Tuesday, August 23, 2011
An average day in La Paz, Bolivia is filled with color and culture along the city’s steep, cobblestoned streets. Indigenous women wear bowler hats, long black plaits and ankle length skirts. Their shawls radiate a kaleidoscope of colors and the magical smiles of the locals make a visit to La Paz hard to forget. I’ve been fortunate enough to spend a lot of time in Bolivia, and the event that stands out most for me is the Festividad del Señor del Gran Poder (Festival of the Gentleman with Great Power), which is primarily celebrated in La Paz every June.
As with most of Latin America, Bolivian culture is strongly tied to the Catholic faith. After the Spanish arrived, many indigenous people were converted to Catholicism and over the years, Latin Americans have melded their pre-Colombian beliefs with various religions.
The Festividad del Señor del Gran Poder is linked to a cult that grew out of a connection with a 17th century painting of the Holy Trinity. The French Bishop Augusto Siefertt, stationed in Bolivia, hired two local artists to paint the Holy Trinity in a small chapel. The artists painted the three entities with indigenous features and late at night one of the artists snuck back in to retouch the eyes on the figure representing Christ. When he did so, the figure in the painting moved its head and the artist fled. A devoted group of followers arose and in 1939 the chapel was officially named Iglesia Parroquial del Gran Poder (Parochial Church of the Grand Power).
Originally, the chapel began holding a candlelight festival in the late 1930s, with the Fiesta del Gran Poder mainly a religious affair in which participants carried around a large an image of Christ. Nowadays, the festival still celebrates religion but runs for about eight hours, has thousands of dancers and musicians parading down the streets, and the festivity pretty much shuts down the city for the day. Food and drink are an important factor, as well as sponsorship by large South American companies. Inca Kola and the top beer brands feature prominently in the signage along the parade route through the old streets of La Paz.
Groups of people from the neighbourhoods and villages outside La Paz get together and practice dancing and playing music for an entire year leading up to this event. The costumes range from traditional peasant dresses to elaborate, sequined, mini-skirted affairs. It doesn’t matter if you can play a musical instrument or have the rhythm of a drunken accountant at an office party -- anyone who wants to can participate. In fact, it’s the people who can’t play a tune or dance a step that are the most entertaining and seem to have the most fun.
The beginning of the parade starts out with the dancers and musicians moving in time with each other. Women twirl in their long skirts as the men in the band play along. As the procession continues and helpful by-standers offer salteñas, empanadas and beer, the spinning-top women slow down and veer off course, and no one in the band seems to agree which song they should be playing.
I finished up my first fiesta in La Paz in the early hours of the morning, with sore cheeks from smiling, tired and slightly inebriated (okay, a lot!). My feet hurt from standing and dancing for so long, and my brain couldn’t rid itself of the out-of-tune brass sections and drummers who liked to make it all up as they went along.
The mountains surrounding La Paz make for a spectacular back-drop to one of the most colourful and noisy festivals I’ve ever experienced. If you can manage to pin down the correct date to see the Fiesta del Gran Poder, then it’s well and truly worth planning your other travels around this major event. The dates for the fiesta change most years, and can be held on any date from late May until the end of June. I’ve yet to figure out why the date changes, but I have an inkling it might have something to do with Lent. Fortunately for me, I happened to be in the right place at the right time – for once!
And here's some dancing and musicians in action. Enjoy!