Inside Bolivia’s Skull Festival, Where the Dead Get Diamonds and Sunglasses

“Here death isn’t so final.”

Four natitas owned by a local woman named Xahina. Only two smoke cigarettes—the others find smoking a dirty habit.
Four natitas owned by a local woman named Xahina. Only two smoke cigarettes—the others find smoking a dirty habit. All Photos: Paul Koudounaris

On an overcast November day, Juan Chipon strolled into the chapel at the Cementerio General in La Paz, Bolivia, carrying the skull of his father. While this might sound like the beginning of a horror film, Juan was happy and smiling, and the skull was covered in floral wreaths in celebration. Behind Juan came others, also carrying elaborately decorated skulls.

A local woman named Mariela sauntered in carrying her uncle’s skull, a biker hat perched on his forehead and a glistening diamond embedded in one of his front teeth—“yes, it’s a real diamond!” she said, offended by the thought that it might be a fake. Behind her came Xahina, struggling with a large tray of four crania. And following them came thousands more, all part of what is the world’s most flamboyant exaltation of the link between the living and the dead, an annual ritual like no other in the world.

The skulls are known locally as ñatitas (roughly meaning “the little pug-nosed ones”), and this overcast morning was the beginning of their day. A massive public festival held every November 8, the Fiesta de las Ñatitas, gives thanks to the dead, as personified by their very skulls, for a year’s worth of friendship and service.

Two of the first natitas to arrive, carried in a custom glass case.
Two of the first natitas to arrive, carried in a custom glass case.

Here on the high plateau of the Andes death has never been a fatalistic concept; those who pass on have simply transcended to another phase of life, and can still function within the family or social group. Keeping a ñatita in one’s home is considered by many people to provide a great benefit, since the dead are thought to have the ability to offer services to those still living. The skull can provide security for the home, ensure domestic tranquility, aid students in their schoolwork, and provide sage advice.

A ñatita can be the skull of a relative, like Juan Chipon’s father, but they are just as frequently those of strangers, obtained from medical schools or old cemeteries, who reveal an identity to their new owner in a dream. Normally they are kept in household shrines, but for the Fiesta they return to the cemetery as a jubilant mass.

At the Cementario General, where the biggest festivity takes place, the event is a veritable postmortem fashion show. Many skulls wear glasses or hats, while others are styled in emulation of those who keep them. Some will be enshrined like relics or carried in like little princes—for the more than 10,000 people in attendance, the effort put into the presentation of one’s ñatita provides a visible sign of love and esteem.

Several women stand behind their natitas while the chapel's priest reads an oration for the dead.

Several women stand behind their natitas while the chapel’s priest reads an oration for the dead.

By mid day, with the celebration in full swing, the cemetery grounds are literally awash in skulls. Devotees wander among them, providing tributes. Cigarettes placed between their jaws and coca leaves are common, but the most prominent are flower petals and crowns, as a reminder of the beautiful things of the natural world. Adding a touch of cacophony, strolling musicians offer deafeningly loud Bolivian dance music to edify the skulls.

The roots of the festival date to the Pre-Columbian world, and surviving records indicate celebrations conforming to the modern festival have been going on in Bolivia since at least the beginning of the 20th century. Beyond that, the history is murky, but that doesn’t trouble anyone assembled at the cemetery, because despite the presence of so many skulls, the focus is not on the past and definitely not on death.

“It’s about life, about the future, about gratitude and a bond,” explains Xahina, with her four skulls now set up in a makeshift altar in the cemetery grounds. “In your country, maybe the dead really do die,” she continues, “but here death isn’t so final. It’s not a contradiction because the dead are only as dead as you allow them to be. For those of us here, the dead are still very much a vital part of our lives.”

The skull of Manuel Chipon, who died at the age of 92, is now owned by his son Juan as a natita.
The skull of Manuel Chipon, who died at the age of 92, is now owned by his son Juan as a natita.
Many natitas are acquired from medical schools_ in this case, the top of the skull was cut away, but the cavity now serves as a vase to place flowers during the Fiesta.
Many natitas are acquired from medical schools_ in this case, the top of the skull was cut away, but the cavity now serves as a vase to place flowers during the Fiesta.
Balls of multi colored string are used to create eyes for Londres and Colla.
Balls of multi colored string are used to create eyes for Londres and Colla.
Pressing up against the chapel's altar, a traditional Aymara woman jockeys for position so her natita can hear a benediction.
Pressing up against the chapel’s altar, a traditional Aymara woman jockeys for position so her natita can hear a benediction.
Gold foil over this natita's upper jaw is intended to prevent discoloring from cigarettes.
Gold foil over this natita’s upper jaw is intended to prevent discoloring from cigarettes.
Flowers are the most common offering to the skulls, and by the end of the Fiesta can often overwhelm the natita itself.
Flowers are the most common offering to the skulls, and by the end of the Fiesta can often overwhelm the natita itself.
An elderly La Paz businessman poses with a pair of natitas he has owned for several decades.
An elderly La Paz businessman poses with a pair of natitas he has owned for several decades.
Cotton balls pressed into the sockets of a skull are common--they represent eyes, and allow the natita sight.
Cotton balls pressed into the sockets of a skull are common–they represent eyes, and allow the natita sight.
A natita sporting wide sunglasses and with a mouth full of coca leaves.
A natita sporting wide sunglasses and with a mouth full of coca leaves.
Xahina struggles to maneuver her four natitas through the cemetery chapel.
Xahina struggles to maneuver her four natitas through the cemetery chapel.
Adorned with spectacles because, his owner says, it was deternined that this natita had been nearsighted in life.
Adorned with spectacles because, his owner says, it was deternined that this natita had been nearsighted in life.
Smoking three cigarettes simultaneiously, the skull of Manuel Perez is now a natita owned by his uncle.
Smoking three cigarettes simultaneiously, the skull of Manuel Perez is now a natita owned by his uncle.
A traditional Aymara woman carries a trio of natitas into the cemetery chapel.
A traditional Aymara woman carries a trio of natitas into the cemetery chapel.
Raphael, smoking a cigarette, is frequently consulted in his neighborhood about lost objects, and is said to be able to find anything from keys to pets.
Raphael, smoking a cigarette, is frequently consulted in his neighborhood about lost objects, and is said to be able to find anything from keys to pets.