Different forms of devil’s worshipping appear in the Andean cultures; Oruro provides an intriguing insight into most of them.
by SeenThat on June 15, 2007
HighlightsCarnival is the main - and some say the only - attraction in Oruro. UNESCO recognized it as a Human Heritage event and due to it the city is called the Folkloric Capital of Bolivia. La Diablada - (The Devilish) as the event is usually called -takes place on the Saturday before Ash Wednesday and is a huge parade of devils performed by dancers in elaborate masks and customs, which attracts crowds from the whole country.Plaza 10 de Febrero is the town's focal point. It features less important buildings that its counterparts in La Paz or Sucre, but that creates a good opportunity of enjoying the plaza itself. Nothing compares in Oruro with the yearly Carnival but if arriving out of season, a day in town would allow seeing its humbler attractions, like its colonial central plaza and the Virgen del Socavón complex. The Santuario de la Virgen del Socavón, is a complex built around a church dedicated to the cult of the Socavon Virgin. The cult began at the 16th century at the base of the hill closest to downtown. The image was painted then over a mud wall and later a small church was built around it. The church had been restored twice, in the 19th and 20th centuries in what is known as "Republican Colonial" style. Next to it are the Museo Minero and the Museo Etnografico. The first is below the church and is dedicated to the mines; within it an image of Satan can be seen. Eventually this is the typical syncretism between Roman Catholicism and local beliefs in Bolivia, since the local cultures attributed different spirits to the underground, the surface and the skies. The third axis of this complex - the Museo Etnografico - provides an exciting view into the local cultures - Uru and Chipaya people are indigenous to the area - and into the masks and customs used during the carnival.TipsOruro is not only the folkloric capital of Bolivia; it offers also the opportunity for interesting ethnic encounters. The area is home to various indigenous groups which can be spotted at the markets and terminals or at the times of special gatherings - like the yearly Carnival. The Chipayas - from southern Oruro are such a group; it is impossible to miss their peculiar - humble but distinctive. The brownish garment covering the women's torsos and ending in a pointed hat give them a monkish look. They speak their own language and very little Spanish.During the carnival it is almost impossible to find accommodations that should be arranged before the arrival through a travel agent in La Paz. If no rooms can be found, it is recommended to stay in La Paz, which offers a twin event.As in La Paz, packs of wild dogs take control over the city during the nights and early mornings; they should be avoided.On Avenida La Paz, between Avenida Villaroel and Leon - a few blocks north of the central plaza - there are many shops selling masks and customs featured during the carnival. Similar items can be found in La Paz, thus, if considering buying an especially bulky item, it is better to buy it in La Paz just before the flight home.During the dry, cold winter, the Altiplano is amazingly dry. Metallic surfaces would usually carry a static charge and should be approached with care. Lip balm is essential. In the cold weather the sun looks inoffensive, but due to the altitude it burns quickly; a wide hat and good sunglasses are imperative.Best Way to Get AroundRoughly halfway between Potosi and La Paz, and halfway between Cochabamba and La Paz, Oruro is too close to be connected to them with flights. Buses and cars make the way from La Paz in roughly three hours; a trip by bus costs less than three dollars. The road to La Paz is fully paved but narrow and features the highest number of fatal accidents in Bolivia; driving it at night is not recommended. The buses option is quite uncomfortable since buses in Bolivia are sporadically stopped and searched for illegal substances by the local police. Moreover, unexplained identity checks are performed on them regularly; holding your documents handy at all times is imperative. If traveling by car, be prepared to identify yourself to the green police at every toll gate; if there is an unexplained delay there, then the policeman is waiting for a "regalito" (little gift), giving him 5BOBs (sixty American cents) is usually enough.Oruro's centre is small and easily accessible by foot. Any other option will spoil the views of colonial buildings. However, an antiquated but extensive system of buses still exists.The extensive network of taxis charges less than half a dollar per trip within the downtown area. However, there had been recent reports of thefts realized with the help of taxi drivers.The once extensive railways network on the Altiplano is centered nowadays in Oruro. Apparently there are still trains to Villazon (on the Argentinean border) and to Cochabamba. Nevertheless, their timing is unclear and I was unable to check them out.
by SeenThat on June 16, 2007
Located in front of the bus terminal, the Sheraton Restaurant is handy and offers good meals. In Bolivia that means they serve the same dishes as everybody else but that they use better ingredients and serve larger quantities. The prices here are roughly twice the ones at regular restaurants, but even then few dishes cross the three dollars mark. The dishes are huge and sharing them between two persons seems to be the only chance of finishing them.Pique (Pee-kae) Macho is one of the most elusive dishes in the Bolivian cuisine. It has a chauvinistic name that no local was able to explain it satisfactorily to me. It seems to be different in every restaurant serving it; however, in the carbohydrates ultra-rich local cuisine this is one of the only two leaner dishes (the other one is called Plato Paceño). To allow for the differences among the different establishments, the pique can be described as a dish including a lot of bits of everything.On the proteins angle it provides small bites of cooked or fried beef, slices of a local white cheese and sometimes the extra-big variety of fava-beans. The fats are provided by the ubiquitous vegetable oil. Carbohydrates appear mainly in the form of French fries decorating the top of the dish. The best part of this dish is the generous quantities of vegetables – cooked and fresh – it includes; that is a rare treat in Bolivia. Olives sometimes adorn the generous portions; however, they are prepared here with chemical vinegar and have an unpleasant residual taste.The cooked parts of the dish are served hot, while the fresh parts are kept cold. This trivial point is of importance here since in the cold Altiplano everything gets cold very quickly. The dish would not freeze on the plate but it would get unpleasant.This dish offers the opportunity to touch a delicate issue of the local culture. The pique is usually accompanied by beer and Bolivia suffers of an alcoholism problem. Most people would assume that if ordering a beer, the customer will continue drinking until the next sunrise. Hence, if dining with a local, it should be clarified that one beer is the limit. The best advice is to avoid the whole scene by trying one of the excellent juices prepared from tropical fruits; the unusual maracuya is recommended.
Carnival is the main – and some say the only – attraction in Oruro. UNESCO recognized it as a Human Heritage event and due to it the city is called the Folkloric Capital of Bolivia.La Diablada takes place on the Saturday before Ash Wednesday and is a huge parade of devils performed by dancers in elaborate masks and customs, which attracts crowds from the whole country.Finding accommodations and a comfortable place to look at the parade from is difficult. It is recommended to book places through the travel agencies in La Paz before arriving at Oruro.The telling signs of the carnival appear weeks before the event. In Oruro’s crowded streets, kids armed with water-guns and water-filled balloons attack pedestrians and cars without discrimination. Devilish masks decorate public places. Dancing groups practicing their dances sporadically block the main streets; beer and urine foul the air. Heavily organized in unions, Bolivians treat the event in an organized fashion that if implemented into their regular life would catapult this poor country into the richest in the world. This carnival is dedicated to “Diabladas” (Devilish) dances, which are part of a devil’s cult which was merged with the local version of Catholicism.The devil’s masks and customs give testimony to a rich imagination, in sharp contrast to the monotonous brass music played by the bands and the slow, unsophisticated, undulating moves of the dancers. The heavy dresses accompanying the men’s masks allow the dancers only clumsy, pendulum-like moves. The women use peculiar customs: hats belonging to 19th century London, long-sleeved, colored blouses, high-heeled boots reaching above the knees, and skirts that seem to end before they begin. Each dancing group carries signs showing to which workers union it belongs.
Downtown Oruro is remarkably less colonial than other major cities in Bolivia, maybe due to its relative lack of importance. 3700 meters above the sea level and roughly at the center of the Andean plateau, Oruro features a cold, windy climate; the burning rays of the sun during the day are exchanged by mercilessly freezing nights.Plaza 10 de Febrero is the town’s focal point. It features less important buildings that its counterparts in La Paz or Sucre, but that creates a good opportunity to enjoy the plaza itself. Most modern cities have obliterated the notion of a central plaza and thus modern people ignore the joy of sitting at a bench surrounded by green gardens while having the absolute certainty of being watching all the main events in town. No revolution would happen without noticing it; no piece of juicy gossip would pass unperceived while enjoying the mid-afternoon sun. Who needs cable television or Internet while a central plaza is nearby?The other main point of interest in Oruro is the Santuario de la Virgen del Socavón, a church dedicated to the cult of the Socavon Virgin. The cult began at the 16th century at the base of the hill closest to downtown. The image was painted over a mud wall and later a small church was built around it. The church had been restored twice, in the 19th and 20th centuries in what is known as “Republican Colonial” style. A curved staircase at its base, connecting the church with the street gives the place a harmonious look. The Socavon part of the name refers to the nearby mines. The virgin is revered by the miners and the carnival dancing groups. Below the church is the Museo Minero, where the different aspects of the mining – including the railways and old cars can be studied. As all the Bolivian mines also this one contains underground sanctuaries to the devil, which is called here “Tio.” At first, the concept is confounding. “Tio” means “uncle” in Spanish and that obviously is not the case of the creature facing the nosy visitors. To understand the concept, it must be known that the Quechua language lacks the consonant “D.” Hence, the Spanish “Dios” (God) became “Tio” while the Quechua people tried to pronounce it. Yet, the figure being worshipped there is not God, but Satan. Painted in deep red, with big horns on his head and goat’s feet, it resembles a sitting satyr with a huge erection. The miners in active mines bring him cigarettes, coca leaves, alcohol, and soda drinks on a daily basis.Nearby is the Museo Etnografico which contains a huge collection of items related to the Chipaya and Uru people – the indigenous people of the area – as well as masks and customs used for the Carnival. It is interesting to note that all the devil masks have huge, round, blue eyes.
In my several visits to Oruro I failed to find suitable accommodations. There are two areas featuring hotels. The main one is next to the bus terminal and the second is next to the train station. The first is by far more attractive, despite the second being next to a night market offering plenty of local food meals. Overtime I tried both areas - I couldn't change my hosts' decisions - and had an opportunity to compare.Some characteristics were shared by the establishments in both areas. Despite the Romans having fairly mastered the science of plumbing a couple of millennia ago, it is still part of a distant, utopic future in Bolivia. The hotel's concierge would show the guest a precariously connected electric heater - its cables drawing strange paths along the ceiling and walls - and would promise hot water at all times. Invariably - while putting my life in danger and turning the contraption on (most electric sockets in Bolivia are not connected to earth) - I got an anemic trickle of quasi-frozen water. Complaining is useless since liquid water is considered to be hot water in the Altiplano; I've got identical reactions while visiting local homes. The best solution to the problem while in the area is to move around with products allowing washing oneself without water.At Hotel Lipton (Av 6 de Agosto 225, next to the bus terminal), the room was spacious. The double-sized bed, with a sunken mattress, seemed to be small within the empty room, which was void of any other furniture except for a closet. There was no heating, but there were enough blankets to survive a cold night. A room here costs five dollars and allows easy access to the bus terminal, but it is a bit far from downtown.San Salvador is a two stars hotel in front of the railway station. When I saw the room for the first time, I smiled. Despite my worries - the area has a bad reputation - the room looked cozy and warm. It was small, but it included a coach and a television set with a funny, old-fashioned antenna, a nice carpet and what looked as a nice bed. However, the attached bathroom failed to provide even the humble promise displayed by the water heater. A room here costs around three dollars. Yet, on the entertainment angle the situation here was better than around the bus terminal. Nearby was the Mercado Campero, a night market offering the opportunity to taste local dishes and buy local products. I had been warned to be careful there, but returned to the hotel before nine without damages or having felt threatened.
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