When I lived in Cuzco, Peru, I got to experience a festival every other week. People are always celebrating something – festivals for the living, festivals for the dead, for Incan gods, summer solstice, winter solstice… the list goes on. Many of these events are held on a grand scale and streets are crowded with tourists and locals drinking and dancing until the wee hours of the morning, only to wake up the next day and do it over again. One of my favourite festivals, however, isn’t as well known as the others, but boy, it is impressive.
The rural town of Paucartambo is situated four hours north-east from Cuzco. The trip isn’t for the faint-hearted as the narrow, windy roads and steep canyons make even the most adventurous travellers a tad nervous. Most of the year, Paucartambo is a lunch stop for tourists on their way to Manu Jungle, but when July 15 rolls around, this sleepy town comes alive with colour, music, and fireworks.
For three days, locals and a handful of tourists gather to celebrate El Virgin del Carmen. Not only does this festival embrace Christian beliefs but the Virgin embodies Pachamama (Mother Earth), a sacred deity of the Incas. During celebrations, the town’s population swells from 1,500 to 12,000 and accommodations can be scarce. It’s definitely a matter of who you know, and the best way to find a place to stay to contact a local tour operator in Cuzco and book your stay ahead of time.
What sets this festival apart from many others is the masks the dancers wear during the festivities. Pointed chins, arched eyebrows, and large eyes are only some of their features, and among the most popular are the white masks that represent the conquistadors. Whenever these make an appearance, there’s a lot of hissing and booing from onlookers.
Around twenty dance groups take part in the fiesta, and the dances represent the stories of their people. The Capac Q’olla is a religious dance that honours the merchants who brought their wares to Paucartambo.
On the first day of the Virgen del Carmen Festival, people gather in front of the town's main church which lies on the largest plaza. The dancers surround the church, wearing their masks and colourful costumes, and two dancers march inside the back of the church to salute the Virgen del Carmen statue. These two dancers depict Capaq Qolla (the people of the region), and Capaq Negro, who wears a black mask and represents the African slaves who once worked in the silver mines nearby.
Throughout the celebrations Maqtas, impish tricksters, run among the crowds and ensure people behave as the Virgin is paraded by. They demand people take off their hats and stop drinking in the Virgin's presence.
The church holds a spiritual mass and the townsfolk follow the dancers and wend their way between shops and houses, bearing candles, flowers, and other offerings to the Virgin. In the evening, the town square explodes with fireworks and music, and dancers jump over bonfires. At midnight, everyone calms down and says a prayer for the Virgin in front of the church's closed doors.
And the next morning, the heads of each dance group pass out gifts of fruit and handicrafts to the people attending the mass. By that afternoon, the Virgin is adorned in exquisite fabric and is escorted through the streets by Capaq Cunchos (guardians of the Virgin). They form the head of the procession and the dancers follow behind, decked out in their colourful costumes and masks, musicians playing accompanying tunes.
By day three, each dance group performs a routine through the cemetery and onlookers sing about ancestry and their own mortality. The Virgin is taken through the streets again and is brought to a bridge. Once there, people bow their heads and Capaq Negro and Capaq Qolla sing a farewell prayer.
The Virgin is then retired to the church until the following year, and the main plaza fires up with a party to end all parties.
Of all the festivals I’ve attended around the world, Paucartambo is very dear to my heart. Even now, years later, remembering the wonderful people who welcomed and encouraged me to join the celebrations brings a smile to my face.
How about you? What festival has left you with fond memories?