A mining centre famed for its annual carnival celebrations, Oruro is a city that knows how to work hard and play hard.
Sitting high on the Bolivian altiplano, the mining town of Oruro sings to the beat of carnival drums once a year in February. But for those who don’t want to get entangled in feathered headdresses and dancing bands, there is plenty to explore here year-round, making this more than just an overnight stopover en route to the Salt Flats of Uyuni.
Oruro – named after the native people of the region, Uru Uru – is Bolivia’s fifth largest city, which has had its fair share of both good and bad times over the years. Founded at the beginning of the 17th century under the Spanish name of Real Villa de San Felipe de Austria, the city flourished thanks to its booming silver mining industry, then after these resources ran dry it peaked again in the late 19th century; this time with tin. Today, Oruro still depends on mining and is immensely proud of it, evident in the many museums that provide an insight into this dangerous, labour-intensive industry.
There is also the legendary carnival, which sees hundreds of thousands of spectators flock to Oruro each February for the festival. It is one of the most famous processions taking place in South America, and is so culturally prized that UNESCO recognise it on their Intangible Heritage list. During colonial rule, the Spanish enforced a more Christian slant on the traditionally pagan rituals, but today there continues to be a strong element of folklore enshrined in the celebrations. Perhaps it is these ancient beliefs combined with the resilient nature of the Uru people that provides the city with its rough-and-ready charm.
Carnaval de Oruro
The city is choc-a-bloc in February for the annual 10-day carnival. The main event is the lavish parade of dancers, musicians and masked revellers that processes along a 4km route. And don’t worry if you miss the start; they parade not just once but back and forth for a full 20 hours without so much as a break for tea.
Santuario de la Virgen del Socavόn
This beautiful church is dedicated to the patron saint of Oruro’s miners and features in the processions at carnival time. Spend some time contemplating the beautiful inky blue ceiling, studded with stars to represent the night sky and featuring creatures from local legend. Attached to the church is a fascinating museum in an old mining tunnel with archaeological, folkloric and mining exhibits.
Cable car ride
For excellent panoramas of Oruro, jump aboard the cable car that leaves from Plaza del Folklore and takes you up to the immense, white statue of Virgen del Socavόn, who guards over the city from atop Cerro Santa Bárbara. For even better views, climb the stairs inside the monument up to further viewing platforms.