Carnival in La Paz was not quite what I expected, the same can be said for much of my experience of Bolivia. I anticipated 5 days of hedonistic frivolity with non-stop partying, plenty of heat and plenty of flesh.
Nestled in a river valley at 3,600 metres, La Paz is the world´s highest capital city and it has the highest airport in the world at 4,100 metres. This high altitude means it´s pretty cold during Carnival! Especially because Carnival falls in the middle of the rainy season.
Carnival is a Christian celebration which falls straight before lent although it doesn´t resemble the church activity of my youth. Over a series of days church groups, students and different ethnic groups parade down the main street performing a traditional dance. It´s more performance than party and it´s considered a great honor to be asked to perform. While there is plenty of drinking done during the procession by onlookers and dancers alike, it does not descend into an all out street party at the end. A pity I thought.
Well this was the case in La Paz but it seems that not all Carnivals are created equal and they vary widely depending on the wealth and traditions of a region. Bolivia´s most famous Carnival takes place in Oruro where huge amounts of money is spent on costumes and floats. Then there is the Rio Carnival where it sounds like much partying can be had.
Fortuitously my hostel in La Paz was located on the main street with the parade passing my door each day. On the first day, the children had their parade and on the second day it was the opportunity for students to strut their stuff. The costumes for these two days were a bit sketchy and the focus was very much on having a water fight. This was one of the more unusual aspects of Carnival – for the whole event people carry around water pistils and cans which spray foam. The holders of these weapons take great delight in aggressively spraying passing randoms. Gringos are popular targets! I found it a bit odd really. I´ve clearly spent to much time with the English and couldn´t quite cope with this assault on my personal space.
Sunday was the highlight of the festival with all of the different ethnic groups coming out to perform and some of the outfits were fantastic. Pics can be seen in the gallery below.
Over the three days I formed a good relationship with the family running my hostel and they were keen to welcome another drinking companion. I found the reaction of many of the tourists unusual. Most I spoke to found Carnival an annoyance, interrupting travel plans with many opting to buy tat in the markets rather than join in the fun. For me, Carnival was more grimy and less party-focused than imagined but it was great to experience something so different.
Following Carnival I took a horrific night bus to the Southern town of Uyuni. Horrific because the journey was meant to take 12 hours and it took closer to 20. We were either freezing because there was no heat or sweating profusely because of the heater being turned up on full. And the seats didn´t recline at all. Bolivian busses are cheap but they aren´t a patch on Argentine ones!
Uyuni is an unattractive, dusty down in the South of Bolivia. The only reason to go there is to visit the Salar de Uyuni, the world´s largest salt flat, and it´s absolutely stunning. Once upon a time it was a lake and now that all the water has evaporated, only a layer of salt remains. Because we were there in the wet season, the whole salt flat was covered by about a foot of water.
I don´t know why driving around in a foot of water on a salt base is thrilling but it really is. For one, all of the land you can see looks like a mirage and its impossible to tell where the sky ends and land begins.
Following our visit to the Salar we continued on a 4 wheel drive journey down to the Chilean boarder taking in the high mountain scenery, mineral-blue lakes and geysers. It was a spectacular 3 days, the scenery getting increasingly more stunning, and one of the highlights of my trip so far. My travel companions were 4 Canadians and we had much fun on route. Canadians are scarily similar to New Zealanders, don´t you know. Must be all that wide open space and lack of human interaction that draws us together hey!
Pictures speak better than words for this leg of the journey –