Boasting UNESCO recognition as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage, Oruro’s crazy carnival is among the most colorful and vibrant in the world. The boisterous celebration can be a little chaotic at times, so there are a number of things tourists should know before heading to the event.
Dazzling costumes characterize Oruro’s carnival, thanks to a baffling array of folkloric fraternities who are all too eager to strut their stuff. Check out our article on Bolivian music and dance to get your head around some of the distinct genres on display.
The miners of Oruro worship an underworld deity called El Tio (“the Uncle”), a devil-like creature who provides protection in exchange for cigarettes and booze. Every year during carnival, El Tio makes his way to the surface in the form of a diabolic dance known as Diablada. Worry not, though, he’s eventually chased back underground by a sorority of angels in miniskirts.
As you might expect, the best way to experience carnival is by purchasing a ticket at one of the graderias (grandstands). Ideally, aim for a seat near Plaza 10 de Febrero, which is the focal point of the parade, where dancers whip themselves into a frenzy as they bust out their best moves.
Expect to pay upwards of US$300 for a seat in the central plaza, a princely sum most Bolivians simply cannot afford. Thankfully, seats in the less exuberant sections can be bought for as little as US$7. Just be aware that you get what you pay for.
Backpackers on a tight budget might opt to forgo a seat and celebrate on the move instead. Although most sections are cordoned off from passersby, some parts of Calle Bolivar are open to revelers who wish to walk up and down at will. Be sure to keep moving, though, so as not to block the view of ticket-paying patrons.
The unquestionably untouristic city of Oruro is not well equipped to welcome the hordes of visitors who arrive each year, meaning the few hotels that exist tend to book out well in advance. Still, with a little legwork (or a lot of money), it is possible to find somewhere to sleep at the last minute.
Skilled pickpockets ply the crowds looking for prey, often targeting naive tourists whose valuables are easy pickings. Keep all your goodies safely stashed away in a money belt or inside pocket to avoid becoming a victim.
Plenty of locals rent out their apartments for the event, which can be a great option for independent travelers looking for a cheaper place to stay. Of course, some degree of Spanish is necessary to negotiate, and it’s important to be wary of potential scams.
Plenty of partygoers, both gringos and Bolivians, visit Oruro on a day trip from La Paz. Admittedly, the eight-hour return journey is rather taxing, but it’s an excellent option for those who don’t wish to bother with the hassle or expense of finding somewhere to sleep.
A longstanding carnival tradition is to spray disposable aerosol cans of pungent white foam into the face of fellow revelers, with foreigners attracting particular attention from the inebriated masses. Sadly, the stuff stings like hell, so consider wearing protective goggles and avoiding foam fights wherever possible.