Carnival (spelled Carnaval in Latin America) is a big deal across the region. Rio is home to the most famous Carnival celebration in Latin America, but we’ve also been amazed by unique Carnival traditions in Panama. In Bolivia, the Catholic celebration marking the days leading up to Lent is largest and most elaborate in the city of Oruro where tens of thousands take part in Carnaval de Oruro processions bursting with bands, costumes, culture, and choreography. Giant bears, beautiful women, devils, and angels all play a role in this intense spectacle which deftly mixes Catholic elements with proud indigenous traditions.

Oruro Carnaval dance costumes

Just some of the costumes, bands, dancers, and traditions represented during Carnival in Oruro, Bolivia.

Spanish conquistadors settled modern day Oruro in 1606, but local Aymara and Quechua people had their own established beliefs and traditions long before that. As the Spanish tried to squash local cultures and convert everyone to Catholicism, indigenous traditions slyly merged with European traditions. By the early 1800s, Aymara and Quechua traditions, including costumes, customs, and dances, were deeply entrenched in Catholic Carnival celebrations and Carnaval de Oruro was born.

Dancers Carnaval de Oruro

Just some of the costumes, bands, dancers, and traditions represented during Carnival in Oruro, Bolivia.

The parade route in Oruro is 2 miles (3.1 km) long and it ends at the Sanctuary of El Socovon which is dedicated to the Virgin of Candelaria aka Virgen del Socavon or the Virgin of the Mineshaft. Oruro is a mining town and this virgin is the revered patron saint of Oruro’s miners.

The route is not long, but with so many people in the procession, it can take about 20 hours for all of the groups to make it through the route and reach the church. Things move along fairly swiftly in the early hours of the day and early groups can complete the route in just a couple of hours. But as the day goes on things get slower and slower. Groups starting their procession at night can take 6 to 8 hours to finish the route.

Carnival (which comes from the Latin term carne levare, which means “take away the meat” in reference to the Lent period during which Catholics avoid eating meat) technically goes for more than a week. But the main days are the Saturday, Sunday, and Monday before Shrove Tuesday (also known as Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday). The most important procession takes place on Saturday beginning around 8 am and ending shortly before dawn. On Sunday, the same dance groups and fraternities do it all over again, but with less solemness. A more relaxed, party atmosphere prevails. Many paraders take off their masks and the alcohol flows.

One of the more than 150 bands that take part in Carnival in Oruro, Bolivia.

Generally, 54 dance groups and fraternities participate in Oruro’s Carnival including 30,000 dancers. As many as 150 bands take part involving 10,000 musicians. Check out our video from Carnival in Oruro to see the sights and sounds in full effect. You’ll see why UNESCO named Carnaval de Oruro a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2001. It’s a spectacle that requires costume makers, makeup artists and more. See them at work in our photo essay from behind the scenes at Carnival in Oruro.

The rest of our coverage of Carnival in Oruro includes facts, photos, and more video about many of the dozens of traditional Bolivian dances that make up Carnaval de Oruro. Enjoy the party!

Morenada

There are three theories behind the Morenada dancers. One theory is that they are inspired by Afro-Bolivian cultures in the Yungas region of Bolivia. Another theory is that they are linked to the Aymara culture in Bolivia. And a third theory is that the Morenadas tell the story of African slaves brought to work for the Spanish in the prolific silver mines of Potosi, Bolivia (hence male dancers wearing black masks and bells around their ankles to represent slave chains). In 2011, the Bolivian government made the Morenadas part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of the Plurinational State of Bolivia.

Oruro carnival Morenada dance

See the Morenada dancers in action in our video of Morenada Central Comunidad Cocani and Morenada Central

Click any image in the gallery above to see a larger version of the shot

Caporales

The Caporales dance debuted at Carnival in Oruro in 1969 making it one of the newest dances in celebration. The dance is inspired by the El Caporal foreman who supervised slaves working in the silver mines of Potosi, Bolivia. He is represented by male and female dancers wearing sparkling costumes along with a hat, boots, and sometimes a whip. This dance is one of the most complicated and most difficult including a difficult recurring leap forward with a kick in the air. In 2011, the Bolivian government named the Caporales part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of the Plurinational State of Bolivia. Fun fact: if Karen was ever going to take part in Carnival in Oruro, she’d want to be one of the female Caporal dancers.

See the Caporales dancers in action in our video of Caporales Centralistas and Caporales San Simon

Click any image in the gallery above to see a larger version of the shot

Diablada

It may seem strange that a Catholic celebration has a dance devoted to the devil, but bear with us. As we’ve said, Oruro is a mining town and indigenous miners created a protective figure in their underworld called El Tio (The Uncle). In an effort to debunk the pagan figure, Catholic priests told the miners that El Tio was the devil, but El Tio remains important to this day. The Diablada Carnival tradition was created as a way of placating the El Tio “devil” with a dance of his own so that the protector of miners wouldn’t become jealous of all of the Carnival dances devoted to angels and Virgins. But have no fear. Saint Michael is also part of the Diablada tradition and he always prevails. Diablada costumes of all sorts are some of the most elaborate and expensive.

Diablada Carnaval de Oruro

See the Diablada dancers in action in our video of Diablada Artistica Urus and Diablada Ferroviaria

Click any image in the gallery above to see a larger version of the shot

Tinku

The Tinku dance is inspired by a type of play fighting done by enslaved indigenous people who were forced to work for the Spanish during colonial times. The play fighting was a way for them to secretly keep combat skills alive. Multi-day, often violent fighting encounters called tinkus are still held between Aymara communities in Bolivia as a way of settling disputes. Tinku dances during Carnival mimic fighting moves but don’t involve any real violence. The tinku tradition is also an Aymara way to honor Pachamama (Mother Nature). Fun fact: this is, by far, Eric’s favorite Carnival dance.

See the Tinku dancers in action in our video

Click any image in the gallery above to see a larger version of the shot

Tobas

It took a lot to impress the Incans, but the Tobas people of Bolivia did it. It is said that when the Inca ventured into the Chaco region of Bolivia they encountered and conquered the Tobas people. But the Inca preserved their favorite parts of the Tobas culture including the music, costumes, and choreography presented in the Tobas dance during Carnival.

See the Tobas dancers in action in our video

Click any image in the gallery above to see a larger version of the shot

Kullawada

The Kullawada dance honors traditions from the Lake Titikaka area of Bolivia including nods to the area’s famous textiles. Costume accessories include the alpacas and sheep that provide the fibers for weaving and the spinning wheels used to turn fibers into yarn.

See the Kullawada dancers in action in our video

Click any image in the gallery above to see a larger version of the shot

Suri Sikuri

The Suri Sikuri dance is a Pre-columbian Andean tradition. The name comes from an ostrich-like bird. Feathered headdresses worn during Carnival can be 6.5 feet (2 meters) wide.

See the Suri Sikuri dancers in action in our video

Click any image in the gallery above to see a larger version of the shot

Waka waka

Female Waka waka dancers wear layers and layers of brightly-colored skirts, but that’s not the most notable costume in the Waka waka dance. Other dancers wear the head and neck of a taxidermied bulls. In 2012, the Bolivian government named the Waka waka dance part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Bolivia.

See the Waka waka dancers in action in our video

Click any image in the gallery above to see a larger version of the shot

Zampoñeros

A zampoña is a traditional wind instrument that’s also known as an Andean pan pipe or pan flute. Many participants in the Zampoñero Bolivian dance tradition, which debuted at the Oruro Carnival in 1955, play the instrument as they dance. That is not an easy task at 12,254 feet (3,735 meters).

See the Zampoñeros dancers in action in our video

Click any image in the gallery above to see a larger version of the shot

Intillaqta

Though it’s one of the major traditional Bolivian dances represented at Carnival in Oruro, we were not able to find much information about the background of the Intillaqta dance. If you know more, share your knowledge in the comments section, below.

See the Intillaqta dancers in action in our video

Click any image in the gallery above to see a larger version of the shot

Pukllay

The word pukllay means to play in the Quechua language. The playful pukllay dance is a tradition of the Yampara people and it celebrates the harvest and the community’s victory over the Spanish. Dancers wear domed hats and huge spurs in a mockery of Spanish colonial dress. In 2014, the pukllay dance was added to UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

See the Pukllay dancers in action in our video

Click any image in the gallery above to see a larger version of the shot

Other dances

Many other traditional Bolivian dances are part of Carnival in Oruro including Wititi, Los Incas, Negritos, Doctorcitos (all pictured below), as well as Antawara, Llamerada, Kantus, Putulu, and more.

Click any image in the gallery above to see a larger version of the shot

Travel tips for seeing Carnival in Oruro, Bolivia

Thousands of Bolivians and foreign travelers flock to Oruro to see the city’s famous Carnival celebrations on the Saturday, Sunday, and Monday before Shrove Tuesday (also known as Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday). You can arrive on your own or you can book a tour from La Paz including transportation, a guide, and reserved seating during Carnival processions from around US$150 and up to much, much, much more than that. Those bare bones US$150 packages do not include a hotel room in Oruro and those can be hard to find and crazy expensive during Carnival when the city fills up and even hotels that normally charge US$30 per night jack their rates up to hundreds of dollars per night.

In Oruro, the whole Carnival procession route is lined with bleacher seats and benches. Prices for these sitting areas range from US$15 to several hundred dollars per seat depending on the location of the seating and services included (some areas include bathrooms, food, and drinks). If you have not booked a tour, the best time to find and pay for a Carnival seat is Friday night when the entire parade route becomes a big drinking party. That’s the time to walk the route, enjoy the party, and shop around for available seats that fit your budget. If you arrive on Saturday you will not have access to the procession route before buying your seat so you will have no way of knowing exactly where the seat is located before you commit.

Condor Bolivia Carnaval de Oruro

This condor costume, worn during Carnival in Oruro, is made from actual condor wings and feathers.

We traveled to Carnival in Oruro on our own with no hotel reservation and no seats reserved. We took a bus from La Paz on Friday afternoon hoping to miraculously find an affordable room or a homestay in Oruro. If we weren’t able to find any accommodation we figured we’d just stay up all night and return to La Paz late on Saturday. Luckily, we got our miracle. The young Bolivian man sitting next to us on the bus offered us a bed in his family’s house in Oruro.

Oruro Carnival end

A Carnival band heads out, until next year’s celebration in Oruro.

Not only was the room with Saul’s family a total score, but it also gave us a totally different insight into the Carnival experience because Saul and his sister were both part of dance fraternities and we got to hang out with his family to learn even more about the Oruro Carnival tradition. Thank you to Saul and his amazing family for their generosity and information.

Here’s more about travel in Bolivia