One of Bolivia’s largest festivals of the year is just around the corner: the Fiesta del Gran Poder, which is marked by an endless succession tens of thousands of brightly dressed dancers and marching bands parading for miles along the city’s main streets. They are organized into associations representing the neighborhoods, community groups, and companies of La Paz. Performers dance for around 5 hours, in spite of costumes averaging more than 50 pounds. Meanwhile, on the sidelines, locals and travelers alike gather to down copious amounts of beer while shouting street vendors enthusiastically sell their wares.
The event merges pre-Columbian folkloric traditions and beliefs with Roman Catholic beliefs and consists of three parts: the Preste, the Ch’alla, and the Convite and Promise. During the Preste, different communities hosts 3 days of parties with feasting, drinking, and dancing. Each year, one person is responsible for financing each party, which is considered prestigious. Then comes the Ch’alla, the offering to the Pachamama (mother earth) in thanks for the crops and fruits received. Finally, on the religious anniversary of the Jesus del Gran Poder, community members ask for favors from the miraculous image of Jesús del Gran Poder with the promise that they will serve as prestes the following year or dance for three years. Then, a ceremonial table will be burned to ensure the safety and health of participants.
The two dances that you are most likely to see during the main parade date back to the colonial period and involve exaggerated masks: the morenada (the Dance of the Black Slave) and the diablada (the Devil’s Dance). The latter, with its famously exuberant devil costumes, is reminiscent of the continuing practice among Bolivian miners of giving offerings to a statue at the entrance of each mine, a diabolical figure thought to control the dangerous underworld of the mines. More ancient dances, with pre-Columbian Aymara roots, include the waca takhoris (Dancing Bulls), where dancers don the stuffed head and dried pelt of a bull and the tinku, whose female dancers are instantly recognizable by the colorful ribbons which hang from their hats. The cholitas wear voluminous layers of Andean skirts and click matracas along to the music. Others don costumes referencing the Spanish conquistadores or indigenous costumes. Each set of dancers is preceded and followed by its own brass bands. Pan-piping sikuris also provide rhythms.
Banks will be closed during the festival, so make sure you have what you need beforehand, and be wary of pickpockets working the crowds. If you need to move around the center of La Paz, your best option is to move around on foot. Also, book your hostel in La Paz in advance, to avoid rising prices or lack of availability.
Despite crowding, there are lots of points from which you can enjoy the parade. Be sure to stake out a spot early along the route: The route generally begins at Garita de Lima Plaza and continues along Tumusla Avenue, Buenos Aires Avenue, and Pedro de la Gasca St. Paraders make their way to the Gran Poder Sanctuary by turning at Los Andes corner to follow Vicente Ochoa St until reaching Antonio Gallardo St. Then, they’ll head to the Gran Poder Plaza vía Sebastian Segurola St, tourist fave Sagarnage St, and Illampu St until Eguino Plaza. The final stretch will take them along Pando Avenue, Ismael Montes St, Mariscal Andres de Santa Cruz Avenue, the heavily transited Av. 16 de Julio Avenue (the ‘Prado’), and Buenaventura St to end at Simon Bolivar Avenue and the Hernando Siles Stadium. If you have some money to spend, you can also buy a seat in the stadium.
This riotous street party actually boasts quite humble roots as a modest candlelit procession with a few dancers. It all began with an early 17th century painting of the holy trinity in which the Father and Son share mestizo features. It was donated to a La Paz convent upon by a new nun upon her acceptance, but changed hands many times over the centuries. The figure of the Son, Jesús del Gran Poder, acquired a reputation for granting miracles, and by the time the 1930s rolled around a church was founded in its name to accommodate the growing cult. It might seem strange that these religious beliefs are expressed mainly through folkloric dances and drinking, but this is standard for Bolivia- as well as a must-see for travelers.