The Yarituses festival in San Javier

 In Bolivian history and myths, Bolivian People, Traditional Bolivia, Travel Bolivia, Travel South America

The Yarituses festival takes place annually from June 28th to 30th in San Francisco Xavier, a former Jesuit mission town in the Chiquitania region located in Santa Cruz, Bolivia (approx. 230 km from the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra). It is a traditional celebration deeply rooted in the local culture and heritage of the Chiquitano indigenous people. This festival in honour of Saint Peter and Saint Paul is celebrated as an authentic Chiquitano festivity represented by the Yarituses. The Yarituses festival is considered since 2018 as part of the cultural heritage of Bolivia.

The dance of the Yarituses is a ritual that was initiated by the ancient inhabitants of the area, the ¨Piñocas¨, and forms the foundation of the history of San Javier. Its origins date back hundreds of years before the arrival of the Spanish conquerors in America. The piñocas believed that the ¨Piyo¨ (ostrich in ¨Besiró¨ language) was a sacred bird or a supreme being, they attributed to it the ability to bring about a good harvest season, successful hunting, and fishing.

According to the myth, before the arrival of the Jesuits in San Javier, the ¨piñocas¨ believed only in the supreme god ¨Nupayare¨ or ¨Ñandu-Piyo¨. There was a group of men who went hunting and came across a strange large bird. They tried to kill it, but as they pursued it, it disappeared. At night, while they rested, they saw in the sky the shape of a Piyo, and that’s when they said, ‘This is our day. We cannot look at it directly; we need to wear masks.’ And that’s how the dance began. It was a ritual of gratitude to the god ¨Nupayaré¨

The ceremony in the native ¨Besiró¨ language is called ¨Yiritux¨, which means hill or hillside, those high places served as the stage for the ritual, where they performed dances and songs in their native language, giving rise to the name ¨Yarituses¨ (those who worship on hills and hillsides).

Despite the passage of time, the tradition remained intact, and when the Jesuits arrived in 1691, they merged it with the Catholicism they brought, making June 29th and 30th the dates for the traditional dance, coinciding with the celebration of Saints Peter and Paul. This reflects the cultural adaptation that occurred during the Spanish colonization period, resulting in a fusion of indigenous rituals and Catholic elements.

Las Piedras de los Apóstoles (The Stones of the Apostles): The Piñokas and the Yarituses always had a special relationship with rocks. In the Chiquitos region of Santa Cruz, there are also stones and certain lithic formations that were highly respected by the local inhabitants in the past. One of these sites is the now ¨parque Piedras de los Apóstoles¨. This place is located two blocks from the main plaza of San Javier and is known as the Yaritú cliff, the natural stage for the ceremonial dance of the yaritús.

A significant part of the Yarituses festival involves a pilgrimage to the local majestic mission church. Participants dance and sing to the beat of the tamborita (small drums) and finally march in a procession, carrying the images of the saints, as they pay homage to Catholic saints and seek blessings for their community.

Every year, approximately 500 dancers participate in the Yarituses festival, wearing their traditional costumes adorned with masks and ostrich feathered headdresses and a staff embellished with colorful ribbons. They also wear ¨abarcas¨ (traditional sandals) and “paichachís” or rattles around their legs, believed to ward off evil spirits. Carried on their backs are “panacús,” symbolizing the bountiful harvest, successful hunting, and fishing. The ¨abuelos¨ (the elders), on the other hand, wear jackets, abarcas and masks.

During the Yarituses festival, touristic, and cultural activities take place, such as concerts of baroque music, typical gastronomy of San Xavier featuring the famous baked goods, religious processions, masses, craft exhibitions, street parties, dances, and a lot of joy. Visitors can actively engage with the vibrant Yarituses culture during the procession across the town.

Are you joining us next year? Check our personalized trips to the Jesuit Missions.