Another Kind of Carnaval

Arriving in Oruro on a surprisingly decent bus, I contacted my couch-surfing host, Juan Carlos, from an ancient payphone.  He gave me an address to meet him and I headed off with my backpack. Juan Carlos set me up in a room in the basement and invited me out for a drink with the El Salvadorian couple staying in the other room.  I politely declined since the altitude and the jet lag were kind of getting to me (3700 m in Oruro).  I spent the next day wandering around Oruro, a rather dreary town in most cases, but the streets were bustling that day as everyone set up for Carnaval.  Within a day or two, welders had constructed stadium seating along hundreds of meters of street, and in the main square several stages were also constructed.  That night a few more couch-surfers showed up and Juan Carlos helped us all make a traditional Bolivian casserole with some sort of grain only found in Bolivia.  Delicious!  The next day was the beginning of the main event.  I met a couple of Canadians and a Japanese girl and we headed out for the pre-parade.  Most out-of-towners had not yet arrived so it was mainly locals having a party in the street.  Many folks wore their traditional costumes and drank beer in the street as they practiced their dance numbers for the next day.  We managed to get into the parade somehow and joined the human river moving slowly for the main square.  One old fellow even got me to dance a bit along the way.  Only at Carnaval! 

That afternoon we checked into the Collegio Americano, a school where we would be sleeping for the next four nights.  At 50 Bolivianos per night instead of the $80 being asked for at crummy local hotels, it was an unbelievable deal, even though we had to sleep on mats on the classroom floors.  In the evening a few of us headed out into the city – Thursday was La Noche de la Mujeres, which basically translates to “Ladies’ Night”.  The men all played in various brass bands as the women danced through the streets, dressed to the nines.  A bunch of us joined in the dancing and stayed up until the wee hours.  Friday was a bit quieter during the day, but in the evening there was more dancing and partying in the streets and after midnight I found myself in a huge mob of people at the main square with a live band and a DJ as thousands of us drank and danced and cheered.  I finally dragged myself home by about 3 am or so.

On Saturday morning all of the couch-surfers congregated in the main courtyard of the school, where we all picked up our tickets for parade seats along the main route.  Starting at 9:30 am, the parade went on into the night and finally wound down at about 4 am. With over 50 000 dancers, this was not surprising. All throughout the day people everywhere were drinking and throwing water balloons and spraying each other with foam. I only lasted until around 9 or 10 pm, as my stamina was waning.  The parade started up again at 10 am on Sunday with most of the participants now as drunk as the spectators, but my partying had caught up with me and I now had a bad cough, so I stayed on the sidelines.  Carnaval was truly a marathon of partying and I won´t soon forget it.  Unlike other well-known Carnavals, like Rio, the party in Oruro is chiefly a local affair.  There is certainly a lot of gringos around, but the main group of revelers are the normally reserved highlanders of Bolivia, who completely let loose.  In a place where the average temperature rarely gets above 15 degrees, even in the summer, you can see why they might need a big dust-up once in a while. 

The trains weren’t running on Monday so I finally made my escape from Oruro on Tuesday- myself, along with Bethune from Toronto and Hannah from Germany decided to check out the salt flats down south together- onward to Uyuni!


Author: Amy D. Nelson

Wanderer, hack writer, aspirational hobo, part time aerial surveyor, geologist, forester and whatever else I can do to pay for a plane ticket. Is that sentence fragmental enough?

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