Presentation of the destination
Oruro sits halfway between La Paz and Sucre in the Bolivian altiplano, nearly 4,000 metres above sea level. Although its population of 235,000 have often suffered hard times thanks to the vicissitudes of the fickle mining industry, the booms and busts of Oruro’s economy have done nothing to dampen its party spirit, as the town is famous for its Carnaval de Oruro, one of the great folkloric events of South America. Thanks to the carnival, the town is drawing more tourists and gradually becoming more affluent. With cold winters and warmer summers, it's better to visit between November and March. The currency is the boliviano, Spanish is widely spoken and the city is situated in the Bolivia Time Zone, UTC -4.
Points of interests / things to see
This 2,000-year-old fiesta is one of UNESCO's Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, and is a beguiling mishmash of ancient indigenous traditions and more modern Christian rituals centred on the Virgin of Candelaria, the Black Madonna who has been patron saint of the city since her apparition graced the festivities in 1756. More than 48 different groups of dancers, specialising in 18 different dances, form a procession leading to the Shrine of the Tunnel, along with marching bands, mystery plays and plenty of eating, drinking and making merry. Of particular note is the Llama llama dance, a kind of farce in dance format with acrobatic elements, as well as the Diablada, in which the performers don devil outfits whose roots possibly go back to the native deity El Tío. With 400,000 visitors stretching over the four miles of the procession route, Oruro Carnival is the place to be for anyone who wants to learn more about Bolivian folk culture. The carnival takes place for 10 days before Lent each year.
Once a year this beautiful little church becomes the centre of frenzied activity as the endpoint of the carnival procession, but the rest of the time it's a peaceful spot to learn more about the traditions of Oruro. The Virgen de Socavón, or Virgin of the Tunnel, is so named for her role in caring for the city’s miners, who have been praying for her protection in their dangerous job since the 16th century. The current building is actually a 19th-century reconstruction of the original church, built in 1781, but is beautifully decorated with a golden shrine, in front of which all the carnival dancers come to kneel as good triumphs over evil in the carnival story. You can explore the wonderful underground mining museum, see carnival masks and other crafts in the folklore and religious artefacts museum and learn more about the devilish god El Tío, whose statues can be found here. Address: Calle Baptista bet Adolfo Miel and Junin. Opening hours: 9.30am to 11.30am, 3.30pm to 5.30pm.
This huge white statue depicts the Virgen de Socavón in great detail, crowned with a cross and bearing the infant Christ in her arms as she gazes softly down over the assembled citizens. At 45 metres high she is seven metres taller than the famous statue of Christ in Rio, and is constructed of cement, iron and fibreglass. Situated in the hills above the city, the views of Oruro and the surrounding landscape from the statue are breathtaking, particularly after dark when the lights go on in the streets below, although the biting winds of the altiplano mean that a warm coat is necessary. Nonetheless the fake green grass and little benches make it a great spot for a slightly chilly picnic, and you can join with the locals in trying to spot some of the city’s landmarks. For them, this gigantic image of the mother of Christ is an image of the city's piety, tradition and sanctity, and for the miners who daily risk their lives she is a symbol of their complete faith and trust in her powers of protection.
The Andes make up the longest continental mountain range in the world, and remain one of the last true wildernesses. It's not surprising then that they boast a remarkably diverse range of indigenous wildlife, with many unique species perfectly adapted to life in this harsh environment. At Oruro’s Zoológico Andino you can get up close to many of these wonderful creatures, with around 80 different individual animals, 60% of which are native to the area, on display. There are plenty of species to charm and delight, particularly the wonderfully weird quirquincho, the Andean armadillo, a cute pinkish hairy animal with a tremendous proclivity for digging. Llamas, vicuna and alpaca may be found here, and you can learn more about the role they play in the economy of the Bolivian highlands. There's also a fantastic range of reptiles and birds, including mighty black condors and golden eagles. Address: Calle Tomás Frias and capitán Barriga. Admission: Bs. 2.
Situated right next to the zoo, so you can easily combine the two in a day, the Museo National Antropologico focuses on the ethnography and folklore of Oruro and is a wonderful introduction to the fascinating and complex culture and history of the area. Housed in a lovely old Spanish colonial building, highlights include the huge collection of mummified bodies, skeletons and skulls, including some unusual specimens such as deformed craniums. There is a wide range of old pottery, as well as colourful carnival masks and costumes, so this is an excellent place to go to learn more about the stories, traditions and craftsmanship – and craftswomanship– behind this vibrant cultural tradition. Founded in 1959 and run by the state, the museum features artefacts dating back to pre-Colombian times. Musical instruments such as panpipes, small statues and sculptures of deities, and items such as stone tools and jewellery relating to the Wancarani, Chiripa and Chipaya cultures are all on display. Address: Avenida Spain. Admission: Bs. 5.
Take the train with Empresa Ferroviaria Andina to this tiny town in the middle of nowhere. Once a boring little railway town, Uyuni is now a mandatory destination for travellers in Bolivia thanks to its salt flats, the largest in the world. Covering over 10,000 km² at a depth of up to 10 metres thick, Uyuni salt flats are a paradise for photographers, with neon bright lagoons, caves, volcanoes and endless horizons. 4x4 tours can be booked from Uyuni, staying in basic refuges where the weather can be freezing but the skies are unmissable.
Comfortable buses costing no more than Bs. 90 take between 10 to 14 hours to cross the border into Chile. Iquique is home to a duty-free zone called ‘Zofri’ and so it's an ideal place to stock up on chocolates, cosmetics and electronics. There are many historical sites including 19th-century colonial architecture, casinos, clubs and theatres and the 18th-century Parroquia Cathedral. Iquique is also known for its beautiful weather and great beaches; surfers in particular will enjoy the excellent waves.
Just 25 km north-east of town the Termas de Obrajes hot springs are a popular destination for anyone looking to unwind. Upscale, clean and well organised, the spa features a large swimming pool as well as a number of private cabanas where you can enjoy a hot tub. Entrance is Bs. 10, and you can catch a micro from the corner of Caro and Av 6 de Agosto to get there.
Since this shallow salty lake is so huge, it takes up the entire eastern half of the Oruro Department. It’s famous as the ‘Bolivian Atlantis’, as the expansion of the lake throughout the Poopó basin subsumed many villages. The archaeology of the area is particularly rich, as a flourishing culture of llama herding and trade was already in existence here around 200 BCE. Nowadays this saline lake is home to a range of beautiful birds, including flamingos and the mighty Andean Condor, making it a great destination for nature lovers.
Vacation rentals in Oruro (Departamento de Oruro)
How to get there ?
Oruro is serviced by frequent daily buses from La Paz, taking around three or four hours and costing just Bs. 15. La Paz is home to the world's highest airport, El Alto International Airport, with flights from Peru, Colombia, Argentina, Chile and the United States, as well as a wide range of domestic destinations. If you want to fly directly to Bolivia from Europe, Viru Viru Airport, located in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, is your best bet, with direct flights to Spain, although it's a long drive to reach Oruro. Travelling around Bolivia, buses link Oruro with cities such as Cochabamba, Uyuni and Challapata, and there are long-distance trains to Uyuni, with the Expreso Sur leaving Tuesdays and Fridays at 3:30pm and the Wara Wara departing on Sundays and Wednesdays. Within Oruro the streets are well organised around the central Av. 6 de Agosto and Plaza 10 de Febrero, with a central bus terminal, plenty of cheap taxis and the opportunity to enjoy lovely walks into the surrounding mountains.
Hotels in Oruro (Departamento de Oruro)