Carnaval begins on different dates each year, but that's because it is timed to end on Fat Tuesday (known as Mardi Gras and in Spanish as Martes Gordo). This is exactly 40 days prior to Easter
, on the day Lent begins, which in English is called Ash Wednesday. Lent is when Roman Catholics (over 90% of Bolivian profess to be Catholic) begin a 40-day period in which they do not eat red meat. And this is precisely where the name CARNAVAL comes from. In Spanish (which comes from Latin) the word "meat" is "carne". In Latin "carne levare" means to "take away the meat". In Bolivia, the 40-day meatless tradition is not observed. Catholics here only fast from meat on Fridays during the one-month Lenten season.
The History of Carnaval and Mardi Gras
This holiday dates back to times before the Roman Empire, and is believed to have begun with similar Greek festivals to the gods and two Egyptian festivals to celebrate Apis and Isis! Many also believe that the use of masks during Carnaval comes from these pagan festivities. These celebrations all but died out with the fall of the Roman and Byzantine empires but were revived during the Middle Ages, in Europe.
During medieval times, Carnaval was not recognized by the authorities but was celebrated by the people and it was in Venice during the Renaissance period that it became very popular and splendidly colorful and members of the Senate actually presided over the festivities and dancing. At the beginning of the 18th Century the Paris Opera made these dances with masks very popular.
Today Carnaval is most famous in Rio de Janeiro - Brazil, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, and New Orleans - Louisiana (where it is called Mardi Gras). Mardi Gras (French) means Fat Tuesday in reference to the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. Traditionally, as Lent begins the next day and people won't be able to eat meat for another 40 days people spent the Mardi Gras holiday eating a lot of meat and by the last day (Tuesday) were very very full!!! In Spanish we call Fat Tuesday "Mártes Gordo".
How Carnaval is Celebrated in Bolivia
Carnaval is celebrated in many countries around the world and in Bolivia too. But Carnaval traditions have been adapted and changed to suit local customs. That's why even within Bolivia it is celebrated in many different ways in different regions.
Western (Andean) Bolivia
The best known Carnaval celebration in Bolivia is the Carnaval de Oruro. Here this European festival is now distinctly indigenous and attracts thousands and thousands of tourists from all over the world. Artisans begin making costumes (which cost hundreds of dollars each) months in advance. Carnaval in Oruro is like a big parade, only everyone is dancing. In each section of the parade (called the Entrada) people wear different costumes and each costume has a specific meaning and tells a story. So lush, colorful and HISTORICAL is this Carnaval that it was named a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2001 because it has preserved the cultural traditions of Bolivia's Andean region for nearly 500 years.
In Oruro, the Carnaval tells the story of how the Spaniards conquered the Aymara and Quechua populations of the Andes. Some dancers wear costumes that represent the robes worn by Spanish Catholic priests who attempted to convert the indigenous peoples to Catholicism. Other costumes represent the Spanish conquerors themselves, complete with 16th century Spanish helments, swords and even horses (unknown in the Americas until European explorers brought them over on ships). Others represent slaves that were brought over from Africa to work in mining, and so on.
But the most colorful and elaborate costumes are the DIABLOS (devils). Their dance is called La Diablada. People believe that by wearing scary-looking devil costumes they will scare away any evil spirits. In Oruro Carnival lasts for several days, beginning the weekend before the main show day (called La Entrada) during which time dancers practice. Dancers train months in advance to dance the whole day for eight days straight. They've mixed their indigenous beliefs with the Catholic beliefs they were taught by the Spaniards and believe that by making this exhausting physical sacrifice to the devil, he will keep evil spirits and bad luck away from them for the rest of the year.
Each section of the parade (each type of costume) also dances to a different type of Andean music. Each piece of music also helps to tell the story. Costumes are made from bright colored cloth, velvet, jewels, precious and semi-precious stones, tiny mirrors, plaster masks, fringe and many other elements like flamingo wings and other bird feathers and animal parts like hoofs (which are worn around the ankles in chains to make jangling sounds) or leather. Most costumes are extremely heavy (weighing up to 80 pounds each).
The best day to enjoy the Carnaval of Oruro is the first day. Unfortunately, the traditional accompaniment to Carnaval is vast amounts of alcohol which dancers believe will help them have the energy and stamina to dance for os long so after the first day, the streets are filled with many heavily doused dancers. To attend Carnaval in Oruro as a tourist, you typically have to reserve a hotel room months in advance. This small city gets so filled up, many private homes also rent out rooms because there are not enough hotels.
Carnaval in most of Western Bolivia is typically similar to the Carnaval of Oruro with costumes varying according to the history of the region.
Typical dances are La Diablada (the Devil Dance), the Caporales or Saya, the Morenada, the kullawada, the llamerada, and many others.
Recently Chile has begun to celebrate Carnaval in a similar way to Oruro and some Chileans have stated that the Carnaval of Oruro is originally from Chile. This is incorrect. The costumes and dances used in Oruro's world famous Carnaval are typical to Bolivia and historically Bolivian.
Another interesting fact? In the 1980's the saya (a native Bolivian dance that is also part of the Carnaval of Oruro) was copied by a Brazilian singer called Kaoma. She gave it a little Brazilian twist and it became known around the world as the famous LAMBADA. However, she was later sued by the Bolivian group that owns the song and had to retract. Other than translate them to Portuguese, she hadn't even bothered to change the words.
The "ch'alla" is a Western Bolivian (Aymara) tradition. On the third day of Carnaval (Fat Tuesday) families and business owners burn a little package of talismas for luck and prosperity. The word ch'alla (literally) means sand or cement.
It is considered a small sacrifice to Mother Earth to thank her for what she has provided througout the year for their homes or businesses, and to ask to ensure the coming year will be plentiful.
Generally people make a little packet of llama dung, incense, sulphur, candies, peas, lentils, rice, and other cereals painted gold and silver or include little pieces of gold and silver paper. They also pour alcohol or wine on the ground at the same time. They then burn this package of mixed goods and then usually either begin drinking heavily, or they share a family meal which traditionally, but not always, includes potatoes, chuños (dehydrated potatoes), mote (hominy), and charque (jerky: usually llama meat).
The Aymara are traditionally animists. They believe even material or physical things have human qualities like feelings, hunger, and thirst. Therefore, their houses and businesses must be hungry and thirsty.
The ch'alla also is done any time they build a new home or building. Usually they will bury a llama fetus under the cornerstone and then spend a full day doing the ch'alla. At other times they do the ch'alla after the building has been erected, but prior to occupying it. But they mix this with the Catholic religion as well: frequently the ch'alla is accompanied by a visit from their local Catholic priest who walks through each room of the new building praying and splashing holy water on the walls, ceilings and floors.
Eastern (Tropical) Bolivia
In Eastern Bolivia Carnaval is completely different! Here Carnaval is similar to what you would see in Rio de Janeiro, although by no means anywhere as large. The best known Carnaval celebration in Eastern Bolivia is the Carnaval of Santa Cruz. Again, groups of dancers are formed called "comparsas" and they practice for months in advance. The music here is not Andean at all. Traditional dances in Santa Cruz, for example, include the viborita and taquirari, which are typical to this region where most indigenous people are of Chiquitano, Ayoreo, or Guaraní origin (tropical Amazonic tribes).
In Santa Cruz a Carnaval Queen is chosen each year - three queens actually: the "Reina de Antaño" represents the older generations, the Reina del Carnaval is typically a young woman in her early late teens or early twenties, and the Reina del Carnavalito is a little girl who reigns for the children's section.
Carnaval celebrations begin on the Saturday prior to Martes Gordo (Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras) with a huge parade complete with enormous colorful and feathery costumes that reflect local traditions and huge parade floats. Comparsas follow the queen's parade float down main avenues, each wearing their own colors and dancing to their own music. Thousands and thousands of people fill the streets to watch this parade on Saturday night which is called the "corso". But I should mention, several weeks prior to this there are a series of small "practice" carnaval parades called "pre-carnavaleras" (pre-carnaval parades) which typically are known in this region simply as "precas".
During the next three days of Carnaval throughout Bolivia millions fill the streets in every city and town. Water fights are traditional. People fill balloons with water and throw them at each other. Throughout the past few decades this has escalated to include paint, ink, beer, and other disgusting things which shall remain nameless. People also throw colored powder and spray foam at each other (the type of foam that comes in a spray can like what you spray on windows when you want it to look like snow). Streamers and confetti are also common.
Needless to say, by the last day the cities and towns are completely filthy. For four straight days the cities and towns are filled with parties, barbecues, water fights, beer festivals and a LOT of loud music and dancing. Bolivians love their carnaval, which is seen as a time to completely let loose and forget about their worries and cares, if only for a few days.
Unfortunately, despite ordinances that are in place to prevent the defacing of public and private buildings and homes, each year after Carnaval the city center is absolutely filthy. Not a wall has been spared from ink or paint. It's very unfortunate and may lead to Carnaval being confined to a specific area or park in the future. Carnaval groups this year are being fined Bs. 2000 each (about $250) for clean-up. Many homes and businesses have taken to completely covering their facades with plastic, tin sheets, or plywood - anything to avoid as much damage as possible. You'll see a lot of very muddy cars and buses. This is on purpose. Drivers cover their cars in mud so that if they get sprayed with paint or ink it will wash off with the mud and not stick to the vehicle's paint.
The entire country shuts down on the Friday before Carnaval begins. Some public institutions and private companies only work for a half day on Friday because many people prefer to avoid Carnaval and travel out to rural areas and smaller towns. Most businesses, banks and stores shut down but grocery stores remain open. It is advisable to wear clothing you won't mind having to throw away on these days because partiers have no mercy on anyone. Expect to get wet if you go outside - throwing water or spraying foam at cars and buses is also common, even though it's dangerous. No one is spared! You WILL get wet, foamy and inky. No doubt about it!
In Santa Cruz drinking beer and caipirinhas (a traditional alcoholic drink adapted from Brazil which contains ice, lemons, sugar and alcohol) is common. But what cannot be missed is the Carnaval "parrillada" (barbecue). Everyone enjoys a good barbecue and the city fills with the smell of grilled meat. Parrilladas usually include fried or boiled yucca, grilled potatoes and vegetables, saladas and sides of rice (in Santa Cruz this is typically "arroz con queso" or rice boiled with melty cheese - delicious!
What You'll Need to Celebrate Carnaval
Many people organize small carnaval get togethers in their homes or other places so they can avoid the city center which fills with tens of thousands of revelers. But as you'll see from the photos, Carnaval is considered a family event and every age group is fully and happily represented. Children usually participate the first day or two, but after the first day many parents prefer to keep them home. The first day is actually quite fun. After than, the drinking becomes a problem. Not for kids. It turns into something very similar to Mardi Gras in New Orleans after the first day.
To celebrate Carnaval in Santa Cruz you'll need a few essential items (pictured above): goggles or sunglasses to protect your eyes, a bandana (to keep the paint out of our hair), spray foam, a water gun, and lots and lots of balloons!
Cruceños traditionally wear "casacas" which are these long thin cotton robes and bandanas or matching hats to protect their clothing. As you can see from the slideshow, everyone gets full of paint and foam. Each "comparsa" (people belong to different groups that dance together) has it's own colors and robe.
No matter where you are in Bolivia during Carnaval, expect to encounter excesses of everything. With a 40-day Lent season beginning on Ash Wednesday, Bolivians eat and drink, dance and party until they can't possibly any more! It is wise to be cautious and not carry any valuables or travel documents on your person as they may get wet, destroyed or stolen. While you are in largely crowded areas, guard your belongings carefully. If you plan to take pictures, be careful to not let your camera get wet.
Carnaval is here to stay. It is completely ingrained in Bolivian society, no matter how or where it's celebrated.