As my time in Sucre drew to a close I started to get wind of a huge carnival that would be happening in La Paz, this combined with the upcoming national transport strike inspired me to change my plans – racing through Potosi and bypassing Cochabamba altogether. So I had high expectations having finally arrived in La Paz on the Saturday of Gran Poder.

Festival del Gran Poder (Festival of the Great Power in English) is La Paz’s biggest street party and is held once a year in June. It is a celebration apparently born out of a fanatical response to a religious painting from the 17th century which depicted Jesus with Andean native features. The event started in the 1930’s as a small street procession but has grown into a Rio -like carnival with a huge variety of dance troops parading through the centre of the city. The event starts at 7am on the Saturday and runs right through until 2-3am the following morning. The route is lined with fences and taupaulin which you have to pay to get past. As with most things in Bolivia this is all very unorganised and different sections are run by different people – so the cost varies drastically depending which bit of fencing you pass through. I picked a decent spot by the main grand stand and managed to get a seat up in the top tier for 100 Bolivianos. With a few cold beers in my bag and camera fully charged, I was all set…

The procession was well under way by the time I’d taken my seat around 1pm and the dance troops were coming thick and fast. A huge range of colourful outfits and dance styles were on display, marching bands dividing each troop and providing a constant rhythm. The themes all seemed to be based around Incan and Bolivian culture – brightly coloured gauchos and indigenous women with their bowler hats, slaves in chains, conquistadors, mythical monsters and plenty more I couldn’t identify. As I’m not much of a historian I don’t have any great insight on the history behind each story, but just as a spectacle it was hugely entertaining.

Being a Bolivian celebration there were fireworks a-plenty being let off amongst the dancers – and being Bolivia there seemed to be an alarming lack of health and safety restrictions. This only added to the spectacle and the occasional stray firework certainly kept everyone on their toes. As the day wore on there was a more and more drunken atmosphere on both sides of the barrier. Some fairly officious wardens lurked on the sidelines ready to pounce on any dancers who looked too inebriated, whilst the crowd got a little more boisterous as more and more beer was downed. The combination of rowdy crowd and over eager wardens lead to some funny little pantomime like exchanges… the fussy wardens taking obvious offence as the boos and insults rained down. It was all very good humoured though and even as the night wore on I saw no signs of anything like trouble.

It’s not quite on the scale of the Rio carnival, and it’s a little bit rough around the edges – but it really is some spectacle and a very uniquely Bolivian party. I’m very glad to have made the beeline to La Paz for Gran Poder and I’d definitely advise coming once if you get the chance.