Carnival in Bolivia: Our Celebration Experience

We’ll start off by saying that Carnival in Bolivia was like nothing we had imagined. We weren’t really sure what to expect, but it wasn’t quite like the pictures we saw or what we had heard. Between the thousands of water balloons, flying paint, busy parades, and large crowds of intoxicated people, it was a pretty intense experience, but we had a lot of fun and loved being able to be a part of this festive celebration.

The heart of the Carnival celebration is centered around the main plaza
The heart of the Carnival celebration is centered around the main plaza

A Background of Carnival in Bolivia

Carnival is originally a Christian festival that was introduced to Bolivia when it was conquered by the Spaniards many decades ago. This day traditionally celebrates the last days before the period of Lent. However, Bolivia’s rich culture shines through during the festivities with bright costumes, traditional dances, celebrations of iconic pagan figures, and more.

Oruro hosts by far the most well-known celebration of Carnival in Bolivia. The celebration occurs over a few days during February to early March. Dates differ each year, so make sure to look before you go! Many flock to this city to join in on the party, so book accommodation in advance if going here. Though the most popular celebration occurs in Oruro, Carnival is also celebrated elsewhere in Bolivia. Each spot offers its own unique experience.

Before the Party

It was a hot day in Santa Cruz De La Sierra. We didn’t know what time the festivities would start, so we walked to the center of town mid-morning. What we found when we got there was almost eerie. There was nobody around and it was really quiet. All of the store fronts were wrapped in plastic tarps in an attempt to protect them from flying paint and water balloons that would later fill the streets.

Tarps protect the white walls from bright dye and paint
Tarps protect the white walls from bright dye and paint

There were fences everywhere, blocking off certain streets and sections that would later be designated for private parties. It was kind of hard to navigate since we had no idea where we were going or how the streets were laid out. The streets slowly became busier as crews began to set up stages and stalls to sell food and drinks. Carnival spans over multiple days, but we heard that this day was the ultimate celebration. We were excited for it to begin.

The Carnival Celebration

Music began to play from numerous venues, and families, couples, and friends flocked to the streets. It was calm at first, but the area became a festival war zone. People were armed with water balloons, water guns filled with both water and paint/dye, soapy water buckets, silly string and more.

As two gringos that stood out, we were definitely easy targets. We decided we needed some ammunition, so we purchased two bags of water balloons and some silly string for only a couple Bolivianos each. We befriended a few high school-aged locals who had fun trying to defend us.

Covered in soap and dye but having fun at Carnival
Covered in soap and dye but having fun at Carnival

The crowd became more intoxicated as the day went on. Beer began to fly with the water balloons. Some of the water fights got pretty intense as people were tackled to the ground. We were covered in paint, soap, and water, and it was painful in our eyes. Slightly exhausted, we took cover under the awning of a bank. One of the guards for a private section let us pass through the party to a quieter street.

Later in the day, the water fights calmed down as the parades started. Dancers and musicians in bright costumes paraded down the streets followed by intricate floats that took months to prepare. People pushed through the crowds to get a better view. Some streets had bleachers set up and restaurant stalls where people could sit and watch the show. It was truly a beautiful display of Bolivian culture.

Food and Drink

There is no shortage of food and drink during Carnival. Though most shops and restaurants were closed, many people opened up small stalls and grills to sell food and drink for the many people attending the celebration. You can buy anything from ice cream to hamburgers. There were also some sit-down spots serving traditional Bolivian dishes. If you eat on busier streets, it can be somewhat difficult to keep your food out of reach of the water fights!

Tasty salchicha sandwiches are a common meal found in the street stalls of Bolivia
Tasty salchicha sandwiches are a common meal found in the street stalls of Bolivia

Beer and liquor can be found wherever you look. There are stalls selling fun drinks and people walking around with coolers full of cold beer. It was all very cheap, which probably played a role in the large number of overly drunk individuals. With all the action and alcohol, we were glad that there were plenty of vendors selling water as well.

None of the places we encountered took card, so we were lucky that we came with enough cash.

Our Carnival Takeaways

Spending Carnival in Bolivia was a truly unique experience and we were glad to have been able to be there for it. That being said, it was intense at points, and we weren’t quite prepared for that. People may grab you, push you, and tackle you, so it is important to be firm. Nobody is intending to hurt you, but if you begin to feel uncomfortable or unsafe, don’t be afraid to tell people to stop or walk to a quieter spot.

We felt exhausted after celebrating Carnival for one day. We don't know how people do it for multiple days in a row!
We felt exhausted after celebrating Carnival for one day. We don’t know how people do it for multiple days in a row!

With all of the paint, dye, and water, wear clothes and shoes you don’t mind getting ruined. The dye didn’t ever come out of our clothes and took a few days to come off our skin. Don’t bring anything you don’t want to get wet. Even if you don’t plan to be involved in the water fights, they’re inevitable. People will ambush you from balconies, allies, cars, and pretty much anywhere, which is why we didn’t bring a camera. Sadly, we didn’t get many photos from Carnival, but it’s the experience that counts more than the photos. We brought our phone for a few pictures, but kept it in a Ziplock bag with our keys and some money the majority of the time.

Always watch your belongings closely and don’t bring anything very valuable with you. Some may find the crowds and chaos a good opportunity for pickpocketing. It’s easier to be carefree and really get amidst the fun if you don’t have any of that stuff anyway. All you need is some cash for food, drink, and water balloons!

Have you experienced Carnival?

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