At Pirwa La Paz, we’re excited for one of the biggest festivals of the year, the Fiesta del Gran Poder. El Gran Poder means the all powerful, as the festival is based on Christ the All Powerful, the 2nd figure in an early 17th century painting of the trinity in which the three entities display Indian or mestizo features. The artist is unknown; a novice nun had brought the painting with her it as her offering upon entering a convent, after which the painting changed hands many times amidst a growing reputation for granting miracles. Devotion grew and in 1939 the Parochial Church of the All Powerful was founded in its name. What began in the 1930’s with a handful of dancers has exploded through the years into a riotous celebration reminiscent of Carnaval, which falls a couple of months earlier.
Parades and processions with the figure of Christ, music and costumed dancers honoring cultural and ethnic backgrounds and performing selections from Bolivia’s rich folkloric legacy, such as the famous Morenada. The atmosphere is like a street party, with endless beer flowing as is commonly seen in many of South America’s religious celebrations! Dates change, but the festival always lands in the latter half of May or beginning of June. This year, the celebration falls on May 21st.
These days, dancers and musicians alone surpass 60,000 people- not bad for a festival which began as a simple candlelit procession! The procession with the painting is followed by 53 folkloric fraternities which represent different parts of the city or groups of people. Each fraternity is accompanied by a brass band in the middle and another in the back, and many dancers have instruments called matracas which click to the music. Their costumes can be the voluminous (or, for the younger dancers, voluminous in width but nonexistent in length!) skirts of the chola, costumes referencing historical figures from conquistadors to colonialists, Incas, African slaves, native indigenous groups, and more. They’ll follow a route through the streets of the popular zone and then arrive at the Hernando Siles stadium. (Where you can get seats but it won’t be free.) Those who dance make a promise to do so for three years as an act of thanksgiving, generally asking favors of the Christ before the festival day. Dancers continue for 5 hours, in costumes averaging 25.5kg!
Some of the most popular dances include the Morenada (Black Dance), the Diablada (Devil’s Dance) with it’s elaborate and colorful costumes, where the Devil represents the guardian to the Bolivian mines and receives coca leaves and other offerings in exchange for safe passage, and the Waca Takhoris, or Dancing Bulls, which requires a dancer to don a stuffed bull’s head and dried bull’s skin.
- Make reservations in advance! This is a high season for La Paz, and foresight will allow you to ensure availability and resist price gouging.
- Expect main avenues and streets in central la Paz to be shut down, so moving around will be easiest by foot.
- Prepare for strong afternoon sun and cold evenings- sun protection and light layers are essential.
- Don’t overexert yourself if you’re newly arrived- hydration and rest are essential for combating altitude sickness.
- Be wary of pickpockets- no more than small change in the outer pockets, and definitely no little electronics such as cameras, mp3s, or phones in outer pockets.
- Get out of town. There are lots of tours in La Paz and the city’s surrounding area, so whether your interest is the spectacle of the wrestling cholitas or the thrills of biking death road, there’s lots to see and do for every interest.