Bolivia enjoys a huge number of national, regional and local fiestas. These are taken very seriously, often involving lengthy preparations and substantial expense; the largest feature thousands of costumed dancers, massed brass bands and plenty of food and drink. You should definitely try to catch a fiesta at some point during your visit, as they are amongst the most vibrant and colourful spectacles Bolivia has to offer, and at the heart of the country’s culture.
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Most national fiestas mark famous events in Bolivia’s post-conquest history and the standard festivals of the Catholic Church, but many of the latter coincide with far older indigenous celebrations related to the sun, stars and agricultural cycle. Carnaval time (late Feb or early March) is marked by fiestas and celebrations throughout the country (the most famous being in Oruro), and involves copious eating and drinking, and indiscriminate water-fighting.
In addition to the major national and regional celebrations, almost every town and village has its own annual local fiesta (some have several), usually to honour a patron saint. These celebrations can be much more fun to visit than major events in larger towns and cities, and often stretch out over a whole week, with religious processions, masked and costumed folkloric dances, traditional music and eating and drinking. In indigenous communities these fiestas are often important ritual events associated with religious beliefs and agricultural cycles – it’s believed that if they’re not celebrated with due extravagance, the Catholic saints or mountain gods (or both) may be displeased, and the fortunes of the community will suffer as a result. Fiestas also play an important role in maintaining social cohesion, and are usually financed under a system known as prestes, whereby wealthier members of the community spend large amounts of money on food, drink and musicians, gaining enhanced status and respect in return.
The occasional visitor will usually be warmly welcomed to local fiestas, but these are often fairly private affairs, and crowds of camera-wielding tourists may provoke a hostile reaction – sensitivity is the key.
Calendar of major fiestas and public holidays
New Year’s Day (public holiday).
Reyes Magos. The arrival of the Three Kings is celebrated with processions in various towns in the Beni.
Feria de Alasitas in La Paz. Large areas of the city are taken over by market stalls selling miniature items used as offerings to Ekeko, the household god of abundance.
Fiesta de la Virgen de la Candelaria in Copacabana.
Public holiday in Oruro department.
Carnaval. Celebrated throughout the country in the week before Lent. The Oruro Carnaval is the most famous, but Santa Cruz and Tarija also stage massive fiestas.
Pujjlay. Thousands of indigenous revellers descend on the town of Tarabuco, near Sucre, to celebrate a local victory over Spanish troops during the Independence War.
Semana Santa (Easter) is celebrated with religious processions throughout Bolivia. Good Friday is a public holiday.
Public holiday in Tarija department.
Labour Day (public holiday).
Día de la Cruz. Tinku ritual combats are staged in some communities in the northern Potosí region.
Public holiday in Chuquisaca department.
Corpus Christi (public holiday). La Paz stages the Señor del Gran Poder, its biggest and most colourful folkloric dance parade.
The winter solstice and Aymara New Year are celebrated with overnight vigils and religious ceremonies at Tiwanaku, Copacabana, Samaipata and other ancient sites throughout the country.
San Juan. Christian version of the winter solstice and Aymara New Year, marked with bonfires and fireworks around Bolivia.
Santísima Trinidad. Major religious fiesta in Trinidad in honour of the Holy Trinity.
Virgen del Carmen. Processions and dances in honour of the Virgen del Carmen, the patron saint of many towns and villages across Bolivia. Public holiday in La Paz department.
San Ignacio de Moos hosts the largest and most colourful folkloric fiesta in the Bolivian Amazon.
Independence Day (public holiday). Parades and parties throughout the country.
Virgen de Urkupiña. Pilgrims descend on the market town of Quillacollo, just outside Cochabamba, for the region’s biggest religious fiesta.
San Bartolomé (also known as Ch’utillos). Potosí’s biggest annual fiesta, a three-day celebration with pre-Christian roots, marked by folkloric dances and religious processions.
Public holiday in Cochabamba department.
Public holiday in Pando department.
All Saints and Day of the Dead (public holiday). Remembrance parties are held in cemeteries throughout the highlands, with the decorated skulls of dead relatives often on display.
Public holiday in Potosí department.
Public holiday in Beni department.
Christmas Day (public holiday). Christmas (or Navidad) is celebrated throughout the country, and there are particularly colourful festivities in San Ignacio de Moxos and Tarija.