Visiting Oruro outside Carnaval – YES OR NO?

Oruro. A name not as well known as La Paz, a city high up in the mountains and Governmental Capital of Bolivia, only to be followed closely by Sucre, the actual Capital of the country. Besides that, places like the Salar de Uyuni, Copacabana and Lago Titicaca score high on the ‘which-places-do-I-actually-know-in-Bolivia’ list. Only when it comes to celebrating carnaval in Bolivia, it appears that people start to recognize the sounds of its name. Oruro. Capital of Carnaval and Folklore in Bolivia.

I have to admit that I didn’t know why I went to Oruro. At that moment, I was still preparing to go to Sajama – Mountain in the East of Bolivia, close to Chile, seems to be extraordinarily beautiful, but hard to get to and I sadly didn’t make it there. It’s settled on number 1 to do when and if I get back to Bolivia. -, wether it would be alone or with a travel partner I’d found along the way, I wasn’t sure yet. I had no clue as to what to do once there, the only thing I knew about Oruro was its association with Carnaval. With 3 months to go until february, Carnaval would be a no-no. Having looked online and found none of the ‘usual’ hostels – Even when I don’t like staying in party hostels for example, having them in a city means you have a backpacker crowd + things to do and people to meet – it meant the city obviously wasn’t on the usual backpacker’s route, making it all the more interesting to visit for me.

After a long busride from Potosi to Oruro, arriving in the dark at Hostal Graciela was a blessing. Mainly because of the small Mexican restaurant right next to it, serving the best Mexican food – besides the flautas Ale made for me in Quito, a story I haven’t told you yet – I had since leaving Mexico. – Okay, I admit, a Mexican restaurant in a Bolivian city is not a reason to visit said city, but it definitely helps knowing you can find some decent foreign food. – I was hungry and it made me all the happier to know that Alejandro, the manager of both restaurant and hostel, offered a ‘Free Walking Tour’ of the city the next day.

Jezus and his Monsters…Painting inside the Church of the Virgin del Socavón

GIANT ANTS, DANCING DEVILS AND THE VIRGIN

Most of the history and legends of Oruro I’ve got to know is thanks to Alejandro and his tour that day. I loved it, I loved the city for it and in hindsight I wish I spent a bit more time there before rushing over to La Paz. Oruro is a city filled to the brim with local legends and folklore, situated on the Altiplano, about 3700m above sea level. The Uru Uru tribe lived in there long before the Incas ruled the area. After the Spanish colonialists arrived, they took the land and founded a city that got quite wealthy through tin mining – Until the biggest tin mine ran out of tin, that is. -. Up until now the local economy is still based upon the different mining activities in the mountains surrounding the city, which is named Oruro after the Spanish mispronounced the old Uru Uru’s name. – So far the history lesson, I’m not an historian, so hopefully I could somehow summarize centuries of history in a couple of sentences. – Just to give you a quick idea what to expect when visiting: a ton of indigenous influences, a city filled with hills, which can leave you out of breath if you’re not yet accustomed to the high altitude and Oruro is very proud of it’s cultural heritage, a mixture of old legends and Christian religion.

Traditional costumes for upcoming Carnaval
Masks and costumes for Carnaval

One of the first things I saw and visited with Alejandro, was a mural about the 4 plagues that threatened the city after the Urus stopped to pray and obey their gods: giant Hormigas (ants), a giant Sapo (toad), a giant Vibra (viper) and a giant Lagarto (lizard). Luckily, the city was saved by the Virgin del Socavón, Mary of the Mineshaft, who was warned by Chiru Chiru – a Bolivian Robin Hood who stole from the rich and gave it to the poor, with his hiding place in the mineshafts around the city -, she turned the huge beasts into creatures of sand and stone. Even now you can visit their corpses, the Ants being Los Arenales, a type of Sand dunes at the northeast, the Serranía de Asiruni being the body of the Viper in the south, you’ll be able to find the Toad in the north and the Lizard is the rock formation at Cala Cala to the east. The mixture of legends becomes even more interesting when you know that Chiru Chiru has been guarded by the Virgin del Socavón until he died. Being stabbed in the heart while robbing one of his victims, he escaped and dragged himself to safety into one of the mineshafts. The Virgin came to his side and stayed with him on his deathbed. Later, when miners discovered his corpse, they saw the image of the Virgin above him, becoming the Virgin del Socavón – Socavón literally means mineshaft – which you can still visit in Oruro. To honor him, the miners dressed like Devils and went around the shafts – the Devil is the watchman of the inner earth according to Aymara beliefs -, giving birth to a tradition that is repeated in the Diablada, the traditional devil dance during Oruro Carnaval. With giant Ants and Vipers, the Virgin of the Mineshaft and Devils, you know now what to expect: Oruro is filled to the brim with street art, depicting their local legends. – The worst thing is that I enjoyed my walk around the city so much I forgot to take pictures… – Around every corner you’ll find murals and paintings of monsters and devils. The city has built a new cable car up the mountain where one of the biggest Virgins of Latin America stands – of course, what did you expect? –, with the interiors of both stations decorated completely with dancing devils when you start your ride at the bottom, to arrive and see angels at the top. I absolutely loved it.

Traditional masks for the Diablada dances
The Virgin looking down upon us…from the highest viewpoint in Oruro
Tons of viewpoints throughout the city

Besides street art depicting monstruous beasts, Oruro has a ton of squares dedicated to Bolivian history. Sitting on a bench, you can watch and read about several historical battles, the loss of their coastline being the most important one. The Bolivians still didn’t get over the fact they’ve lost their coastline to Chile, nota bene on the day they celebrated Carnaval and nobody had a clue what was going on – read: too drunk celebrating – until it was too late. One of the squares is known for different street food stalls selling delicious llama chorizo – only llama chorizo, no options for vegetarians/vegans I’m afraid – which is worth the stop. Bolivia being quite cheap for somebody that had the luck beeing born in Europe, it’s a pleasure eating and drinking in a city like Oruro, where tourism is non-existent and you’re able taste local delicacies for very little money.

Oruro surrounded by the altiplano
More Oruro
The brand new Teleferico leading up to the Virgin viewpoint
Devils dotting the walls of the Teleferico Station

Surrounded by Devils in this city
Be carefull with long dresses and cats on the escalator

Another highlight is the local market next to the church of the Virgin del Socavón. It is huge, stretching over several hills and a place where you can literally buy everything, from televisions to fruits to toys to llama fetuses. Yep, also here you’ll have the local witch market and on the contrary to the one I’ve visited in La Paz – not even sure if I visited the right one – there were no other foreigners in sight. Alejandro asked to stay respectful and keep facial expressions under control, as this is the genuine belief of people, how strange and revolting it can be to others. Also here I didn’t take any pictures, out of respect for the local believes and because I tend to forget thinking about my camera when I’m fascinated – or having fun or making memories – by the things I see. Living in the moment, I guess.

Instead of guiding us around the city in a normal hour-and-a-half tour as most free walking tours do, Alejandro guided us around the city for FIVE hours. I learned a shitload of facts and figures about Bolivia, got fascinated by local beliefs and the mixture of ancient and new religions mingled together, ate delicious food, saw all the main sights and had. so. much. fun. If you want to get a feeling of the real Bolivia and stay for away of tourist crowds, this is it. Oruro is waiting for you.

Altiplano around Cala Cala
Little walk over the altiplano
Rock paintings on the altiplano

ANCIENT PAINTINGS ON THE ALTIPLANO

I’m one of those travelers that doesn’t leave the home without a travel guide. I know, internet is there to guide us all, travel bloggers have been roaming around the globe providing us with free information just one click away. Still, I can’t withstand the urge to leaf through a guide and start dreaming about all the possible adventures I could have in my destination. But mostly, the guides cover places you haven’t read about before. So, the first thing I checked in Oruro was my Lonely Planet: what have we got here? Apparently, there isn’t written much about this city outside of Carnaval, but the name Cala-Cala came up and got me triggered. Visiting the altiplano, seeing some ancient Llama murals…yep, that sounded like I had plan.

The only problem was getting there. Again, a destination not covered by hordes of travel influencers means there’s very little information available about how to visit these murals. Apparently, you had to take a taxi to the village of Cala Cala, ask around at the village for the lady with the keys of the fence – to get to the murals, duh -, pay the entrance fee and you’d be ready to enjoy some ancient paintings. Which leaves you with a bit of a problem if you can’t find the lady with the keys, because who’s going to let you in? We – Magali and me, an Argentinian girl I’ve shared the room and the walking tour with – were doubting what to do, when our hostal offered a solution: Louis, born and bred in Oruro, wanted to show us around for a bit extra, providing us with a small guided tour and a back up plan in case we couldn’t locate the lady-with-the-keys. Well, better than not to go, I suppose?

Pretty high altitude
Walkway surrounding the painted walls, with magnificent views
llama’s!!!
The Lady-with-the-keys wanted a picture with us
Teaching us about the altiplano
The entrance of the Cala Cala cave paintings. We kind of skipped that part…

Instead of Luis, Alejandro’s dad – you know, Alejandro who guided us through Oruro – accompanied us over the altiplano, to the village, asking around for the lady, not finding her. We left anyway, driving up to the fence and entering through a hole cut in the side, close to the wooden walkway leading up to the walls and rock where we’d be able to see the paintings. – Remembering the free hot-springs in Costa Rica I once visited…free because there was a hole cut into the fence protecting it. The ideal way for locals to enjoy those springs without paying exorbitant fees. – Once on the wooden walkway, we could enjoy the wall and cave paintings up close: mainly llamas and stick figures, probably made during rituals preformed during the Inca reign. Or maybe older, nobody knows for sure who painted them… Anyway, ten minutes after we climbed through the fence, a dusty cloud indicated a visitor coming to the entrance. A quite agitated Doña Marta, we learned later on. First she was upset when she saw us there, but after she realized we did went around the village asking for her first – how could she otherwise know we were there? – she softened up and started explaining more about the paintings and surrounding nature. She seemed quite happy to have some foreign visitors and posed for a picture with us, which I needed to send her later on through Whatsapp. End good, all good. We had a small walk on the altiplano afterwards, before driving to the remnants of the Giant Lagarto. – It is a rock. Not even a pretty one…but hey, it’s a nice story – Hungry, we went for lunch in a local village on the way back, where I’ve felt like the only white-non-latina person who set foot in the village ever before. Tasting a local BBQ under suspicious stares of the locals before heading back to the city after our little adventure outside.

ORURO: YAY OR NAY?

Oruro surprised me in so many positive ways, even though I didn’t spend that much time inside the city. I was seriously doubting to spend some time there at all, mainly because the lack of information of what to do and see outside the Carnaval period. As you’ve already read, I’ve been pleasantly surprised and hope that, after reading this, you might consider giving Oruro a chance. And maybe taste some delicious llama chorizos while doing that. – Or one of Alejandro’s tasty quesadillas… I still feel ashamed promoting a Mexican place in Bolivia, but can I help it that nothing beats Mexican food? –

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