Bolivia may be known for its stunning nature and vast, varied landscapes but there are plenty of other reasons to visit this South American country than just outdoor adventure pursuits. As one of the world’s most indigenous countries, culture in Bolivia is revered and runs strong. The mainly Spanish-speaking residents of the country mix colonial heritage with precolonial culture to form what can only be described as one a truly unique cultural community.
The pagan traditions of native Bolivian ancestry are still held in high regard in modern Bolivia. One of the most common and fascinating ways to witness the blending of ancient tradition with the colonial “new” is to participate in one of the nation’s many colorful celebrations and parades.
The song and dance elements of these festivities showcase folkloric traditions from across the South American continent as well as pre-Colombian tradition and the native feelings towards the 16th century Spaniards that colonized the country.
There are a number of vibrant festivals that occur throughout the year. The summer season of November through April are not the best time of year for outdoor adventurers to visit, but the opposite is true for those culturally inclined and interested in festival life; the summer season is when a number of Bolivia’s renowned celebrations occur.
During the month of January both the Dia de los Reyes Magos and Alasitas festivals take place. The former, celebrated on January 6th, commemorates the journey of the three wise kings and their visit to baby Jesus.
The Spanish Christian tradition is marked by flamboyant celebrations and spectacular city-wide parades that occur across the country. Alternatively, the Alasitas festival is a historically indigenous celebration with deep ties to Bolivia’s native history. Towards the end of January and lasting for three weeks, the Aymara affair celebrates Ekkekko, the “god of bounty” or “abundance”. During the three week celebration period, Bolivians offer miniature versions of their wishes for the year. Though Alasitas events take place throughout the country, the most spectacular location to witness it all is from the vibrant de facto capital of La Paz.
February in Bolivia is wet and warm and the short month plays host to some of the most important celebrations in honor of Mother Earth, known in Bolivia as Pachamama. In early February the cities of Cochabamba, Santa Cruz, Tarija and Oruro host the week-long Fiesta de le Virgen de Candelaria.
The biggest of the Fiesta de la Virgen de Candelaria celebrations can be found on the shores of Lake Titicaca in the transcendent city of Copacabana. The Fiesta de la Virgen de Candelaria celebrations are widely celebrated, but the revelry of the famed Bolivian Carnaval is untouchable.
Held across the country the week before lent, Bolivian Carnaval festivities are a spectacular sight. The events in Oruro are the most colorful around, and are so incredible that international organization UNESCO has included the Carnaval celebrations in the city on its prominent World Heritage Site list.
The festival season in Bolivia continues on well into March with Semana Santa and Phujllay festivities. Copacabana hosts some of the most illustrious Semana Santa celebrations and thousands of Bolivian pilgrims from across the country make their way to the city on foot. On the other hand, the Phujllay celebrations take place in Tarabuco where locals gather to celebrate the 1816 indigenous victory of Spanish armies. The celebration is filled with colorful costumes and ritual dancing fueled on by copious amounts of traditional chicha drinking.
In early May the Fiesta de la Cruz, celebrating the cross of Jesus, brings widespread merriment to the country for two weeks. Festival celebrations are the greatest in Tarija as well as tropical Santa Cruz, Cochabamba and Copacabana.
Later in May and into the month of June, the Gran Poder festival takes over La Paz. Filled with traditional candle processions, the lively celebration fills the city streets with elaborate costumes, customary dancing and widespread revelry.
On the 16th of July, the appropriately named 16 de Julio parade celebrates the anniversary of the city of La Paz. Beginning the night before and emanating out of San Francisco Plaza, the whole city transforms into one big street party. For those who are lucky to be in La Paz during this time, expect lots of music, food, drinking and all around good time.
July is a particularly festive month, especially in the Amazon Basin region of Beni. The last week of the month is one of the most festive on the Bolivian calendar. The Fiesta del Santo Patrono de Moxos in the small village of San Ignacio de Moxos is filled with traditional dances, elaborate costumes and festive processions. The celebration officially begins on July 22nd of every year and continues on for a week, hitting its festive highpoint at 14:00 on July 30th.
Marked by solemn processions, inspiring masses and raucous celebration, the Fiesta de Moxos, as the event is commonly referred to, is one not to miss if you are anywhere near Bolivia during this time.
The boisterous Independence Day celebrations held on August 6th see an abundance of enchanting parades and street side revelry across the country. Rounding out the festival calendar, the Fiesta de San Roque is a lively celebration that sweeps through the city of Tarija from mid August through the first week of September. Commemorating the end of both the plague and leprosy in the area, the Fiesta de San Roque is one of the country’s most fascinating and absurd: during the celebration period all the dogs in the city are paraded around, adorned with ribbons and showered with affection.
Bolivian parades and traditional festivities are unique attractions that often take over the country. Many celebrations occur throughout the year and if your visit to Bolivia happens to coincide with one of the colorful festivities you are in for a real cultural treat.