Originally published August 2013 / Updated June 2018
Is there another festival so elaborate in its activities, so colorful in its costumes and especially masks, so local yet easily accessible, so much fun, spectacular, solemn, dramatic, and mind-blowing at the same time?
Partying at the cemetery to commemorate the dead, throwing fruits but also wooden objects into the crowd, devils acting that they want to be near the Virgin, and – as a visitor – having to wrap yourself in plastic when watching the reenactment of an age-old war on the plaza… How bizarre is that?
We were flabbergasted by the number of religious celebrations in this country. Small & big, local & national, simple & grand – I think it’s impossible to travel in Peru without encountering one.
According to local people in Cusco, the Paucartambo Festival is one of the two most awe-inspiring and still authentic festivals in this region (the other being the celebration of Corpus Christi in Quyllur Rit’i). We went to have a look and for three days were floored by the magnificence of it all.
Paucartambo lies in the middle of the Andes Mountains, with slopes either bare and brown or cultivated by farmers who live in hamlets of adobe houses. Amidst this landscape we came across this picturesque (yep, that’s the word), flourishing-looking place with a walled-in river running through it.
After we crossed the beautiful, 18th-century stone arched bridge we found ourselves in the winding, cobbled streets lined with whitewashed houses with blue shutters and doors, all meticulously maintained.
We fell in love with Paucartambo instantly.
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We found a safe place to park the Land Cruiser, in a temporary parking lot which normally is the playground of a school, and ambled downtown along zillions of stalls. This was the street to find yourself new clothes and blankets (both welcome as it was unusually cold), Chinese junk, miniature offerings, and lots of food.
The four-day Paucartambo Festival was pleasantly unorganized in an organized fashion, if that makes any sense. There was a program but things were happening around us all the time and we never knew exactly what was going to happen where and when.
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Fortunately, the town is small so when Coen ran off because his eye caught something interesting, I wouldn’t automatically lose him (or the other way around). From every street appeared troupes, seemingly in random order, to parade or perform dances on the plaza.
When asking about the origin of the festival I got different answers: It has existed for 100 years, 400 years, it’s pre-Inca, or, very specifically, it started in 1640. The 17 groups represent local and/or colonial lifestyles, and/or human behavior. Many have a specific role during the festival.
The opening of the Paucartambo Festival
There was so much entertainment, dance and music that we’d easily forget that for many people this is a devotional gathering, something they do because they want to honor the Virgin. We met people who came here each year to thank the Virgin for her blessings or to ask for good health and prosperity in the year to come.
The local government curtailed alcohol by forbidding its sale downtown but succeeded only partially. Whereas on the 15th, the first day of the festival, police officers were busy warning shops to stop selling beer, they became more lenient as the festival carried on. We didn’t see any chicha (cheap, locally brewed corn beer) and both measures no doubt prevented the festival from becoming a drunk affair.
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Parades and Dances; Honoring the Virgin
The church was packed with worshippers day and night. From 6 to 10 a.m. the priest held one mass after the other; the church was too small to organize it otherwise. People prayed, brought flowers or other presents to the Virgin del Carmen (Our Lady of Mount Carmel, or locally known as La Mamacha Carmen) and burned candles. The candle vendors right outside the entrance prospered.
Throughout the day the troupes paraded the town and performed on the plaza. What a feast, what stamina. On and on they went, seemingly never getting tired. Having said that, each troupe does have a hall or house where they can retreat and where their sponsor of that year takes care of food and lodging. This sponsor, generally a family, has the honor to walk at the head of the troupe carrying a small representation of the Virgin.
Paying Respect to the Dead – Visiting the Cemetery
In 1950, the (young) leader of the Qhapaq Qolla troupe died. Eight days after somebody’s death, locals visit the deceased’s grave. That year, this happened to be on July 17th, smack in the middle of the festival. After the morning mass, the troupe decided to visit the cemetery and pay the respects to their former carporal. Other troupes followed and this simple act grew into a beautiful tradition that still exists today.
On July 17th, around 10 a.m., ‘everybody’ went to the cemetery to visit the graves of former troupe members. All masks and attributes were put on the grave while a family member or friend gave a speech, or said a couple of words. Then it was party time with music, songs, dance and beer.
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The highlight for the devotees is the procession on July 16th, the main day of the festival. The Virgin is carried around town and it’s a high honor to be selected as one of her carriers. The Qhapaq Ch’uncho surround her as her guards and in front of her walk the Qhapaq Negros, who are known for their devotion to the Virgin.
Each year other troupes may accompany the procession as well. Those who walk in front of La Mamacha, walk backward and hold their mask in their hand in sign of respect to the Virgin. The Maqt’as (the clowns, remember) make sure everybody in the crowd takes off his/her hat as well.
On the 17th, there is a second procession during which the Virgin is carried to the bridge where she blesses the four cardinal points.
The Masterpiece: La Guerrilla
There are different stories as to how the Virgin del Carmen came to Paucartambo. One of them is enacted on the 17th, late afternoon. The Qhapaq Ch’uncho (representing the lowlanders of the Amazon) and the Qhapaq Qolla (the highlanders) fight for the honor of keeping her safe.
Before the actual fight started, dancers pumped up the crowd. Vendors were selling ponchos because “It was going to rain beer and flour”. For three hours Coen ran around, dodging the joking troupes while taking their pictures up close as possible.
It was a game of big laughs and major dramas.
- Date: July 15 – July 19.
- We camped on 10-minute walking distance from the downtown area (in a temporary parking lot which normally is the playground of a school).
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