Semana Santa (Holy Week) is upon us and nowhere is this celebrated with quite as much fervor as in Cusco. At this time the city becomes even more full of color, noise, and activity than usual, and you cannot go anywhere without seeing a parade, procession, stalls selling special food, and general merriment. It is a joyful time to be in the city. And the procession for the Señor de los Temblores (Lord of the Earthquakes) is perhaps the most recognized symbol of the week and a celebration wholly unique to Cusco.
Taking place on Easter Monday each year, the Señor de los Temblores procession is one of the most keenly anticipated events in the calendar and gives residents of Cusco the chance to honor the two most important strands of their culture; the Incan religions and Catholicism. For this festival is one of the clearest examples of the fascinating mix of cultures that has existed in Cusco, ever since the first Spanish conquistadores arrived in the 16th Century. The celebration has its origins in the 17th Century when a devastating earthquake was prevented from inflicting untold damage on Cusco when faced with an oil painting of Christ on the Cross. Or so the story goes. The painting was grabbed by the locals and held up to the skies whereupon the earthquake began to lose some of its strength and a true catastrophe was averted. This story has stood the test of time and the image of Christ on the cross is celebrated to this day as being the ‘Lord of the Earthquakes’. To pay tribute the citizens of Cusco flock to the Plaza de Armas every Easter Monday and watch as a statue of the image is paraded through the streets, giving a blessing to all who have turned out. And it is here where the cross of cultures is seen most clearly, as the practice of parading images through the streets to be venerated by the people was a huge part of the Incan culture. The ancient Incan practice of letting the people see the chieftains, high priests, and rulers as they processed through the streets was mixed with the Christian idea of Christ on the Cross to create this fascinating and completely unique festival.
The day itself is quite a spectacle, and it all really gets going in the evening when the statue of Christ begins its journey around the streets of Cusco. The image is kept in the Cathedral during the year but each Easter Monday at 7pm it leaves the church, on the shoulders of pallbearers, and travels through the crowds to bless the local people. The majority of cusqueñans believe it to be incredibly important to receive the blessing first hand and so the streets around the main square are filled with virtually the entire population. The statue itself is spectacular and has been blackened over the centuries by the smoke and incense used at the celebration. It was originally a gift from King Charles V of Spain and the Cathedral has never wanted to replace it, giving it a somewhat darkened, eerie complexion today. As it makes its way through the streets the statue is draped in Ñucchu flowers, including a crown made from the petals, whose crimson color is meant to represent the blood of Christ. The faithful come from all over the city to catch a glimpse of the statue and receive the blessing. It is a day of real faith and religious fervor and a chance to celebrate the mix of the old Incan culture and the more recently arrived Catholicism that makes Cusco so special. At the end of the procession the statue makes its way back to the cathedral where it is laid to rest for another year.
Semana Santa is one of the best times to be in Cusco and to experience the parade of the Señor de los Temblores is to experience a tradition dating back hundreds of years that showcases the fascinating cultural mix that exists in the city. It is a place with so much history and tradition, coming from a variety of countries and cultures, and there is no better time to see the city at its best than during Holy Week.