Ever since I was a kid, parades have bored the hell out of me. Sitting for hours on the sidewalk in the hot sun while you watch the mayor ride by in a convertible, surrounded by barricades, crowds, and fried food – it’s all just hell. But not this! THIS is a Parade! Our family went to see the Guadalupe festival in Sucre, Bolivia. Think of Mardi Gras or Carnaval without all the debauchery. This is a family-friendly celebration full of sights, sounds, and experiences, and it was awesome!
Let me just come out and say it: somewhere along the way in the U.S., we lost the art of parades. Maybe, we never had it.
Like this, for example. What self-respecting person would enjoy this?
Folks, we can do better.
When it’s done right, a parade can be awesome. The Guadalupe festival in Sucre is just one example. Here’s what separates Guadalupe – and many others like it across Latin America:
Virgen de Guadalupe
The Virgen de Guadalupe festival in Sucre is an annual event in September; one of the city’s biggest events of the year. There are thousands of spectators in the streets and thousands of participants in the parade. The participants dress up in intricate costumes and they dance in troupes for the entire parade route – about five miles. Anyone can participate, but you need to join a troupe, and you need to train with the troupe for months before the event.
The costumes are unique, colorful, and visually mesmerizing. Most of the costumes represent devils and demi-gods in Andean culture. Here are some examples:
This one looks vaguely like a giant wedding cake:
And this one is apparently an oversized teddy bear-devil:
Each dance troupe usually sings or shouts out while they dance. Plus each troupe is accompanied by a marching band, which gives the dancers their beat. They’re not the best musicians, sure, but they make up for it by playing LOUD! The spectators are literally right next to the bands, so I wore cotton in my ears.
Each band plays just one song, over and over, but they are really catchy tunes. After listening to these songs for hours, you’ll start to hum them yourself.
Here are some of the dancers in action:
OK great, so there’s some dancers in costumes and some bands. Big deal! But as you can begin to see from those videos, what really sets this parade apart is the intimacy. There are no police barricades, no controls, and hardly any rules. Plus, the streets are very narrow. You’re literally sitting right with the dancers!
You can shake hands with them, ask them questions, offer them food, and take plenty of pictures with the dancers. You can even join in the dance for a bit, if that’s your style. THIS, my fellow Americans, is an interactive parade! That’s the fourth dimension of parades.
This photo kind of gives some perspective on how close the crowd is:
Spectators regularly walk out into the parade and interact with the dancers. Just watch this:
One dancer offered to let me wear his mask:
My kids got in on the action too:
The other big difference that sets Guadalupe apart from your average marching parade is the sacrifice involved. The dancers pay big money for their costumes – it can be one of their biggest expenses of the year, costing hundreds or even thousands of dollars. In a country where the per-capita income is less than $10,000, that’s a big deal.
They train for months to dance with the troupe, usually for several hours a week. Then, on the day of the festival, they really give it everything they have. They dance energetically – jumping, running, kicking, for five miles – with big, heavy costumes! And these dancers certainly aren’t professionals. They’re just average people. It’s not easy for your typical middle-aged couch surfer to do what they do.
Like just about everything else in Latin America, the parade is also a religious event – the annual entrance of the Virgin of Guadalupe into the city’s main cathedral. By dancing the route, each dancer is making her own pilgrimage of sorts. The sacrifices are part of the journey.
By the end of the parade, there are bloody ankles, torn muscles, and lots of tears. It sometimes feels more like a marathon race than a parade! That kind of sacrifice makes it more special to watch.
Hours of Entertainment
There’s just always something new happening on the parade route. The dance troupes keep coming, and each one has something different to offer. I thought my kids would get bored after a short time, but after EIGHT hours, they had to be peeled away! They loved it! What can I say? Kids love sensory overload. The Guadalupe festival was definitely the highlight of our trip to Sucre.
There are dozens of parades like this across Latin America. Each one is unique in its costumes, dances, and customs. If you ever get a chance to see something like this, I highly recommend it. It’s an experience you won’t forget.