It doesn’t matter what time of year you travel in South America, as chances are, you’ll come across a festival. Of course, some festivals are bigger than others, like Rio Carnival, but from experience, I find the smaller ones more fun.
The first time I had a water balloon smash into me was in Cajamarca, Peru. I’d travelled there in the hope of catching the all-important Peruvian Carnival and I was far from disappointed, though a tad drenched by the end of my visit.
Situated in the northern highlands, the equatorial climate makes visiting the hot springs and Inca ruins an unforgettable experience, and combined with the festivities, Cajamarca should be on the must-see list for every traveller who wants an adventure.
Cajamarca is one of the most important historical regions in Peru. This is where the Incan Empire collapsed and the colonial era began. Back in the 18th century, the Spanish chroniclers described the city as “large and beautiful”, and it is still, despite the bloody history.
When I travelled to Cajamarca it was late February and the celebrations of the Peruvian Carnival were well underway. Entire neighbourhoods united in a noisy, fun-filled event that is now etched in my memory forever. The combination of music, art, literature, and humour appealed to my sensibilities and was the perfect representation of ancient and modern traditions.
Women sat atop brightly decorated floats and paraded through Plaza de Armas and the surrounding streets. Creativity ran rampant during these celebrations and the locals came up with astounding costumes made of papier maché, feathers and all manner of cloth. Musicians continually played upbeat music and people danced in the streets, waving decorated banners, streamers, and yes, throwing water bombs filled with talcum powder and/or water.
One of the drawcards to this particular festival is the bawdy and satirical improvised lyrics people invented about daily life. I wish I could remember the exact lines of the ditties, but all I can recall is many were men lamenting how hard it is to understand women and their observations resulted in tears of laughter pouring down the faces of both sexes. The festival also celebrates the region’s products, including wine, custard apples, guitars, limes and oranges, hydrangeas, healers and sombreros.
Ño Carnavalón is the festival’s spirit and king of the carnival. He makes an appearance at the beginning of the event and moves throughout the crowds as people sing and dance. At the end of the carnival Ño Carnavalón is ceremoniously burnt, covered then buried by the villagers.
I’ve been lucky enough to experience many festivals throughout the Americas, but Cajamarca is one that still lives on in my heart. The warm, friendly people and combination of tradition, culture, and craft is fabulous. The best part, though? Getting involved in a water balloon fight and being covered head to toe in water and talcum powder and looking something like the Pillsbury Doughboy. My sides ached for days from so much laughter.