There is a festival in a Peruvian town so small there’s no running water after 10 p.m. It is three days of dancing, laughing, eating, drinking, costumes, parades, prayers, and culture. It is one of the most magical experiences I’ve ever had in my life.
I had been talking with a Peruvian friend, Juampa, for years about going to visit him, but I always lacked the time or the money. In 2010, right before I finished the semester, he told me he was going with his anthropologist friends to Cusco and planned on going to a festival in this tiny town, Paucartambo. He said it was a non-stop three-and-a-half day* festival where the people in the community celebrate and worship la Virgen del Carmen (known affectionately as la Mamacha del Carmen) through a gorgeous mix of indigenous and Spanish rituals. And -he added- we had a place to stay in both Cusco and Paucartambo.
So I could travel around Peru with a bunch of anthropologists, visit Lima, go to Cusco, see Machu Pichu, participate in a small-town festival, and have free accommodation for the three places I would stay at?
I had just gotten a housing refund that was almost to the dollar the amount of my plane ticket. It was meant to be. I booked it… then called my mom to tell her I had just booked a three week ticket to Peru. Whoops.
I could write an entire book about my three-weeks in Peru. To this day -four years, and many travels later- it is one of the most memorable and incredible trips I have ever had. But this blog entry is not for Peru. It’s for Paucartambo. For the beautiful people who welcomed me and feed me and shared their culture with me for three amazing days.
This is how I lived el Festival de la Virgen del Carmen in Paucartambo, Peru.
The trip starts off great. A 5 hour bus ride through the swirling mountain roads; the breaking down of another bus which forced us to pass through an impossibly narrow path; thinking of the absurdly high chance that the bus would fall off the cliff; and, finally, the joy of escaping imminent death.
Things take an immediate turn for the better as soon as we got to the town. We are met by waves of people, colorful parades, and beautiful music. The first day of the festival is a procession where all the different characters are introduced as they salute the Virgin, and where the Virgin is paraded around the town.
The festival is basically stories told through the dances. The characters are hilarious parodies or representations of colonial archetypes and religious symbols: the Sikllas or Wayras (the lawyers, a parody of the corrupt legal system), the Waka Wakas (bullfighters), the Saqras (demons), the Qapaq Qollas (High-land merchants), the Qapaq Chunchos (Antisuyo warriors), and many, many more. All the characters have their own costumes (which the dancers make themselves), dances, and music.
My favorites were the Maq’tas. Their job is to keep the streets open for the dancers to go through. They sound like the law but really they are the most anti-establishment characters you’ll ever meet. Oh they’ll clear the streets alright, and they’ll do it by spraying people with random substances, chasing them around with dessicated animals, and straight out whipping them. No, really. They will hit you and it will hurt.
They make everything hilarious because -when you’re not the victim- it’s great to see other visitors be tormented.
We follow the parades, walk around the town, and partake in a collective free meal. We also go to pay our respects to the Mamacha del Carmen. This- one of the dancers and Juampa’s friend from Paucartambo, Angela, explained- is extremely important, and not doing it is incredibly disrespectful.
At night, there are symbolic and festive rituals that bring color to the dark sky. One ritual involves some of the characters jumping through a fire in order to cleanse themselves, an incredibly beautiful act to watch.
The main ritual is a parade of symbols called Castillos (Castles) made with fireworks, which are then lit to make a beautiful display. Music is played, everyone gathers in the square to collectively admire the fireworks, the air is thick with festivity.
The procession ends and the fireworks go out. Does that mean that the party is over and we all retire peacefully back to our homes (or in our case, sleeping bags in wooden floor)? Oh no. No, no, no. The fun hasn’t even started!
So every group of characters have their own comparsa, which is kind of like their little “house”. This is where they eat during the day and party during the night, and their doors are always open. Not only does every comparsa offer to feed you every day, but they also invite you to dance and drink (for free) with them. Because it was hard to decide which characters to celebrate with, we decide to hop around from comparsa to comparsa throughout the night. Every once in a while we take a break and hang out on the crowded streets, talking, meeting people, and even befriending the fearsome Maq’tas.
At midnight, the dancers gather at the church steps (this time in their regular clothes) and perform a serenade. It’s a great end to the beginning of our time there.
More beautiful rituals. We start the day at the church where they had a gorgeous mass in both Spanish and Quechua (one of the most important indigenous languages of the Andean region). We then go to Angela’s comparsa to eat with her and her family. The parades never stop, and the dancing goes on. The Virgin is taken out of the church in a procession around town. We run away from some Maq’das, dance, laugh at the hilarious mimics and parodies of the dancers, and have an amazing day.
At night, we make a round through some comparsas, dancing and drinking, but retire a bit early. Why? Because that night we have other plans: We are going to Tres Cruces to see the Dancing Sun.
Tres Cruces is a small town, close to Paucartambo, so high that the clouds are below you, hiding away the jungle at your feet. Its sunrises are famous because, when the sky is clear, there’s an optical illusion that makes the sun look like it moves, or “dances.” According to Juampa, this can only be seen in two places in the world: Japan, and Tres Cruces. This is where we were heading.
Because it is very, very high and you’re going to see a sunrise, it is freezing. And by freezing I mean I have tights, pants, pajama pants, two pairs of socks, gloves, snow boots, 3 layers of shirts, a sweater, a jacket, and a sleeping bag over me and I am still freezing.
To get there you have to get a van and drive through unlit mountain paths feeling like you are sure to die. Once you are there, however, sitting on that mountain with the clouds below you, breathing in the sky, you forget everything else.
We don’t get clear skies, so we don’t see the sun dance, but we’re kind of glad; we can’t imagine a more beautiful sunrise than the one we get.
Perfect end of our second day, and perfect beginning of our third and last day.
The third day is made up of even more processions and gorgeous rituals. There are two specially that stand out in my mind.
The first is the cemetery procession where the dancers go into the cemetery to dance and sing for the members of their comparsa who they’ve said goodbye to. It is a sad yet cheerful celebration of life and remembrance of death.
The second ritual that stands out is probably the most important dance in the entire festival: it is the fight for the Mamacha.
The dance begins with the Waka Waka’s bull raging through the streets
Through its mad antics, the bull clears the streets, followed by the Waka Wakas who conclude the three-day dance by killing it.
Then the Guerrilla (Battle for the Mamacha) starts. The battle begins when the Qapaq Qollas’ (High-land merchants) try to steal the Mamacha, and the Qapaq Chunchos (Antipuyo Warriors) have to defend her.
Chaos ensues and the dancers throw oranges, bread, water, and even flaming objects into the audience and the rooftops.
The Saqras (devils) are up on the rooftops, jumping from roof to roof, and into the street.
The Qapaq Qollas and the Qapaq Chunchos are going back and forth and back and forth in a synchronized battle for the Mamacha. The beat gets faster and faster, the music is more intense by the second, your heart is beating fast with excitement and joy.
At the end, the Qapaq Chuncos are victorious and the Saqras come with lit-up wheel barrows to take the Qapaq Qollas to hell. The joy is contagious, inescapable. Everyone, all dancers, locals, and visitors dance through the streets celebrating. Music plays and a shower of fireworks pops from the roofs of houses.
We all link arms and dance in the same direction. We go forth two steps, back one step, feeling the music go in and out and through us. Next to me is a stranger, a dancer who I will never see because his face has been transformed into a mask for the last three days. On my other side are the people I just meet a few days ago but with whom I have shared food and dance and joy and a wooden floor. We can’t stop laughing and smiling. It is blissful.
The music in the street disperses and we go to Angela’s comparsa. This time, we are not hoping from comparsa to comparsa, this time we’re staying faithful. There are few nights in my life where I have danced as much and with such total abandon (and I swear I had not had a single drop of alcohol). We sing to Paucartambo: “Paucartambo, Paucartambo, ay te dejo mis recuerdos, kutimunaykama!” (Paucartambo, Paucartambo, I leave you my memories, until I return), we dance with traditional Andean steps, we hug Angela’s dad and his friends and thank them, thank everyone, but mostly thank Paucartambo for this beautiful experience it has allowed us to live. For the magic that none of us will ever forget, even after some of us go back, even after the years pass, even after we forget each other’s faces. Paucartambo is still there, it will always still be there.
And it’s there for you, too.
*El Festival de la Virgen del Carmen takes place from the 15th to the 18th of July. I only talk about the first three days because we left at dawn on the 18th in order to avoid the masses of people leaving the city.
Unfortunately, there is not much information in English about Paucartambo and the festival. However, here are several videos through which you can experience the festival a bit more.
Here are some links in Spanish (even if you don’t speak it, the music and the images make it worth it!)
Peruvian TV report on the festival
Descriptions of characters and dances