By any chance are you and your family or friends traveling to Peru in July? Are you interested in immersing yourself in local flavor and experiencing first-hand 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 usually from July 15th-19th, the Festival Virgen del Carmen in the Cusco province of Paucartambo becomes a major focus for thousands of locals and tourists alike. La Virgen del Carmen is not only the largest festivals in Peru, but it is also hands down one of the happiest and most colorful one! The festival 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.
Do expect that accommodations are usually rudimentary as sleep isn’t top of mind for most festival goers; however, nicer accommodations can be arranged though they may be costly. Don’t be surprise to find many sleeping in tents or in mattresses on balconies that overlook the festivities, really anywhere with an available square of space.
When you enter the festival, you will find nonstop revelry complete with incessant fireworks and plenty of free-flowing alcohol. You will discover 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 five-day celebration of La Gran Mamacha Carmen, and unexpectedly as it may seem, you may also see them scale the town’s clay-tiled rooftops or swing from the square’s blue balconies.
While the details of the legend escape many of the festival-goers – how and why she became la patrona (patron saint) of Paucartambo, the heart of the story is quite consistent:
As legend goes, it all started in the 13th century, when a local young wealthy woman was heading to Paucaurtambo to trade a silver dish and came across a beautiful, bodiless head. The head spoke to the young women when she placed it on the dish and told her that her name was Carmen. The virginal head, so the legend continues, began to calmly converse with this woman and told her not to fear her, but quite the opposite: to trust her. Soon, the people of Paucartambo began to ask Carmen for wishes related to the health and happiness of the community. People witnessed rays of light shining from her head and that she performed many miracles among the community.
As a result, every year, in the middle of July, the festival lives on so to extend Carmen´s bounty of miracles to Paucartambo, and now to many other surrounding Peruvian provinces, including Cusco City.
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.
At about six in the evening on the 17th, 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.