Fiestas in Peru

South Americans love a party and fiestas are a fundamental part of their lives. These take place the length and breadth of the continent with such frequency it would be difficult to miss one, even during the briefest of visits.

Arriving in a town or village during one of these frenetic occasions is one of the most memorable South American experiences. Invariably fiestas involved drinking – lots of it – and non-stop dancing. This means that at some point you’ll fall over, through inebriation or exhaustion, or both. Fiestas also involve the region’s favourite pastime, water throwing, so you’ll need to don waterproofs, arm yourself to the teeth with water bombs and join in the fun.

Not all festivals end up as massive unruly parties – some are solemn and ornate holy processions – but they draw people from miles around, so it helps to know about these events and when they take place.

June and July are big months for fiestas, especially in Cuzco, which spends the entire month of June in celebration. The biggest of them all is Inti Raymi which takes place on the 24th. The sun was the principal object of Inca worship and at their winter solstice, in June, the Incas honoured the solar deity with a great celebration known as Inti Raymi, the sun festival. Hundreds of local men and women play the parts of Inca priests, nobles, chosen women, soldiers (played by the local army garrison), runners, and the like. The coveted part of the Inca emperor Pachacuti is won by audition, and the event is organized by the municipal authorities.

It begins around 1000 at the Qoricancha – the former sun temple of Cuzco – and winds its way up the main avenue into the Plaza de Armas, accompanied by songs, ringing declarations and the occasional drink of chicha. At the main plaza, Cuzco’s presiding mayor is whisked back to Inca times, to receive Pachacuti’s blessing and a stern lecture on good government. Climbing through Plaza Nazarenas and up Pumacurcu, the procession reaches the ruins of Sacsayhuaman at about 1400, where thousands of people are gathered on the ancient stones.

Before Pachacuti arrives the Sinchi (Pachacuti’s chief general) ushers in contingents from the four Suyus (regions) of the Inca empire. Much of the ceremony is based around alternating action between these four groups of players. AChaski (messenger) enters to announce the imminent arrival of the Inca and his Coya (queen). Men sweep the ground before him and women scatter flowers. The Inka takes the stage alone and has a dialogue with the sun. Then he receives reports from the governors of the four Suyus. This is followed by a drink of the sacred chicha, the re-lighting of the sacred fire of the empire, the sacrifice (faked) of a llama and the reading of auguries in its entrails. Finally the ritual eating of sankhu (corn paste mixed with the victim’s blood) ends the ceremonies. The Inca gives a last message to his assembled children, and departs. The music and dancing continues until nightfall.

Corpus Christi is another major festival. Celebrated on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday  (generally in early June) by Roman Catholics everywhere, in Cuzco, it is an exuberant and colourful pageant where profound faith and prayer share predominance with abundant eating and copious drinking.

All the Saints and Virgins are paraded through the city to the Plaza de Armas and, after being blessed, they are carried into the great cathedral to be placed in prearranged order, in two rows facing each other. The images are kept in the cathedral until the octava (the eighth day after their internment), when they are all escorted in procession back to their respective parishes and churches.

During these days and nights in each other’s company, the Saints and Virgins, so the stories go, decide among themselves the future of the people for the forthcoming year. It is also said that they gamble at dice. Five hundred years ago, at the very same time of year and in this precise location, the mummified remains of the Incas were paraded in similar fashion and then laid in state. They consulted the Sun, the Moon, the Lightning and the Rains to learn what fate these elements were to bring in the course of the following year.

The Saints are the first to be paraded. The traditional race between San Jerónimo and San Sebastián is a joyous event. San Cristóbal, carved from a single tree trunk, is a heroic, elaborately painted figure, who leans upon a great staff. His powerful muscles and thick sinews forever shoulder the body of the infant Jesus as they ford a river.

It is the heaviest statue of all and popular legend tells that underneath  it lies a huaca, or sacred rock.

Santiago, the warrior saint and patron of Cuzco, enters astride his white horse, brandishing a sword. Trampled under the hooves of his steed lies a vanquished demon in the likeness of a Moorish soldier. Santiago's name was the battle cry of the Spanish soldiers, but he soon came to represent Illapa, the Andean deity of thunder and lightning.

Next come the Virgins, dressed in pomp, some of them accompanied by archangels and cherubs. They are seen as the equivalent of the Mother Earth, Pachamama. The Virgin of Belén is always first, escorted by San José, who then stands to one side of the entrance of the cathedral, waiting for all the Virgins to be carried in. Santa Bárbara, the pregnant virgin, is the last.

Corpus is perhaps the city's greatest event. All the streets and the huge expanse of the Plaza de Armas are thronged with enormous crowds. The revered images, each several hundred years old and from a distinct  parish of the city, command a host of fervent followers, including a band of musicians and troupe of dancers. Most important and conspicuous are the bearers, whose strenuous efforts are relieved at resting points, known as descansos. The bier carrying the image is placed on top of a scaffold and the bearers and followers are all given a round of chicha, and/or beer while the band plays on and Ave Marias are prayed one after the other, like a mantra. The respite over, one final toast is made to the statue, also to Pachamama and to the surrounding mountain summits, los apus. In many cases this is accompanied by fresh coca leaves and lime. Then the parade resumes its journey. As the processions converge upon the centre, they merge together into a larger procession, which becomes engulfed by the multitudes in the Plaza de Armas. The images as they are carried along seem to become swaying vessels navigating a sea of humanity, riding its waves.

One of the most unusual of festivals is Qoyllur Rit’I, or ice festival, which takes place on a glacier at 4,600 metres. The festival is in effect a massive pilgrimage, which has its origins in Inca or pre-Inca times, although the historical record dates it only from a miraculous apparition of Christ on the mountain, around 1780. It is a complex and chaotic spectacle, attended by hundreds of dance groups, and dominated by the character of the ukuku, the bear dancer, whose night vigil on the surrounding glaciers is the festival’s best-known feature.

Qoyllur Rit’I is not for the uninitiated or the faint-hearted. It can be very confusing for those who don’t understand the significance of this ancient ritual. It’s a good idea to take a tent, food and plenty of warm clothing. Many trucks leave Cuzco, from Limacpampa, in the days prior to the full moon in mid-June. It’s a rough and dusty overnight journey lasting 14 hours, requiring warm clothing and coca leaves to fend off cold and exhaustion, though several Cuzco agencies offer tours.


This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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