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…

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 road to San Ignacio de Moxos

San Ignacio de Moxos, about three hours from Trinidad (the capital of Bolivia’s Beni department), hosts what is surely one of the most spectacular festivals in Bolivia. A tiny village on a miserable dirt road that turns to liquid mud or just gets flooded by Amazonian rivers in the rainy season, San Ignacio is only accessible during the dry season.

Most guide books say that San Ignacio de Moxos isn’t worth the effort unless you go for the fiesta, but our experience was that the journey itself is worth it because the waterways and lagoons that lie along the road are home to a host of wildlife that is easily visible and not very afraid of humans. Luckily, we were able to combine wildlife spotting with San Ignacio de Moxos’ fiesta.

But first, the small task of crossing the Rio Mamore.

In the rainy season none of this is here

It’s fairly common to see these barges loaded with cattle truck or buses

Dismounting at the other side

After crossing the river you spend the next two and a half hours on mud and gravel, but throughout the entire journey there are hawks and vultures, stalks and water birds, river dolphins and alligators to spot – in fact, this journey was one long Bolivian safari.

A blue Coot?

Your guess is as good as mine, but it looks a bit like an Anglican vicar

The road (at least for 6 months of the year)

It was impossible to capture everything on camera, but we must have seen a dozen types of water/wading birds and a similar number of hawks, not forgetting the very exciting river dolphins.

Flipper of a river dolphin – playing with its friends

Snout of a river dolphin

Almost as impressive as the animals is the surrounding countryside, very green and stretching as far as the eye can see.

Views across the Llanos de Moxos

Stork or Heron?

As if one sighting of river dolphins wasn’t enough, we were lucky to see two groups within a short distance of each other.

River dolphins at play

River dolphin

Giant water lilies in flower

Heron or Stork?

Small but dangerous? An alligator

Turkey Buzzard

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…