Photos and text by Isaiah Brookshire
You have come to Peru. You have seen Machu Picchu, explored Cusco, and maybe even done a trek or two. Now you have a couple days to kill before you fly home, and are wondering what to do. Of course, this is Peru and the options are pretty much limitless but I’ll suggest one: visit a festival.
Apus Peru offers trips to many of the major festivals around Cusco and because festivals are pretty much non-stop in Peru, it is likely one will fit your schedule (Check out our events calendar for more info). Just recently, we took a group of seven adventure-seekers about four hours outside of Cusco to the small city of Paucartambo where we witnessed the Virgen del Carmen fiesta.
This celebration lasts four days and includes dances, food, and parades (not to mention a fair bit of alcohol). With Apus Peru, travellers get to experience the two main days of the festival with private transportation, a guide, and cooks to keep them comfortable.
On the way to Paucartambo, the tour stops at the Chullpas of Ninamarca — fascinating cylindrical ruins located on a hill near the road. From there it doesn’t take long to reach the city, unless you get caught in the mob of busses, vans, and taxis shuttling hundreds of party-hungry Peruvians.
This year’s Apus Peru trip arrived in Paucartambo early in the afternoon. After unpacking our things, we set out for the main square to witness Virgen del Carmen’s famous dancers. Each group parades through the town, across a colonial bridge, into the main square, and to the church where they present themselves to a statue of the Virgen del Carmen — an important invocation of the Virgin Mary to people in Paucartambo and many Catholics around the globe.
Each of the dances carries a unique meaning that ranges from comical to religious; one group will poke fun at bull fighting while another dressed as demons will try to carry away the souls of the crowd only to shrink in fear when they see the Virgen.
After the main procession, our group ate dinner and spent a little time recovering before we went back to the main square for fireworks. To describe the display as “crazy” would probably be an understatement. First, dancers with whips clear the crowd and make a path that circles the main square. Then they pile dry grass in heaps along the paths and light it on fire. As the fires burn down, the dancers jump over them and grab women from the audience to hoist over the flames.
Next the fireworks are lit. These represent the flames of hell and are carried on top of long poles. As the dancers circle the plaza, they hold the poles over the crowd to shower them with sparks. Some of the fireworks burn for a while and then shoot into the air, or on rare occasions sidewise into the onlookers. Most of the people just laugh off these mishaps and show off the burn marks on their clothes.
Finally, four firework towers about ten meters high are lit. They spray coloured sparks over the crowd and one we saw even had a spinning top with the words “Virgen del Carmen” emblazoned on it. At the very end a huge burst of mortars is shot skyward and explodes right over the crowd, raining down a spectacular shower of sparks.
At this festival sleep is brief; the party lasts all night long and at 1:30 a.m. it is time to get up again to catch sunrise at the Tres Cruces viewpoint near Manu National Park. Every year, like this year, there is the risk that clouds will block the spectacular view, but it is worth the early morning drive to the dozens if not hundreds of people who come to try their luck.
After breakfast and a nap it is back to the fiesta to witness the main event; the procession of the Virgen. Led by dancers and carried by straining devotees, the statue of the Virgen del Carmen makes its way through crowded streets. Everyone wants an up-close view and the area around the statue offers barely enough room to breathe.
Once the procession has passed, the revellers return to the party — back to eating and back to drinking. We regrouped, rested a little, and packed up the car to return to Cusco. The drive back was less congested with traffic and the clear night sky that we had wanted so badly in the morning was now filled with stars that shone with a brilliance only glimpsed in these high mountains.