If you have booked, or are researching, a Peru tour to discover the delights of the country, be sure to try to include the Paucartambo Festival. This festival, held in July each year, is a celebration of worship of the Virgin of Carmen, the patron saint of the small town of Paucartambo.
For the vast majority of the year it is a quiet, remote rural town, located amidst magnificent scenery at the convergence of the Mapacho and Qengo Mayo rivers, about three hours from Cusco along a dusty narrow road.
Then for 3 days in July the town explodes! The main thrust of the spectacular Paucartambo festival takes place from July 15th to July 17th with thousands of visitors coming from all over Peru and the world to watch the town play host to one of the most fascinating and exciting fiestas in all of South America. The population of the town swells from around 1500 people to over 12,000 over these few days.
On July 15th, the festival begins with the entrance into the principal town church of all the sixteen different dance groups wearing costumes and masks in accordance with their respective customs and traditions. Meanwhile the most important dancers, Capaq Negro and Capaq Qolla, come into the building from the rear entrance singing a salute to the Virgin.
During the festival, the entire population of the town gathers itself in a spiritual mass that carries on along the main street, holding flowers, candles and other offerings. In the evening hours there is a glorious display of fireworks in the main square, during which different groups of Chunchos, Capag Qollas and Sagras wildly dance in the square, jumping through bonfires that have been set around the plaza. At midnight, all the dancers come together again without their elaborate costumes to solemnly pray for the Virgin in front of the closed doors of the church.
The primary day of the festival is July 16th and in the morning, the people of the town return to the main square after attending mass to receive gifts of handicrafts, fruit and toys made for them by the majordomos of each dance group. In the afternoon, the Virgin, beautifully decorated and escorted by the Capaq Chuncho, is removed from her resting place next to the main alter of the church and is carried through the crowded streets and squares of Paucartambo to the head of all the dance groups. The groups are now in their festive costumes and the respective band for each group plays its distinctive music, creating an uproar that resounds against the surrounding mountains.
The next day is a ceremony reminiscent of the ancestral cult of the dead. Each dance group parades to the cemetery through the townspeople lined up along the streets and sings to remind themselves of their ancestors and their listeners of their own mortality. In the afternoon the image of the Virgin is carried through the narrow streets of the village for the last time to the bridge named after Carlos III of Spain where all the townspeople gather silently to pay their respects and the Capaq Qolla and Capaq Negro sing a prayer of farewell.
The main square then fills again for the fiesta's grand finale once the Virgin has been put safely to rest. Dramatics take place as dancers imitate Spanish bullfighters and a mock battle occurs recalling a war at the time of the Incas. Fighting ends when the fallen warrior dancers are taken away and the Qolla king is killed by the king of the Chunchos as his wife is taken as a trophy of war. The fiesta is officially closed the next day by the dancers doing the traditional cachapari or farewell dance.
Accommodation is difficult to find over this crazy weekend, so the best thing to ensure you can witness this fantastic and unique cultural event is to plan well ahead and get in touch with a Cusco based tour operator who has links to the local community and service providers. With their connections they will try to ensure you either get accommodation in Paucartambo or at least transport to and from the town on the days of the festival. This way you can have the rare experience of being one of the few foreigners to enjoy these incredible celebrations.
Gary Sargent is the Managing Director of the tour company Escaped to Peru and has lived in Peru since 1998. Gary is passionate about life in South America, the people, customs and places. Visit Gary's website for more Peru travel advice or to book your next