Floating Reed Islands & Virgin of Candelaria

Carnival in Latin America is a not-to-be-missed experience. Last year I was in Barranquilla, Colombia – what they said is the second-largest Carnival celebration in the world (after Rio’s) and much less expensive and commercial. I had a fantastic time, and was naturally wondering where to go this year. Lo and behold, people around here say that the second-largest Carnival in the world after Rio’s is in Oruro, Bolivia. So my plan was to go down there for a week, cross back into Peru to meet mom in Arequipa in late February, then return to Bolivia in early March to continue my trip.

Just a few problems with this scenario. One, Bolivia charges Americans a $135 entrance fee (visa), which I wasn’t excited about paying twice. Two, I hate crossing borders. Gee, maybe it’s my bad history of having things stolen or being personally violated, but border crossings just creep me out. So I’d prefer to minimize the amount of them I have to do. Three, the more I read about Carnival in Oruro, the more it sounds like a real pain in the ass. Fun, to be sure – tons of dancing, parades, celebrating, live music – but also all the negatives that come with an overly-hyped event in a small town: prices skyrocket, hotels book out, thieves multiply. Sandra helped me by calling a number of hotels and what few had rooms left were outrageously priced. One poster on the message boards seriously told me that cardboard boxes on the street were selling for $5/night.

Then I found out that Puno, a town in southern Peru on the shores of Lake Titicaca, has a similar celebration a week before. It’s nearly identical – the same dances, same music, similar parades – but on a smaller scale.. less crazy, less expensive, and less hassle. And I wouldn’t need to leave the country. Done and done. The best part was that Sandra was able to take a long weekend and join me for the excursion! Fantastic.. events like that are so much more fun with a partner in crime.

We take the night bus from Cusco and arrive an hour early (!) at 4am. Wake up the hotel to let us in, settle into our room for a bit of sleep, and get woken up an hour later to marching bands tromping down the street. Uh-oh.. are we going to get any sleep this weekend?? Still, their passion is infectious. What possesses people to carry large heavy tubas down cold dark streets at all hours of the night blowing their lungs out? For three to eight days on end. 10 – 16 hours a day. How do their lips not fall off? Are they deaf by the end of the week? These people are dedicated.

And that’s just the musicians. The dancers are wearing hot, uncomfortable costumes – many in high heels or platform shoes, others in 2-foot thick layers of foam rubber and fake hair, sweating under the hot sun.. dancing for miles along different parade routes every day, from pre-dawn until well into the night. Day after day after day. They all deserve medals.

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