By chance are you and your family or friends traveling to Peru in July? Interested in immersing yourself in local flavor and some of the most important cultural highlights of Peru? If you’re nodding your head yes, then something you should definitely consider is an authentic Peruvian Festival experience, which is full of ornately orchestrated dances, live music accompaniment, and plenty of cerveza (beer) to go around. Such festivals are so integral to Peruvian society, and will give you an authentic insight into Peruvian cultural reality.
Every year between July 15th-18th the Festival Virgen del Carmen in the Cusco province of Paucartambo becomes a major focus for locals and tourists alike; La Virgen de Carmen is not only one of the largest festivals in Peru, but also hands down one of the happiest!
THE MAGIC OF PATRONA CARMEN
Newfound friends – typically amazingly complex and interesting individuals – surround you and you suddenly feel part of the collective. The masked characters swirl around you in a perpetual haze of beer, chicha, and pure joy in this four-day celebration of La Gran Mamacha Carmen. The details of the legend escape many of the party-goers – how and why she became la patrona (patron saint) of Paucartambo. However, the meat of the story is quite consistent:
The party itself is one of the most renowned in Peru annually; spiritual, catholic, and cultural pilgrims all cram into a town with but one main plaza and many narrowly winding streets. They sleep in tents or in mattresses on balconies that overlook the festivities, really anywhere with an available square of space. All of this began when Carmen became the patron saint of Paucartambo by chance in the late 13th century.
It all started when a local Paucaurtambo woman found the head of the Virgen Mary that must have fallen en route to the jungle (where substantial missions were already beginning to form). The virginal head, so the legend continues, began to calmly converse with this woman explaining her name was Carmen and not to fear her but quite the opposite: to trust her. Soon, the people of Paucartambo began to ask her for wishes related to the health and happiness of the community, and legend has it that she performed many miracles.
As a result, every year, in the middle of July, the party lives on so to extend Carmen´s bounty of miracles to Paucartambo, and now to many other surrounding Peruvian provinces, including Cusco City.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS – SATIRICAL FUN THROUGH DANCE
Much like the Festival of Qoyllur Rit’i (Snow Star in Quechua), which takes place in late May, the beautifully adorned dance troupes of Paucartambo and their accompanying band of musicians hardly stop moving. The majority of these sixteen dances in total are caricatures from different periods from Peruvian history. Of all the dances, my favorite has to be the Qhapaq Qollas. Accompanied by llamas and adorned with multi-colored ribbons, these dancers represent the moment of encuentro (encounter) with the head of La Gran Mamacha Carmen and are the characters who symbolize those with the most faith in her. The Qhapaq Qollas are not alone in telling a rich and intricate story of the history and culture of Peru. Every dance in the festival is unique in movement and costume, and information about the origin and characteristics of each one is provided in the form of large posters on a wall in the main plaza of Paucartambo.
When most locals arrive to this plaza the first order of business is to find and secure a hospedaje to store their bags. Then they are free to venture into the cacophony of colorful bodies and partake in the ample libations. However, once you arrive to your hospedaje booked in advance with us, you may or may not choose to partake in the copious amount of chelas (beers) that line the streets.
Nevertheless, even if you choose not to imbibe, the multitude of masked characters provides ample entertainment just the same. For example, the Chunkchus (aka penis-nose in Quechua) satirically represent the sexual and macho appetites of the hacienda patrons from the colonial age; they poke fun at everyone and everything around them.
PERSONALLY INTERACT WITH FESTIVAL PARTICIPANTS
At about six in the evening on Sunday, which marks the middle of the festival, there is a definite pause amongst the pilgrims and dancers alike. The wealthier members of Paucartambo are each assigned a dance and donate all of the money necessary towards their party space (which doubles as a lodging space) food, and alcohol. This phenomenon is called a cargo. And so, all of the dancers rest, eat, and drink in their respective cargos at this point of the festival. It is typically acceptable and even welcome to “crash” said cargos. So do not be surprised if you are pulled onto the dance floor to try your hand at the twirling huayno steps alongside the dancers.
All in all, if you choose to make the journey for one day affair to Paucartambo as part of your custom Peru tour for this very special celebration mid-July you are sure to form a mini-community and belong to an incredible collective. For these five days in Paucartambo no one seems preoccupied with their worries, day-jobs, or their “stuff”. Instead, sheer alegría (happiness) pulses through the crowds; this alegría will pulse through you too, leaving you with lasting memories for years to come.