Carnaval begins on different dates each year, but that's because it is timed to end on Fat Tuesday, known as Mardi Gras (Martes Gordo in Spanish). 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 show repentance for their sins. During this time they do not eat any 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. Fridays they usually eat fish.
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 believe that the use of masks during Carnaval comes from these pagan festivities. These celebrations 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 with members of the Senate presiding 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 means Fat Tuesday in French and refers to the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. Traditionally, as Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, and people won't be able to eat meat for another 40 days, they spend the Mardi Gras holiday eating a lot of meat and by the last day (Tuesday) were very very full, thus the name.
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.
Carnival Traditions of Western (Andean) Bolivia
The best known Carnaval celebration in Bolivia is the Carnaval de Oruro, which takes place in the cit of Oruro, in the Andes Mountains region near La Paz. 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.
The 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 Archangel Michael defeats the Devil and the Seven Cardinal Sins (also known as the 7 deadly sins): pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth. The costumes depict each of these sins and the dancing depicts the Archangel Michael fighting them and ultimately defeating them, ending with his defeat of Lucifer himself. It is a representation of the constant battle between good and evil.
This YouTube video, posted by a music group from the city of Cochabamba, depicts the Archangel Michael fighting against the devil and the seven deadly sins:
Other costumes and dances depict the Spanish conquest of 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.
In Oruro Carnival lasts for several days, beginning the weekend before the first show day (called La Entrada) during which time dancers practice. Dancers train for months in advance to dance the whole day, up to 8 hours a day for 8 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, their families, their homes and their workplaces for the rest of the year.
The Carnaval of Oruro is the largest in Bolivia. Oruro is a mining city and dancers dance to repent of their sins and to thank the Virgin Mary of Socavón, as they believe she watches over the mines and keeps them safe. The carnival parade begins with a procession in which the statue of the Virgin Mary is removed from the church and paraded through the streets.
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).
This video belongs to another music group, from La Paz, and in it you can see many of the beautiful and horrifying costumes we've described:
Dancers form troupes (dance groups) called "comparsas", each of which represents one of the creatures or historical figures depicted in the parade. Each comparsa is followed by a marching band. Each creature depicted in the parade dances to its own type of music. On our page about all the different types of Bolivian music you'll find an explanation of each dance, the music that accompanies it, and its meaning. Typical dances are La Diablada (the Devil Dance), the Caporales or Saya, the Morenada, the kullawada, the llamerada, and many others.
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 so many hours each day. Therefore, at the end of each day the streets are filled with many heavily doused dancers. In February 2019, Oruro passed a "Dry Law" prohibiting alcohol during Carnival.
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, that many private homes also rent out rooms because there are not enough hotels. Check for these on Airbnb.com
Carnaval in most other cities of Western and Central Bolivia is typically similar to the Carnaval of Oruro, with costumes varying according to the local history of each town, but none is as large or colorful as the Oruro Carnaval, which has become world famous and now rivals the Brazilian Carnaval.
The Ch'alla on the 3rd Day of Carnaval
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 talismans 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 throughout 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, sulfur, candies (specific pink and white candies called "confítes"), 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 they 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 god-like qualities (the sun, the moon, certain mountains, certain animals are all gods in their culture) and human-like qualities such as feelings, hunger, and thirst. Therefore, their houses and businesses must be hungry and thirsty. In this video you can hear a woman (speaking Aymara) who says, "How can we eat and drink and not give some to the Pachamama?"
People decorate their houses, market stalls, shops, businesses, and cars with streamers, chocolates, candies and trinkets as offerings. Wine and alcohol are poured onto the ground for her. 36 different specific talismans and herbs are burned, along with a dried llama fetus, which is first covered in tin foil. These are called the 36 mysteries. The ch'alla is always performed clockwise. Once the offering has burned completely, it is buried under the home or under the plants surrounding the home, to act as fertilizer, which in turn, keeps the good luck around the home year round.
For example, when we benefit from the Pachamama (Mother Earth) or take something from her, we must give something back. So when a house is built, the ch'alla must be performed on the house. Customarily, a pregnant llama is killed and her fetus is buried under the cornerstone of the house. The owners and their friends and family then spend a full day doing the ch'alla, eating and drinking together and celebrating.
If they do the ch'alla after the building has been erected, then 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. They will not occupy or move into the house or building until it has been blessed in this way.
For this same reason, the ch'alla is performed on the 3rd day of Carnaval with sacrifices, burnt offerings, spells, talismans, and lots of eating and drinking. The dancing itself is considered a form of penitence for sin. It isn't easy to dance for hours and hours a day.
Carnival Traditions of Eastern (Tropical) Bolivia
In Eastern Bolivia Carnaval is completely different! Here Carnaval is similar to what you would see in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 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.
In Santa Cruz, 3 Carnaval Queens are chosen each year: the "Reina de Antaño", who represents the older generations, the Reina del Carnaval, who is typically a young woman in her late teens or early twenties, and the Reina del Carnavalito, a little girl who reigns for the children's section. The queens are chosen months in advance. Each comparsa chooses a girl or woman to represent them and the queens are ultimately chosen by a vote. The queens will lead the Carnaval parade, atop a parade float. Their comparsas dancing alongside, in front and behind them. In addition, dozens of other queens are elected to represent various regions, towns, industries, and more (for example, the corn queen, Jesuit Missions queen, milk queen, sugar cane queen, Amazon nature queen, and many more, all of whom dance in the parade with their comparsas and floats).
Preparations begin with the creation of the queen's costumes and each comparsa will build a huge, colorful parade float, usually atop a truck bed and decorated with plaster sculptures, ribbons, lights, and thousands of live flowers. Marching bands are hired by each comparsa to accompany them through the streets. Several smaller pre-Carnaval "practice parades" (called precas) take place in the weeks leading up to Carnaval. Often these take place without costumes so that the public won't see the final results until Carnaval Day. During these weeks prior to Carnaval the queens work hard at interviews with local media to get people excited for the upcoming event.
In this 2015 video you can see how elaborate, colorful and tropical the costumes are. Each comparsa has their own colors and uniforms. People of all ages belong to a comparsa, usually for the rest of their lives once they've been accepted into one. The floats (called "alegorías) are huge! Keep an eye out for actor Jude Law, who was present at this year's carnival.
Carnaval parade celebrations begin on the Saturday night prior to Mártes Gordo (Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras) complete with enormous colorful and feathery costumes that reflect local traditions and the queens on their 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 in bleachers set up along the carnaval route, which is several miles long.
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). Again, you can learn about these types of music and dances by clicking over to our page on Bolivian music, where you'll also see some videos.
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!) Friends and families gather to watch the parades, play on the streets (most of which are closed to traffic) and eat.
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.
During Carnaval, thousands will fill the streets in every city and town of Bolivia. Water fights are customary. People fill balloons with water and throw them at each other. Throughout the past few decades this has escalated to include paint, ink, beer, colored talcum powder and spray foam. Streamers and confetti are also common.
Needless to say, by the last day the cities and towns are completely filthy. For several 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.
The Government of Santa Cruz and the 2019 Queen of the Carnival created this spot asking the public to have fun, but to be safe and respectful of everyone:
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 specific areas or parks in the future. Carnaval groups can be fined up to 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 done 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. No one is spared! You WILL get wet, foamy and inky. No doubt about it!
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 also wear "casacas" which are long thin cotton robes and bandanas or matching hats to protect their clothing. Each "comparsa" (people belong to different groups that dance together) has it's own colors and robe. In Santa Cruz, you can rent a casaca from one of the many local carnaval costume shops that pop up a few weeks before Carnival begins.
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. You can't beat 'em so... why not join 'em!