Written and photographed by Isaiah Brookshire
Isaiah is a writer, photographer, and globally focused multimedia storyteller. He is from California and will be in Cusco for the next five months. While here, Isaiah is volunteering with our partner organization Threads of Peru, as well as documenting festivals and activities for Apus Peru. To learn more about him, visit his website at www.isaiahbrookshire.com.
Something I learned very quickly after moving to Cusco is that Peru is a land of festivals. It seems like every saint, season, and sacrament has it’s own celebration. I can’t recall a week passing without a parade or fiesta taking over the city.
On May 3, Fiesta Cruz Velacuy was held in Cusco and the surrounding pueblos. Similar events are celebrated throughout the Latin world. The Vigil of the Cross is said to date back to Roman emperor Constantine, who won a difficult battle after seeing a cross emblazoned in the sky.
Preparations for the festival begin days in advance. One custom leading up to it involves the host (or carguyoq) giving a special loaf of bread to their neighbors. The neighbors then return the favor by giving the host a bottle of beer. Because bread is cheaper than beer, this helps offset the host’s costs.
On the day of the festival I traveled to the community of Izcuchaca, located about 45 minutes outside of Cusco. I went along with Jhon, the younger brother of one of Apus’ office staff. His aunt and uncle were the chosen hosts for this year’s Cruz Veacuy fiesta. When we arrived at their house, it was already buzzing with activity. The inner courtyard had been turned into a massive outdoor kitchen. The women prepared tripe for soup and a big pot of frying pork crackled on the fire.
Soon, the focus shifted from cooking food to heading into town. Followed by a group of majeño dancers and and marching band, Jhon’s family walked to Izcuchaca’s church where they arranged candles and flowers near the altar.
As Jhon’s family worked to decorate the church, people poured in. Many of them carried crosses from their homes. A few of the crosses were nearly twenty feet high, while others could stand on a small table. Some were carved from wood, others from stone. All the crosses were colorfully decorated and draped in wrappings that resembled clothes.
More and more people bearing crosses arrived and every seat in the church was taken; even the aisles were filled. After Mass, the crosses were blessed and sprinkled with holy water by a white-robed priest.
A parade around the city followed the Mass. A painting of a tree resembling Christ led the way. People carrying personal crosses followed and the largest, most elaborately decorated cross brought up the rear. The procession was accompanied by the music of marching bands and the booming of fireworks.
The progress slowed several times so the crowd could try to reach prizes suspended from ropes hung high above the road. Someone standing on a ladder or in a second story window would pull on the ropes to make them bounce until all the gifts had been snatched or the rope pulled down altogether.
The parade eventually circled back to the church where the priest said a few more words of blessing and thanked this year’s organizers. Dancing followed and groups split off to their respective parties, carrying their newly-blessed crosses. Jhon and I went back to his aunt’s house and joined a hundred or so people in the large courtyard. We sat on long wooden planks and were served a huge lunch that consisted of a slab of pork, brown bread, a hearty soup, and chicha (a fermented corn drink).
After dinner the dancing started back up again, and case after case of Peruvian beer was unloaded from the house. Jhon told me the party would last long into the night, and from the looks of things, he was right. We walked into town and caught the bus to Cusco. As we left, I watched the sun sink through thick clouds at the end of the valley and caught the last rays as they reflected on snowcapped mountains to the north.
In Cusco and the Sacred Valley, events like this happen all the time. For the major ones, check out our cultural events calendar and for others just ask our staff. One of the great things about booking a tour with Apus Peru is the inside information our guides provide about cultural details others miss. For more details on Apus Peru treks and tours, visit our website.