shipped to Spain.

Potosi is also known for having some of the biggest and most spectacular folkloric and religious festivals in Bolivia (of which, more later). If you can time a visit during one of the main festivals you’ll be rewarded with being part of Potosi’s living history – be warned though, participation is sometimes obligatory.

Entrance to the Casa Nacional de Moneda

One of the machines used to mint silver bars

There are dozens of magnificent churches, monasteries and convents to visit, including several where you can go to the rooftop or bell towers for tremendous views over the city. Most of the interiors are full of intriguing colonial era artworks to complement sumptuous altars – although you have to remind yourself that all of this was built on the bones of millions of dead.

Rooftop of the Convento de San Francisco

Sumptuous interior of Convento de Santa Teresa

Colonial-era religious painting

So important was the Cerro Rico, and so entwined was the Catholic Church with the mines, that all the churches in Potosi point not to the east, but to the mountain, and some of the religious art is shaped to represent the pyramid shape of the mountain. If you want to see some Bolivian silver, there’s plenty on display in Potosi’s churches, but you could equally go to any of the major cathedrals in Spain (and probably Vatican City) to uncover where all that silver went.

An icon shaped as the Cerro Rico

As with Europe, the Catholic Church unleashed the Inquisition on the Spanish colonies, something dramatically depicted in the paining below – typically, it was often women on the receiving end of ingenious methods of torture…where the Spanish went before, the Republican Party are headed now.

The ‘Spanish’ Inquisition came to Potosi, as usual women were on the receiving end

Fiesta in San Ignacio de Moxos (Part 4): The End of Festivities

Waking at 8am on 31st July to the sound of the ever more incessant bells of the Jesuit Mission, I immediately realised something was wrong. It wasn’t the mud on my clothes, the burn holes, the 18 mosquito bites on my right arm or even that I’d gone to sleep wearing a head torch. No, it was the unnecessary pounding in my head, which at first I put down to the incessant bell ringing, but which upon further inspection was confirmed to be the result of an unfortunate mix of Pacena, Cuba Libre and hours of intense Amazonian sun. After tentatively testing the water by standing up, it was apparent I would live.

It transpires that the day after a large fiesta in a small village in the middle of nowhere it’s quite difficult to find breakfast or coffee. All the people who may have been able to provide these things are also feeling the effects of Cuba Libre. This meant a visit to the village market, where it was possible to find two life-saving deep fried cheese empanadas, and the worst cup of coffee I’ve ever had, while watching a woman hacking some indescribable part of a cow to pieces. At least I think it was a cow.

Fortunately, we also bumped into our Australian and Dutch friends from the previous evening, also seeking the life-giving qualities of the cheese empanadas. Refreshed, we walked back towards the plaza, where it quickly became apparent that Bolivians don’t need sleep – a parade around the plaza was already underway. This was a more sombre affair involving many of the district’s most prominent citizens.

This proved to be a sedate start to what would turn into another big day of drinking and fun, this time involving large bulls.

It takes stamina to be in this festival

Will they be allowed into the Mission this time?

As the procession made its way to the Mission, the big question on everyone’s lips was, “Will they let the Macheteros into the bloody church, and, if they do, can we all go back to bed?” This man has been walking around the village for 3 days, he deserves to be allowed into the Mission…

Let him in!

So close, and yet so far?

Perhaps what this needs is an intervention from an Achus?

Even in daylight it’s quite scary

One mighty explosion later it finally happened, the Macheteros were allowed into the Mission.

It was a cliff hanger, but they got there in the end

No one was more relieved by this turn of events than me. This terrible injustice finally resolved, we could now decamp from the plaza and head towards the Plaza de Toros, where the day’s main event would take place.

Bull teasing or bull tormenting?

I’ve never been to a bull ‘fight’ and never will go to one, but bull ‘teasing’, as this was described, seemed a bit more benign. After all, what could be fairer than having a large bull face off against a group of highly inebriated people without guns, swords or common sense?

The day passed without much incident, no bulls died, a couple of people got gored and/or tossed into the air on the tip of a bull’s horns, and much Pacena was consumed.

Spirited

Too close for comfort, even with a fence between us

Of course there are inevitable casualties, although during fiesta these are not all bull related…

A Pacena related incident

I have to admit that my support was all with the bulls, which is why I’ve included these photos:

Going…

…going…

…almost gone…

…gone, and forgotten.

Of course, there is a darker side to all this frivolity…where an innocent Gringo bystander, stood on the bull ring fence believing it to be safe, is sent flying by a herd of bulls who just want to go home…

…first, a very unhappy heard of bulls, barely being controlled by their ‘handlers’, are being ‘herded’ back to their home for the night, and a Gringo stood on the bull ring fence.

Who thought this was a good idea?

What happened next is open to speculation, but I believe the course of events went thus: one of the bulls made a run for it into the street, causing one of the cowboys to give chase – no one wants 2 tonnes of bull careering down a street full of drunk people on their way home from the bull teasing.

This left just one cowboy to control the other 6 or 7 bulls. Needless to say, they stampeded, taking with them a large chunk of fence and one Gringo stood on said fence. Mercifully, some Bolivians pulled me to safety before I got trampled to death. By the time I got to my feet the bulls were out of sight. Lesson learned.

Fiesta in San Ignacio de Moxos (Part 3)

As the sun set on San Ignacio de Moxos on 30th July, the fiesta got into high gear and the party started. Having spent the afternoon carousing we were in good condition to take part in the night-time festivities – the whole evening is a bit of a blur, which I blame on the Cuba Libre, and despite the burn holes I now have in most of my clothes it was a night that will live long in the memory. Bolivians enjoy a good party, something I’ve experienced before during fiesta in Sucre, but San Ignacio was special even by Bolivian standards, with festivities winding down only around 3am.

As soon as it was dark the fireworks started, the Cuba Libre flowed and more and more people, whether part of the parades or spectators, poured into the plaza in front of the Mission. The fireworks went on for a good 40 minutes and it was clear that everyone was in celebratory mood. I’d have to rate the health and safety of the firework display as 1 out of 10, but when Cuba Libre has been taken that doesn’t seem too big an issue.

The fireworks start and the Cuba Libre flows

A firework goes off overhead

Once the fireworks ended it was time for more high jinks from the Achus, running through the packed crowds with fireworks attached to their hats – as they run phosphorous sparks that are still burning fly off the fireworks and, consequently, continue to burn when they land on you. Obviously, locals know this, while naive Gringos who may have had a few too many drinks take a while to catch on. This is why I have lots of holes in my clothes.

Regardless, it is an amazing communal experience, with a sort of joyful hysteria spreading through the crowd as more and more people run around with fireworks going off on their heads. It’s advisable to not to be in the vicinity when the fireworks come to an abrupt and explosive end, which can be quite scary.

At the start, the only people running through the crowd with fireworks are the masked Achus, technically the professionals in this situation, but as things develop, and more alcohol is consumed, anyone and everyone seems to have a go. Apparently, Bolivia has yet to make the link between alcohol and firework safety.

A woman runs through the crowd with a live firework

More hat related nonsense

People scatter as yet another lunatic runs through the crowd

Wonderful!

And then, suddenly, kaboom!

Please stand clear of the explosives

And finally, to complete this night of bizarrreness, a small photo montage:

Another firework hat-wearer sets off

She has definitely had Cuba Libre

Like the Devil’s horns, perhaps?

I cannot stress enough that you should not be around when the fireworks finally come to their explosive end…

Run, run for your lives

This being Bolivia, the end of the night was still far away, and mercifully I was incapable of focusing the camera beyond this point…time for a Cuba Libre, perhaps?

Fiesta in San Ignacio de Moxos (Part 2)

An alternative title to this post could be: “48 hours of cerveza, Cuba Libre and fireworks in the company of three Australians, two Dutch people and a couple of thousand Bolivians resulting in a severe hangover, third degree burns and a close call with a group of angry bulls”. But that would be jumping ahead, first…

…after the 4am start to the fiesta we got a couple of hours sleep and rejoined the party around 10am, soon finding ourselves entrenched outside a bar with a large table of locals who had brought their own bottles of whisky. Someone at the next table hired a band for the day so we had on-tap music played at a deafening level right next to us. A round of beers for the band got you any request you wanted and made sure the band was pretty drunk by the end of the afternoon.

As the fiesta unfolded with ever larger, more colourful and elaborate parades, music and dancing, the cerveza flowed, and things got more and more exciting and crazy until finally peaking with a huge fireworks display and much drunken behaviour from the gathered throng.

10am and all’s well in the beer halls of San Ignacio

As at 4am, things started at the Mission around 11am when the Macheteros returned to play their pipes, sing and dance before being turned away again from entering the Mission.

Macheteros outside the Mission

Turned away to wander the streets of San Ignacio de Moxos

Next a large group of masked Achus appeared pulling in their wake the great comic turn of the fiesta: an Achus riding a fake horse that was out of control and brought chaos and destruction in its wake. The Achus look like representations of the Spanish and are there to cause trouble, something they do very well. They did a tour of the main plaza, setting off fireworks and ‘attacking’ any unwary person with their ‘horse’.

Masked Achus

Masked Achus

Masked Achus

The theatre behind the Achus’ ‘horse’ is that it is bad-tempered and gets out of control, crashing into spectators and anyone else foolish enough to get in the way. In reality, the rider is always on the lookout for an opportunity to create trouble and veers wildly into the crowd to bash into people – from experience I know that the ‘horse’ can give you a real whack on the shins. I saw several unwary people upended to the great delight of the crowd, particularly the children who are constantly daring the horse to charge them.

The great comic turn of the fiesta, with rider and handlers

After the Achus have created enough mayhem, things calm down a little and a huge parade starts from the main plaza and tours around the village for a couple of hours before making a final triumphant return to the plaza and the Mission. The parade is wonderful, with many more performers than previously and  mixes more solemn religious elements with a party atmosphere.

The head of the parade

Achus with female doll

There are many animals represented in the fiesta, I’d guess that these go back to pre-Hispanic beliefs since animals and the natural landscape were central elements of those beliefs. These performers represent the Jaguar, while there are still some original Jaguar hides on display, conservation efforts mean that these days most costumes aren’t real.

Jagur people make an appearance

Fish are also popular, and they represent an old legend about the formation of Laguna Isirere, a short walk from the village. Myth insists that the lake was formed when a local boy, Isidoro, was paddling in a small pool of water only to be swallowed up by a water spirit as a human sacrifice needed to create a bigger lake…which is why only children are dressed as fish.

Fish person, perhaps a non-native tuna?

Fish person

Despite not being allowed into the Mission, the Macheteros have the task of carrying the statue of San Ignacio around the streets, frequently stopping and bowing to the statue and continuing to play music, sing and dance.

Leading San Ignacio around the streets

Leading San Ignacio

After much parading under a very hot sun, everyone makes their way back into the plaza before finally finishing in front of the mission and getting a well deserved cerveza. Here’s a selection of pictures from the parades…

Arrival in the plaza

Bright clothes and even brighter smiles

Sheep people make their entrance

The sun made an appearance in human form

Spectacular headdresses were the order of the day…

…a bead and feather headdress

The region is famous for its music, and especially these brilliant pipes

Dancers performing traditional dances

Deer people make a dramatic entrance

Deer person

The Pide Piper of San Ignacio de Moxos

A bit like the Maypole dances, and quite intricate to get right

Everything starts to get a bit crowded as the parades come to an end

Another beautiful headdress

A less beautiful headdress

Mingling outside the Jesuit Mission

After the parades finished there was a church service and everyone dispersed, presumably for a well deserved lie down. That wasn’t to be the end of the day’s festivities though; once the sun set a whole new party started, with more fireworks and more drinking…but that’s for next time.

Fiesta in San Ignacio de Moxos (Part 1)

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.

Jesuit Mission in San Ignacio de Moxos

The Mission interior decked-out with balloons

One of the icons that are paraded regularly throughout the fiesta.

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.

A collection of statues of San Ignacio

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.

An early start on 30th July

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.

Macheteros arrive at the Mission doors, playing music, chanting and dancing

Playing wooden pipes and chanting in front of the Mission doors

Lantern bearers leaving the Mission

Large reed pipe players exiting the Mission

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.

The fireworks start and the health and safety ends

Remember, this is 4.30am

That’s a lot of sulphur!

Then off on a tour of the village, singing, dancing and playing music – not forgetting the fireworks.

The deer people do the deer dance

Masked men of the night

The first of many circuits of the village

The many countries that are Bolivia

“We’re no longer in Sucre, Toto”, was the first thought that went through my head as our plane touched down in Cochabamba at the start of a three week ‘holiday’ into the lowlands of Bolivia (of which, much more in later posts).

Cochabamba’s Cristo de la Concordia – the world’s largest Jesus statue, that’s right Rio, the largest!

The reason for this trip was to reach the tiny Amazonian village of San Ignacio de Moxos to take part in its rightly famous Fiesta del Santo Patrono de Moxos. It has a reputation as the biggest party in the Bolivian Amazon, and judging by the state of my liver afterwards its reputation is well deserved.

First though was Cochabamba. Only a short plane hop from Sucre, and sitting at an altitude similar to that of Sucre, Cochabamba feels more tropical, the air smells different, the temperature is hotter, humidity sits heavy and the whole city has a different, and faster-paced, vibe to anything I’ve encountered in Bolivia so far.

Cochabamba lies in a valley floor ringed by mountains that climb to well over 5000m and is one of the most agriculturally rich areas in the whole country, not quite the bread basket, but the fruit and vegetable basket for sure. For tourists there is little, verging on nothing, to do; compensating for that is some of the most diverse and delicious food in the country – something we did our utmost to explore in the two days we had in Cochabamba before heading to Trinidad, gateway to the Bolivian Amazon.

An essential diversion in Cochabamba is a visit to the hilltop that hosts the world’s tallest statue of Christ: the Cristo de la Concordia. Despite having a location that couldn’t even start to compete with Rio, the Cristo de la Cochabamba stands a whole 44cm higher – Rio may have the next Olympics but it still won’t have the tallest Christ statue. Cochabamba 1 Rio 0.

Pink river dolphins en route to San Ignacio de Moxos

After a pleasant couple of days in Cochabamba, we jumped on a plane to Trinidad, capital of Bolivia’s Beni department which contains the bulk of Bolivia’s Amazon Basin. If Cochabamba had come as a surprise, Trinidad was a whole different country – as far from the high Altiplano and Andean Bolivia as it is possible to get, with heat, humidity and mosquitoes to match. Even the people look different in Trinidad, taller and much, much more European looking. Spend an afternoon sitting in a cafe on Trinidad’s main plaza and you’ll spot people who should rightly be living in Scandinavia –  and that’s not even including our dungaree wearing friends the Menonnites (why dungarees?).

After a hot and insect heavy night in Trinidad, we took the road to San Ignacio de Moxos, and the Fiesta to end all Fiestas. On the way we saw a bewildering array of wildlife, right by the side of the road – including river dolphins.

Normally I’d be in raptures at the site of a river dolphin (and I was), but the wildlife had a difficult time competing with the human life of the fiesta.

Participants in San Ignacio’s fiesta

Fiesta in San Ignacio de Moxos

Perhaps the most dramatic, and fun, part of the fiesta were the fireworks attached to the hats of participants. They account for the burns I suffered and the holes I now have in most of my clothes.

Hat-mounted fireworks are not the way forward for health and safety

After four days of partying in San Ignacio de Moxos (thank you Cuba Libre for the worst hangover I’ve had in years), we decided to slow the pace a little and take a slow boat up the Rio Ibare and then the Rio Mamore, two large Amazonian rivers that eventually flow all the way to the Brazilian border and beyond. We sailed on the very comfortable Reina de Enin, which offered daily excursions into the surrounding forest, down small rivers to beautiful lagoons, fishing trips, horse riding and swimming in Amazon rivers.

Sunset on the Rio Mamore

After our Amazonian adventure, and an even more exciting night bus from Trinidad to Santa Cruz, we holed up in one of Bolivia’s nicest hotels – the Hotel Casa Patio (www.casapatio-hotelboutique.com) – and endured more fine dining in Bolivia’s second city, including what must be Bolivia’s (Latin America’s?) finest Japanese food. This was followed by a couple of days in the delightfully laid back village of Samaipata, set amidst rolling wooded hills and the base for close up encounters with Andean Condors and the pre-Incan site of El Fuerte.

Up close and personal with the Andean Condor

The mysterious El Fuerte

After three weeks away it’s nice to return to the pleasant climate and colonial charm of Sucre, eyes wide open to a whole new Bolivia that needs further exploration at some point – that point being when I’ve got some 100% DEET based anti-mosquito repellent, eighteen bites on one arm in one night is too much!

More photos and detail of our travels coming soon…

The strange case of the Alasitas

There’s probably no better example of how the Catholic faith, forced upon Bolivia at the point of a sword by the colonising Spanish, failed to fully convince or convert the indigenous population than the Alasitas Festival. Or perhaps it is an example of how pragmatic the Catholic Church can be in its approach to what is, and what isn’t, Catholicism. Or even, after 600 years of Christianity, just how enduring the indigenous religions of Bolivia have been.

Either way, what is certain is that the Alasitas Festival is a showcase for how Catholic and indigenous beliefs have been merged together to become one. In pre-Hispanic times Alasitas was celebrated to ensure a good harvest, today it has become a fine and fun example of how Bolivians express their cultural heritage.

La Fiesta de las Alasitas is Bolivia’s festival of wishing for good luck and personal gain. People buy miniature items of things they want to have in the coming year: cars, houses, businesses, food, university diplomas, clothes and money, in the form of bundles of US$ or Bolivianos. Then these miniatures are twice blessed, firstly by a traditional priest, in clouds of smoke and incense, and then by a Catholic priest inside a church.

A miniature pot of food adorned with a house and car, which is now proudly displayed in our house, La Fiesta de las Alasitas

A miniature pot of food adorned with a house and car, which is now proudly displayed in our house, La Fiesta de las Alasitas

Held across the country at different times of the year, the biggest Alasitas festival is in La Paz during January. This week though it was Sucre’s turn to have a miniature festival of miniature things centred around La Rotunda church; having never knowingly missed a good party, we decided to join in.

The festival took place up a crowded street, crammed with stalls selling miniatures of just about anything you could want in life, and a fevered buying and selling environment more akin to the January sales seemed to have taken hold of half of Sucre’s population. The air was so thick with smoke and incense, as more and more miniatures were blessed by traditional priests, that it was difficult to breath at times – evidence that business in miniatures was brisk.

First, select the miniatures, or more often a selection of miniatures, put them in a bag and the traditional priest will spray them with 200 proof alcohol.

People crowd in to get their miniatures blessed, La Fiesta de las Alasitas, Bolivia

People crowd in to get their miniatures blessed, La Fiesta de las Alasitas, Bolivia

Then your miniatures get wafted over burning charcoal and incense – try not to ignite the 200 proof alcohol.

Don't over-cook the miniatures, La Fiesta de las Alasitas, Bolivia

Don’t over-cook the miniatures, La Fiesta de las Alasitas, Bolivia

All of this under the watchful eye of a miniature of the Virgin, although judging by the jaunty angle of her crown she may have had a nip too many of the 200 proof alcohol.

Nice hat! La Fiesta de las Alasitas, Bolivia

Nice hat! La Fiesta de las Alasitas, Bolivia

Once everything is blessed it is time to join the crush of people trying to force their way into the church for the second blessing, this time by Catholic priests.

While the traditional priests offer up prayers to Ekeko, the pre-Hispanic god of abundance and wealth, the Catholic priests offer prayers to the Virgin, and the hybridisation of two belief systems is complete. It’s a bit like writing your wish list to Santa and putting it up the chimney.

Most of the simple home made miniatures, like the house below and our bowl of food, cost 15 bolivianos (just over $2), while larger items such as airplanes and plastic trucks can cost double or triple that: a significant amount of money for many Bolivians, especially as most buy multiple items to have blessed.

Miniature house with adjoining shop, La Fiesta de las Alasitas, Bolivia

Miniature house with adjoining shop, La Fiesta de las Alasitas, Bolivia

I’m not sure what the box on the top right represents, perhaps the perfect body, but I’m pretty certain it shouldn’t be getting blessed in church.

Trucks and booty, La Fiesta de las Alasitas, Bolivia

Trucks and booty, La Fiesta de las Alasitas, Bolivia

Can’t wait for the really big Alasitas Festival in La Paz in January!