Carnaval celebrations in Oruro

Feb 107Carnaval is celebrated throughout Latin America, the most renowned being Rio de Janeiro`s Mardi Gras.  In Bolivia, Carnaval is a lavish affair with the biggest festivities taking place in Oruro, a sleepy mining town that bursts into life every February to host thousands of dancers and spectators.

On the Friday preceding Carnaval, a ch`alla (blessing) is offered to Pachamama (Mother Earth) in the workplace to bring about good luck.  At FONCRESOL, this involved draping colourful streamers around the office and showering the floors with alcohol and confetti.  Similar ch`allas take place in homes on Shrove Tuesday, when the celebrations come to a close.

Upon many recommendations, I headed to Oruro with a friend for the renowned Saturday entrada, a day-long procession of indigenous dances in elaborate costumes.  I left La Paz at dawn, joining the masses of Carnaval-bound paceños and tourists.  The 4am bus was packed and the bus station overflowing.  Arriving bleary-eyed at 8am, the dancing in Oruro was already in full swing.  We picked our way through the crowds, dodging drunken revellers stumbling about, presumably still going strong from the previous night.  The streets were lined with rafters, sectioned off with seats for sale, and after negotiating a price we settled in for the day.

Each folk dance, with its own distinct music and costume, represents a specific aspect of Bolivia`s history.  Dances include La Diablada (Dance of the Devils), Morenadas, Llameradas, Caporales and Tinkus.  Every costume tells a story, with the predominant theme being good triumphing over evil.  Somewhat disturbing was the black body paint and chains used in dances depicting the tribulations of African slaves, whom the Spaniards brought over to work in the silver mines.  I honestly could not tell whether one of the dancers dressed up as a slave was a tremendous actor or genuinely lurching about looking distressed because he was heavily inebriated.  Either way, it struck me as one of the more disconcerting dances.

The costumes are incredibly ornate, adorned with jewels, feathers, mirrors, bells and spurs.  Some weigh up to 80 lbs, which makes the energetic jumping that some of the dances entail even more impressive.  The Diablada costumes are particularly elaborate, their devil masks works of art with curved horns and bulging eyes.  Live bands accompany the thousands of dancers, many exuberantly dancing as well as marching, crashing cymbals as they leap.

Rain ponchos are worn by most onlookers, since water balloons and spray cans of foam feature heavily in the festivities.  People hurl water bombs across the processions into the facing crowds and douse each other with foam, tourists being the main target for both (my sneaky attempt to blend in with the locals worked remarkably well).  Although the celebrations continue for several days in Oruro, it is generally understood that the first day of Carnaval is the best, since the event descends into increasing rowdiness and mayhem.  Dancers and onlookers consume huge quantities of beer and chicha (a very potent drink made from fermented corn), the dancing deteriorates with the debauchery and it is not uncommon to find people sleeping in doorways or the middle of the street.

After a full day of spectating, I set off on another bumpy bus ride back to La Paz.  Having had my fill of Carnaval, I chose to forgo the remaining festivities in order to explore Chile during my days off.

Energetic musicians

Energetic musicians

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A condor, Bolivia`s national bird

A condor, Bolivia`s national bird

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Before I sign off, a special shout out to my dad on his 60th birthday –

As requested, here is a photo of me in a typical Aymará bowler hat.  Petro, the housekeeper, took great pleasure in dressing me up in her cholita attire, though she lamented my hair was not in the traditional two plaits (maybe next time).

Happy 60th Birthday dad! This should make you laugh... x

Happy 60th Birthday, dad!     This should make you laugh… x


Potions, lotions and lucky llama foetuses at La Paz`s Witches` Market

Witches` market

Lucky llama foetus, anyone?

Last Saturday I took a stroll around La Paz`s Mercado de las Brujas (Witches` Market), marvelling at the unusual array of items on offer.  Nestled at the end of a narrow, cobbled street where tourist shops stock colourful alpaca hats, woollen jumpers and hand-woven bags, a cluster of small shops overflow with ingredients for Aymará rituals and witchcraft.  A pungent, unfamiliar smell greeted me upon entering, a musty mix of animal corpses and herbal remedies.

Here you can find potions, perfumes, incense, candles and powders for a whole host of afflictions and conditions.  Whether you`re battling to quit smoking, suffering from anxiety, in need of financial luck, looking for an aphrodisiac, seeking marital bliss or perhaps beyond that point and hoping to expedite separation…rest assured, a remedy awaits!  I even noticed a `love, sex and money` perfume, for those who prefer an Aymará all-in-one approach.

Most intriguing of all are the dried llama foetuses, reminiscent of the kind of extraterrestial creature about to burst forth from Sigourney Weaver`s stomach in the opening sequence of Aliens.  These poor critters sucuumbed to natural deaths in the womb and are traditionally buried under the foundations of new houses to bring about good luck and prosperity, as sacrificial offerings to the much venerated Pachamama (Mother Earth).  Baby llama corpses are also on display, strung up unceremoniously on hooks in every spare inch of ceiling space.  These perished at birth from the cold or other natural causes.

Brimming bowls of clay amuletos and talismans promote amongst others: health, love, intelligence, protection, happiness, wealth and longevity.  Pachamama charms and statues are available in all shapes and sizes.

7 year old Yessica, whose aunt owned the shop I ventured into, was a well-informed host, helpfully bringing me items and enthusiastically pointing out photo opportunities.  I took a shine to her after she asked my age and expressed disbelief upon hearing 32, announcing I looked jovencita and no more than 15.  (Exemplary customer service skills, I concluded.)

I bought a fridge magnet as a gesture of goodwill, too overwhelmed by the odours and options to make a more adventurous or authentic purchase (this time…).

La Paz`s Witches` Market

La Paz`s Witches` Market

Witches` market

Remedies for all manner of ailments & conditions

Remedies for all manner of ailments & conditions

`Separador` powder promises to help you ditch your partner

`Separadora` powder, a creative alternative to the abundant aphrodisiacs on offer

Witches` market

Dried llama foetus, anyone?

Dried llama foetuses

Llama corpses for luck

Llama corpses



(clockwise from top left) Tortoise amulet for `long life`, owl for `intelligence`, fist for `money`, couple for `love`, face for `happiness`

(clockwise from top left)                                   Amulets: Tortoise for longevity, owl for intelligence, fist for wealth, couple for love, face for happiness.

Pachamama / Mother Earth

Pachamama / Mother Earth statues

7 yr old Yessica

7 yr old Yessica, customer service extraordinaire

Death Road

El Camino de la Muerte/Death Road

I am happy to report that I survived the first of many trips on El Camino de la Muerte (Death Road).  I feel like the journey is worthy of its own blog post, given it was so epic unto itself.

El Camino de la Muerte connects La Paz with the region of Los Yungas, the Amazon rainforest where the coffee production zone is situated.  Prior to renovation, it was once labelled the `World`s Most Dangerous Road`.  Although it has since undergone construction, with a new road bypassing the most treacherous section, I can well understand why it remains renowned for its perilous nature.  It was disconcerting to see several crosses adorned with flowers at intervals along the roadside.  There are various google images and YouTube videos that frankly I did not need to see!  After my curiosity got the better of me, I confess I was incited to add `write will` to my to-do list (somewhere between `tattoo` and `yoga`, though like those it got neglected in my pre-departure preparations).

A milder stretch of Death Road, stretching far into the distance

A long way down

Winding through the valley, El Camino clings to mountain gorges with hairpins turns, a steep drop on one side to the river below and rocky cliff face on the other.  At its worst locations, the road is gravel and only wide enough for one vehicle, yet it is a fairly busy, two-way highway.  Consequently, when the many cars, buses, lorries and trucks meet, negotiation ensues to determine who will have to reverse (often around corners) until there is a spot wide enough for vehicles to inch by.

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