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.