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…


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