Destination Bolivia

Bolivia: Devil Dances of Oruro

Between February 18 and 28, thousands of dancers and musicians parade during the Oruro Carnival, the second most famous carnival in Latin America. Named part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO, it is the maximum expression of Bolivian syncretism, which blends elements from Europe and Africa with Andean religion, and pays tribute to the Virgin of the Socavón (Mineshaft), patron saint of miners.

Text and Photos: Julián Varsavsky

A rumbling of drums on Pilgrimage Saturday announces the arrival of the Uru devil dance along Oruro’s Avenida Cívica. The audience cheers wildly as the demons run beneath a heavy shower of sparks raining down from a wire. The devils exhale colored flames through a dragon’s head mask. In the background, a thumping drum underpins the brass band accompanying the dance of the devils with a syncopated beat that has been played for millennia, dating to the origins of this indigenous procession that has evolved over the centuries.

While the Roman Empire was expanding across Europe twenty centuries ago, the region around Oruro (Bolivia) was scattered with pilgrimage sites visited by Andean peoples who believed that the mountain heights were home to the most sacred aspects of their culture. Imperial Rome was known for its bacchanalia and saturnalia that included Dionysian rites and offerings to Bacchus, the god of wine; in the Middle Ages, these celebrations were transformed into Carnival, the expansive pagan festival that is now so popular across the Americas and Europe.

The conquest of the Americas brought Carnival as well as the African rhythms contributed by the enslaved people who were imported to work in the mines. The Oruro Carnival, which took shape in the late 19th century, has a strong Catholic component, since the pagan festival derived from worship of the Lady of the Miners, the “Mother of the Mineshafts.” But the phenomenon is even more complex: according to anthropologists, the image of the Virgin of Candlemas subsumed the worship of Pachamama or Earth Mother, which the conquerors had tried to suppress. Regardless of the teachings of Catholicism, indigenous peoples continued to worship their original deities under cover of the Christian symbols bloodily imposed upon them at the point of a sword. In this syncretism, the devil is the “tío” or deity that protects miners in Andean religions. To further muddle the issue, the parade includes polar bears and a man with an octopus on his head.

The Carnival resounds with the melodious African-based drum rhythms of morenadas, adding a musical note quite different from the sound of Andean flutes, which are heard especially on Carnival Thursday. The clamor of all the groups in the street is drowned out by the sounds of trumpets, tubas, trombones, cymbals, bass drums, and snare drums brought from Europe by military bands.

The huge parade winds through the streets of Oruro to eighteen rhythms with very different origins, a heritage of sound that, along with the dances and the costumes of the groups, prompted UNESCO to name the festivities a Masterpiece of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The Oruro Carnival is indeed the iconic people’s festival of Bolivia; even President Evo Morales, who played trumpet in the Oruro Imperial Band as a young man, does not miss this celebration. And he does more than just watch: he dances with every group that passes in front of him. In the final analysis, this Carnival represents the diversity of the Plurinational State of Bolivia, which recognizes thirty-six nationalities and cultures.

The Devils Face God

The devils take off their masks as soon as they step into the Socavón Church and line up to make their way to the altar on their knees. Those who came from other cities may have barely slept the night before, but they walk for four hours under the sun to the hilltop church, the final destination of this combination dance troupe and procession known as a “diablada.” Since they cannot go to the bathroom during the procession, they drink almost no water, making do with a slice of lemon held in their mouths.

“We invite pilgrims to pray to the Mother of the Mineshafts,” says the priest to the devils kneeling at his feet. He adds, “Every one of you is a child of the Virgin and this is your home.” Pilgrims heard a similar phrase in past centuries, but they thought about Pachamama. Nowadays, they think about the Virgin, but not only about her.

Amalia Cantesano enters the church exhausted in her glittering, full-skirted china morena dress and sits on a prayer bench to catch her breath: “We have been doing the procession for forty years. We are Quechuas and my parents spoke our ancient language; I speak some Quechua. We are Catholic, very Catholic, but we also believe in Pachamama: the first Friday of every month we make offerings through a hole in the ground,” she murmurs during the brief mass said for each group.

A theory suggests that the dance of the devils has its roots in an ancestral ritual of the Uru people, who worshipped a god named Tiw, the name later being Hispanicized to “Tío,” a being that took on aspects of the devil. For centuries, miners have made offerings to Tiw, a god of the underworld, and an image of Tío is still venerated at mine entrances. Before entering the world of darkness, it is necessary to request permission from its inhabitants by proffering cigarettes, coca leaves, and alcohol. Miners placate the lords of the underworld in order to keep these beings from becoming angry and causing accidents.

When plowing the earth in pre-Colonial times, indigenous peoples felt they were invading the underground realm of Tiw, so they paid homage to him at the beginning of February (with the first harvest), since this was the time when Tiw would escape to the earthly world. This custom eventually blended with the release of the devil that took place during the Carnival imported from Europe, more or less during the same season of plowing.

The Feast of Sin

Biblical parables became part of the Oruro Carnival in 1818, when Father Ladislao Montealegre staged the Biblical struggle between angels and devils, which would become the “diablada” or dance of the devils. Each diablada is headed by the archangel Michael leading an army of devils dressed like Roman soldiers with short lace skirts, human masks with glass eyes, helmets, shields, feathered wings, and flamboyant Gothic swords —with a wavy edge, like a flame— used to expel the demon, sending it to the depths of the Earth. This is essentially the same struggle represented in the Uru ritual where the beings of Ucu Pacha (the underworld) confront those of Kay Pacha (the earthly realm).

Preceding each group of devils is a decorated car with silver objects on the hood and a Virgin of the Mineshafts on the roof. They are followed by groups of children and Jukumari bears, who steal young maidens during their dance to turn them into devils. Then come the young and single she-devils, followed by seven devils who represent the seven deadly sins. Lucifer is a devil adorned with a beautiful breastplate, a bejeweled cape embroidered in silver, and a skirt with silver coins.

The biblical references and the procession to the church make the Oruro Carnival more than that period of transgression and licentiousness that characterizes the festivities in other places, turning it instead into a religious ritual with Catholic symbolism nuanced with the pagan background of indigenous cultures.

The excitement, the dancing, and the colorful costumes are the calling cards of this singular Carnival that is unlike any other in the world. But the most interesting aspect of all may be the underlying meaning. The syncretism is the end result of the twists and turns of history coming together in this corner of the altiplano after an intercontinental journey of thousands of years, blending the pagan debauchery of ancient Rome, the ritual drums from the heart of Africa, the street festivals of the common people of medieval Europe, and the religiosity of the peoples of the Americas, touched by the rites of the Roman Catholic Church.

The Beat of Carnival

In Oruro there are forty-eight carnival groups, some with more than one thousand members. There are approximately 20,000 dancers and 10,000 musicians. The groups are categorized by the rhythm they choose; the diabladas are emblematic of this Carnival. The oldest is the Great Authentic Traditional Oruro Diablada, created in 1904 by the butchers’ guild. The morenadas are also very important; the groups dance to a rhythm created in Oruro at the end of the 18th century to protest slavery in the mines, where Black people worked in chains. At ninety years old, the Comunidad Cocanis is the oldest morenada in Oruro; its members dress in black and paint their faces. Saya is one of the festival’s most popular beats, with its mixture of Aymara rhythms and African drums. There are also the caporales —likewise based on saya— representing a protest against slave overseers. The Carnival features the llamerada, a rhythm from the Americas, with dancers in shepherd’s clothing acting out the herding of llamas.


How to Get There

It is 143 miles from La Paz to Oruro; the highway is generally very congested on Pilgrimage Saturday.

When to Go

This year the celebration takes place from February 18 to 28, with the most important days being 26, 27, and 28. The great pilgrimage to the Socavón Church will be held on the 25th, with processions from morning to night. The 24th is the celebration of Tío del Socavón and the 23rd is the Anata Fest with flute bands. The 26th is Carnival Sunday, when dance groups greet the dawn by going to the church at four in the morning. The 27th is the Day of the Devil and the Black and the 28th is for the challa (the ceremony honoring Pachamama by watering the earth) around the neighborhoods of Oruro, accompanied by Andean songs.

Where to Stay

The city comes to life during Carnival, so you should make reservations in advance. Some people lodge in La Paz and commute back and forth, but it makes for a long day with heavy traffic. The best hotel in Oruro is the Edén:

What to Eat

Street stalls sell the traditional picante de pollo (spicy chicken with dried potato), ranga ranga (a spicy potato dish), roasted leg of lamb, and cracklings. For further information visit: