5 Popular Religious Festivals in Bolivia

During our 9-year journey in South America, we visited Bolivia six times. In total we spent about a year in this diverse country.

Here we will talk about some of our favorites festivals in Bolivia.

Types of Religious Festivals in Bolivia

We were captivated by the Bolivians’ strong need for celebrations. Although we never planned to be in a certain place for a particular festival, procession, or fiesta, we stumbled on them regularly.

Some of the celebrations were small, local and took place only in one particular village or region. Others were big-scale festivals, held throughout the country. Somebody told me that in many places Bolivians have some sort of celebration at least once, if not twice, a month.

I wouldn’t be surprised if indeed that is the case.

These celebrations, most of them held for religious reasons, are colorful events. They probably include pagan as well as Christian elements, processions with traditional dances and music, fireworks and lots of alcohol.

The otherwise somewhat introvert Bolivians – at least in the highlands – open up as soon as they participate in a parade to honor the Virgin, or have drunk some chichas, an alcoholic, a ​homemade drink made of corn.

The Bolivian Festival of Hurling Sheep, in Presto, where men wrestle with a dead sheep.

One of the weirdest festivals we came across was what we labeled the ‘sheep-hurling fiesta’ in Presto, a village near Sucre. As the chicha started to flow during this multiple-day event, men started hurling sheep – dead ones, that is.

While celebrations happen all over the country and throughout the year, here are five renowned religious festivals that will give you an impression of what types of festivals you may come across during your visit to Bolivia.

Festival #1 – Alasitas in La Paz (January 24)

Alasitas is one of the popular religious festivals in Bolivia (©photocoen)
Ekeko, Bolivia’s God of Abundance (©photocoen)

Alasitas is Bolivia’s festival of small-wishes and is annually held in different towns at different times (La Paz = January 24). The festival has grown into a mixture of Catholicism with age-old Andes traditions. Whereas the Franciscans focus on the Virgin and the yatiris – (local shamans) focus on the Andean God Ekeko (photo), the average Bolivian cares about both and has no problem combining the two.

Fake Money to Offer to Ekeko during Bolivia's Alasitas Festival (©photocoen)

Devotees buy miniature versions of their dreams. They get them blessed by a priest and offer them to Ekeko, the chubby God of Plenty, hoping their dreams will come true. In case devotees want wealth, they prefer buying perfectly copied miniature dollar-and-euro notes over the local currency (bolivianos).

El Mercado de las Brujas, the Witches Market, is the place to go to buy these offerings. Stalls and shops are packed with miniature stuff such as cars, cameras, toys, but also degrees or little plastic babies.

Note that according to tradition you shouldn’t buy your own Ekeko; he should be presented to you as a gift in order for the offerings to have an effect.

Festival #2 – Semana Santa – Fiesta in Copacabana (March / April)

Lighting Candles in Copacabana's Cathedral (©photocoen)
Capilla de las Velas in the cathedral (©photocoen)
Car Blessings in Copacabana on Sunday (©photocoen)

Easter, or Semana Santa (Holy Week) as Bolivians call it, is celebrated throughout the country with elaborate festivals and processions. One of the largest gatherings takes place in Copacabana, along Lake Titicaca. Here hundreds of pilgrims arrive on foot from La Paz on Good Friday.

Copacabana is a place of pilgrimage throughout the year. And, truth be said, we particularly loved Copacabana for its ritual known as La Benedicion de Movilidades, or Blessing of Vehicles.

Each Sunday morning, vehicles gather in front of the home of the Virgin de Candelaria Cathedral, decked out in a spectacular display of flowers and plastic knick-knacks. Priests bless the vehicle for a safe journey home while the vehicle owners pour champagne and light fireworks.

Festival #3 – Aymara New Year in La Paz and Tiwanaku (June 21)

Making Offerings During the Aymara New Year in Valle de La Luna (©photocoen)
An amauta making offerings in Valle de la Luna (©photocoen)
Celebrating the Aymara New Year in Bolivia (©photocoen)

It was still dark when we entered Valle de la Luna, right outside La Paz. The organizers had lit a bonfire and we could help ourselves to a cup of hot chocolate. At night the temperatures in the Andes Mountains can be freezing and I appreciated these gestures that made us feel welcome.

We didn’t know whether we would be welcome at this still very traditional celebration which only became a national holiday in 2009: The Aymara New Year. The Aymara are one of the thirty-six ethnic groups in Bolivia (the current president Evo Morales is Aymara) and the main group inhabiting the altiplano – Bolivia’s high plains.

June 21 is the winter solstice, which they welcome with ancient sunrise rituals and celebrations. While we all stood in a circle, the amautas – Aymara shamans – built a bonfire and made offerings, such as a dried llama fetus, for good health and fortune. The dried llama fetus is a much-used offering in Aymara rituals.

Other offerings consisted of symbols made of sugar, such as tablets depicting a house, money bags, etc – like Alasitas, they have miniatures that represent their dreams. During the offerings, the amautas called onto Pachamama (mother earth) and Pachakama (the universe) to bless the New Year and give thanks to the sun.

I assume the celebration takes place in many parts of Bolivia’s altiplano but I know for sure in Vale de la Luna (south of La Paz) and at Tiwanaku (2-hour drive from La Paz). The latter is a large-scale event while in Vale de la Luna it is a more intimate affair.

Travel Guides for Bolivia

(click on the images to look inside)

Festival #4 – The Procession of el Gran Poder in La Paz (May / June)

Extravagant Masques are part of the Gran Poder Procession in La Paz (©photocoen)
Extravagant Masques are part of the Gran Poder Procession in La Paz (©photocoen)
Kullawada Dance is popular in La Paz (©photocoen)

El Gran Poder is one of the big ones that unfortunately we missed. I could return to Bolivia to visit it one day because I have heard many great stories about it.

It is celebrated in late May or early June and is officially called La Festividad de Nuestro Señor Jesús del Gran Poder. What once started as a simple candle procession in one of La Paz’ neighborhoods, Gran Poder, has grown into La Paz’ largest religious festival with a daylong procession in which more than 25,000 locals participate in folkloric dances and music.

Popular, among others, are dances such as the Suri Sikuris, Kullasada, and Morenada. Make sure to be early to secure a place along the route, as pavements will be thronged with spectators.

Festival #5 – Urkupiña Festival in Quillacollo, near Cochabamba (August 14-18)

The Waca Tokoris Dance is popular in Bolivia (©photocoen)
The Waca Tokoris Dance – check out the height of the shoes (©photocoen)

If you’d ask me which one was my favorite, I’d say this one. What a spectacle! It was huge, it was colorful, it was a happy event while emotional for the participants when finally entering that church and paying their respects to the Virgin. We stayed one long day watching the parade, which went on into the night, and which was followed by other rituals elsewhere the following day.

The official date of the Urkupiña Festival is August 14-18, however, the last few years the event has started on August 13, with the Autochthonous Parade, so you may want to check the exact date when you’re in the area. Traditional dance and music groups from surrounding communities represent the Andean culture, wearing extraordinary costumes – especially masks – and playing ancient instruments such as panpipes.

La Entrada, the main parade of this religious holiday, is on the 14th. From early morning until late at night dozens of dance and music groups parade the streets and dance up to the church where they pay their respects to the Virgin of Urkupiña – often by moving toward the altar on their knees to show their devotion.

Dancers of the Carporales enter the church and moving toward the altar on their knees to show their devotion (©photocoen)

Practical Information on Religious Festivals in Bolivia

Originally published in 2014 / updated in 2020

Additional Reading on Festivals & Celebrations in Bolivia

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Photos by Coen Wubbels. Follow our overland journey on Landcruisingadventure.com or on Instagram.

9 thoughts on “5 Popular Religious Festivals in Bolivia”

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  4. buenas tarde yo soy bolivia y todo lo que usted escribió esta bien y tiene mucha razón pero usted solo fue a algunos lugares y esos no son los 5 mas populares apena hay 2 por nada mas los extrajeron piensan que todos en bolivia celebramos asi o que nos vestimos iguales bolivia tiene mucha mas cultura y mas festivales populares los que subio solo hay 2 que se festeja mas


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