El Gran Poder is a street parade that winds its way through La Paz from morning to night. Copious amounts of dancers, sequins, marching bands and alcohol are involved. The route is closed off from view, so you need to line up to get inside and see anything. Food stalls fill the surrounding streets and enterprising individuals wander along the parade route selling fast food and beer out of backpacks.
One of my students described it as anarchy.
Last year we went during the day (photos and video). If you want fewer crowds, a good seat or simply to be able to see the floor before it becomes a damp mass of accumulated rubbish, then this is the time to go.
If, however, you can cope with people cutting in line, being crushed in the crowd and drunks repeating “People indigena” and “My name is! My name is!”, then going after dark is the thing for you. This is what we did this year and it was a blast!
Here’s why I enjoyed this year’s Gran Poder so much:
It was both entertaining and frustrating to watch police try to stop people from pushing and cutting in line. I used my elbows a lot when initially trying to get into the parade area. On the way out I didn’t even need to walk – I was just swept along by external force as the whole crowd pushed forward and I sort of floated with them.
Once inside, we walked along the street amongst all the dancers and musicians. Everyone was doing it so we just followed along. This involved getting smacked in the head by whirling rattles, spiked in the chest with feathered costumes and being shouted at by the audience in seats whose view we blocked momentarily as we walked by. It was a pretty awesome experience to be so close to the dancers, actually swept up with them at some points and swirled along with the parade.
The dances seemed more varied in the evening than in the day. I saw some styles that I’d never seen before, with some really amazing masks and accessories – not just the morenada. Plus the costumes looked even more spectacularly glittery under floodlights than during the day.
The unexpected little extras: almost witnessing a fight between a dancer and pedestrian who was trying to squeeze past where there really wasn’t any space, being sprayed with fire extinguishers, catching the eye of lots of dancers and/or drunken revelers joining in who then were really happy to see foreigners enjoying the festivities.
The freedom of being able to leave when I wanted. When I bought a seat last year, I wanted to get my money’s worth so I had to rely on mobile vendors selling me overpriced Burger King and pizza because I didn’t want to give up my seat. This time, once we’d had enough of the parade we left and went to eat from the cheap street stalls: anticuchos and sandwich de chola never tasted so good. The food was super fresh because of the high turnover (I didn’t get sick at all – always a bonus in Bolivia).
A final word of warning: don’t wear your best shoes. In fact don’t wear your best anything. Most of the time you won’t be able to see the floor, but you’ll be able to feel it’s texture, and it isn’t pleasant. That stream of liquid is not water. Neither is it spilt beer.