A gritty mining town dating from the time of the Conquistadores, Oruro is not much to look at. It exists smack in the middle of the Altiplano thanks solely to some of the biggest tin deposits in the world. At about 12,000 feet above sea level it is chilly, dusty, and well, mostly brown.
Once a year, at Carnaval time, Oruro becomes one of the most colorful places on earth. The Carnaval celebrations are now a major tourist attraction, I hear, but at the time, we were some of the very few gringos in attendance.
Like many nominally Catholic celebrations, the Bolivian Carnaval takes place just before Ash Wednesday, but also predates Christianity in the region. Oruro, or Uru Uru, was a pagan center of worship over 2,000 years ago, and an annual pilgrimage to the town was a fixture of both the pre-Inca and Inca local cultures.
Conveniently, an image of the Virgin Mary appeared in a mine shaft nearby in the 18th century allowing the church to declare Carnaval to be a celebration of the Virgen de Socavon (Virgin of the Mine Shaft). Since that time, Carnaval has incorporated both indigenous and Catholic imagery in the celebrations.
Parade participants represent the Devil, the Devil’s wife, the Inca, white conquistadores, negrito slaves, and many other characters from both Christian tradition and Bolivian history and culture. A traditional shuffling dance, called the diablada, is performed, and much local chicha, or local moonshine, is consumed. Off-key village brass bands and tin whistles keep it noisy. A good description of the festival can be read here.
The Carnaval in Oruro still ranks as one of the most interesting sights we have seen in 25 years in the Foreign Service!