La Paz Stories and Tips

How many carnivals are in La Paz?

Day of the Long Knives Photo, La Paz, Bolivia

"How many carnivals are in La Paz?" The nosy gringo asks the Bolivian travel agent. The latter visibly panics, despite his lethargic look; this is obviously a scary combination of emotions.

"What is this silly gringo talking about?" He is thinking. Instead of repeating his question aloud, he offers a non-committing, unclear answer. "We have many fiestas here," he says, carefully pronouncing "fiestas" for the sake of the gringo, but avoiding the carnival issue.

"Do you want some coca leaves," he adds, showing a little green plastic bag packed with the sweetish leaves. This trick always saves him in tough moments. He wasn’t taught how to answer silly questions at the tourism school.

The first question makes sense. After all, almost every day what looks like a minor carnival is celebrated somewhere in La Paz. Yet, it is a silly question if asked in the Andean High Plateau Spanish dialect. There is only one event called carnival—"Carnaval" in Spanish—and it is celebrated just before Lent. It is seen as an opportunity to celebrate with parades and masquerading, while disposing of the rich food and drink before the Lent period (see Skin and Skirts: Carnival in Bolivia for details on the various events mentioned in this entry). That’s it.

All other parades are not called "carnivals," despite looking pretty much the same as their Big Brother. Sometimes they are called "fiesta" ("party" in Spanish), or "festividad," a related word. That is the case with the Festividad Del Señor Del Gran Poder, one of the largest carnivals of La Paz. Other events don’t have a specific classification, as it is the case with Alasitas, a shopping festival dedicated to the Ekeko, the abundance idol in local mythology. The Dia de los Muertos—the Day of the Dead—cannot be defined as a carnival, despite looking pretty much as one.

However, there is a plethora of additional smaller carnivals. They look exactly as the Lent-related one but are restricted. The same characters—the condor, the devils, Angel Gabriel, the colonial times figures, the mythological ones—but are limited to specific parts of the town. No Bolivian will call any of these a "carnival." They celebrate the anniversary of neighborhoods or of worker unions. The flags carried at the front of the participating groups tell exactly who is celebrating what. "Anniversary" refers exclusively to events taking place in situ; for example, the workers of the Eloy Salmon electronics market carry out one of the most colorful such events in the city. What characterizes anniversaries is that they never leave the limit of their neighborhood.

Other events are technically anniversaries, but its participants walk out of the celebrating organization’s area. These are known as "entradas"—"entries" in Spanish—and more often than not belong to large organizations. The best known event in this category is the entrada of the UMSA University which takes place in May and is called "Entrada Universitaria," the "university’s entry." The pictures attached to this entry belong to the 2012 Entrada Universitaria in La Paz. The pictures show a repetition of the formal carnival, though this time the classical parades are enacted exclusively by university students.

The pictures attached here taken along El Prado, the city’s main venue, during the morning hours. Unluckily, the intensely cold day was not clouded, meaning the strong altitude radiation hit hard. The result can be seen in the sharp black-and-white dichotomy of some pictures. Under the bright sun everything most colors were erased, but just next to them, in the shade, darkness ruled. Strange altitude lighting fit for even stranger events, only one of them a proper carnival.

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