Huddled on the bleak Altiplano some 230km south of La Paz, ORURO was Bolivia’s economic powerhouse for much of the twentieth century, centre of the country’s richest tin-mining region. Mines established in the nearby mountains in the late nineteenth century turned Oruro into a thriving industrial city. After the fall of world tin prices in 1985, however, Oruro’s fortunes plummeted, and though it’s still the biggest city in the Altiplano after La Paz and El Alto, years of economic decline have turned it into a shadow of its former self.
Situated 3709m above sea level and swept by bitter Altiplano winds, Oruro is a cold and rather sombre place. This dour demeanour is deceptive, however, as every year Oruro explodes into life when it celebrates its Carnaval. At other times, however, there’s little reason to stop here, though given its importance as a transport hub you’re almost certain to pass through at some stage.
Although a few buildings dating from Oruro’s heyday still survive, the city is dominated by the unappealing, functional architecture you’d expect to find in a mining town at the wrong end of half a century of decline. Architecture aside, the Museo Antropológico Eduardo López Rivas is one of Bolivia’s better provincial museums. The Santuario del Socavón, focus of the Carnaval, which sits on top of an abandoned mineshaft now occupied by the Museo Etnográfico Minero, is also worth checking out.
Originally named the Villa Imperial de Don Felipe de Austria in honour of the reigning Spanish king, Felipe III, Oruro was founded on November 1, 1606, a decade after the discovery of rich silver deposits in the nearby Cerro Pie de Gallo. Though its mines never rivalled Potosí’s, Oruro grew quickly, and by the 1670s was the second biggest city in Alto Peru, with a population of about eighty thousand.
It was the biggest Spanish city to be captured during the Great Rebellion of 1780–81, when the city’s mestizos and criollos joined the indigenous uprising led by Tupac Amaru, massacring the Spanish-born population. This multi-class alliance did not last long: the rebel army raised from the ayllus of the surrounding Altiplano soon turned on the criollo instigators of the uprising, looting and burning their houses and killing their leader, Sebastián Pagador, before meeting the same fate themselves at the hands of the royalist army when it eventually retook the city.
Oruro changed hands several times during the Independence War (1809–24), and its economy was severely disrupted. The city gradually recovered as silver production grew again, aided by foreign capital, improved industrial technology and the completion of a railway linking Oruro with the Pacific coast in 1892. The railway meant Oruro was perfectly placed to exploit the growing world demand for tin, which was found in great abundance in the surrounding mountains.
The three Bolivian mining entrepreneurs who controlled most of the mines of Oruro – Aramayo, Hochschild and Patiño – soon came to dominate the national political scene, but their treatment of the miners sowed the seeds of their downfall. The radical FSTMB mineworkers’ union that emerged from Oruro’s mining camps played a key role in the 1952 revolution that led to the nationalization of the mines. However, when the price of tin crashed in 1985, the mining industry collapsed; with it went the power of the miners’ union and Oruro’s economic fortunes. Most of the mines were closed and thousands lost their jobs; although some (gold and tin) mines have opened since, Oruro has never really recovered.Read More
The King of Tin: Simón Patiño
The King of Tin: Simón Patiño
Few individuals played a greater role in shaping modern Bolivia than tin baron Simón Patiño, who rose from humble mestizo origins to become one of the world’s richest men, popularly known as the “Rockefeller of the Andes” and the “King of Tin”. Born in 1860 to a poor family in the Cochabamba valley, Patiño moved to Oruro in 1894 to work in a mining supply store. A year later he bought his first share in the nearby La Salvadora mine, and in 1897 bought out his partner to control what turned out to be one of the biggest deposits of high-grade tin in the world. Legend has it that at first he and his wife Albina dug out the precious ore with their own hands, carried it downhill in wheelbarrows and then across country by llama train. But in 1900 Patiño struck one of the richest veins of ore ever found in Bolivia, which was to make his fortune.
By 1905, La Salvadora was the country’s most productive mine, operated by foreign technicians with high-tech equipment. Patiño used the wealth it generated to buy up the surrounding mines and link them to the main railway line to the coast. Within fifteen years he controlled about half of Bolivia’s tin output, was the country’s most important private banker, and enjoyed an income far greater than the government, which he effectively controlled. This wealth came at the expense of the thousands of miners he employed. However, these miners suffered low pay, appalling working conditions and severe oppression.
Patiño also expanded his empire internationally, buying up mining interests and foundries in Asia, Africa, Germany, the USA and Britain. This corporation controlled the entire production process for about a quarter of the world’s tin and played an important role in setting international prices. Rumoured to have Nazi sympathies, he was said to have helped finance Franco’s victory in the Spanish Civil War. By the early 1920s his fortune was estimated at $100 million, making him one of the five richest men in the world. Despite this, Patiño never really overcame the prejudices of Bolivia’s white elite, and from 1924 onwards lived permanently abroad. In 1925 he moved his corporate base to the USA, but spent most of his time in London, Paris and the French Riviera. He died in Buenos Aires in 1947 and thus never lived to see the nationalization of his Bolivian mine holdings.
Dancing with the Devil: the Oruro Carnaval
Dancing with the Devil: the Oruro Carnaval
A moveable feast celebrated in late February or early March, the Oruro Carnaval is Bolivia’s most spectacular fiesta. During the week-long party thousands of costumed dancers parade through Oruro in a vibrant and bizarre celebration of the sacred and profane that combines Christian beliefs with Andean folklore – as well as heavy drinking and chaotic water-fighting.
On the first Sunday of November the Santuario del Socavón church hosts a special Mass, and rehearsals are then held every subsequent Sunday until Carnaval itself. The Carnaval’s main event is the Entrada on the Saturday before Ash Wednesday, a massive procession of costumed dancers accompanied by brass bands. The parade is led by floats festooned with offerings for the Virgen del Socavón, in whose honour the Carnaval is held. Behind them comes the Carnaval’s central feature, the Diablada (Dance of the Devils), led by two dancers representing Lucifer and St Michael, followed by hundreds of devil dan`cers, and massed brass bands.
On one hand, the Diablada is a morality play in which the Archangel Michael triumphs over the Devil of Christian belief. But the dance is also a celebration of the devil as an incarnation of Huari, the pre-Columbian god of the underworld – closely related to El Tío ––who owns the mineral wealth of the mines and is a jealous patron of the miners dancing in his honour.
Behind the Diablada follows a bewildering variety of other costumed dance troupes, each with its own folk history and mythology. The procession continues well into Sunday morning, and dancing and drinking takes place for much of the following week. On Ash Wednesday, townsfolk visit a series of rocks on the outskirts of Oruro to make offerings to what are claimed to be the petrified remains of the fearsome beasts defeated by the Virgin to save the town. Finally, on Thursday, the troupes conduct their despedida fiestas, saying their farewells until the following year.