Fiestas and Festivals in Cusco
Reyes Magos (Ollantaytambo, 06 January)
Carnival (Cusco, Qoya in the Sacred Valley, Pisac)
Easter (Cusco, see dates below)
Easter is a Christian holiday commemorating the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead three days after his crucifixion on Good Friday and marking the end of the Lent.
Until about 20 years ago this festival was modest and belonged almost entirely to campensinos from the east of Cusco. But this festival is a cult on the rise, and today it seems that every town and village sends a troupe or two of dancers to the bleak valley at 4,600m where the festival is held.
Qoyllur Rit'i is a moveable festival in late May or early June. Its location is the Sinakara valley, close to the magnificent Mt. Ausangate, high above the village of Mawayani in the province of Quispicanchis.
Qoyllur Rit'i in Quechua means 'Snow Star'; a name reminiscent of the festival's pre-Columbian origins, and often said to be a pre-Inca fertility rite.
Today the festival is overlaid with Christian significance. Tradition has it that in the late 18th century Christ appeared before a child here after performing miracles amongst the devout locals. At the church, built high on the mountainside, pilgrims worship a rock featuring the image of the Messiah, singing hymns in Quechua and performing traditional dances.
The overwhelming first impression of this fiesta is that of chaos, discomfort and confusion. Literally thousands of dancers and hundreds of bands mill about the valley slopes, the air is filled with noise and smoke.
To reach the valley you must first walk 8 km from the highway. The cold is brutal, and by day the high altitude rays of the sun burn down ferociously.
The Lord of Qoyllur Rit'i, to many believers, is all powerful. Many people come to him for earthly blessings - trucks, houses, jobs - while others want success with college studies or luck in finding a suitable marriage partner. Some come hoping to be cured of an illness, since the glacier clad mountains that surround the valley are believed to be the seat of healing power.
Qoyllur Rit'i is one of the few Cusco festivals where drunkenness is frowned upon. Punishment for this offence is dealt out by members of a large band of dancers known as Ukukus, who dress in wool masks and shaggy tunics.
On the final night of the fiesta, hundreds of pilgrims climb up the icy glaciers to search for the Snow Star. They hack out blocks of ice and break off giant icicles from the numerous ice caves, which they then carry on their shoulders down to the church in a long procession at sunrise. Here the ice is blessed before being taken back to their communities, where the Holy water is considered sacred medicine to help the sick.
Sixty days after the Sunday of Resurrection, Cusco
celebrates the Catholic festival of the Eucharist, the body of Christ.
The festival gets under way on the Sunday 11 days before Corpus Christi when the Virgin of Bethlehem leaves her church and is carried shoulder high by the faithful to the church of Santa Clara.
On the Wednesday 8 days prior to Corpus Christi, images from many churches, some of them several miles out of town, start wending their way to Santa Clara, the meeting point for saints and virgins.
On the Wednesday before the big event the procession of the entry of Corpus Christi starts up, usually around mid-day. Under a blinding sun which blazes out of the clear blue sky, crowds gather to watch the procession of an impressive silver carriage topped by a chalice decorated with the image of the Holy Sacrament. Leaving the church of Santa Clara, the carriage is carried along the streets of Santa Clara, Marquez and Mantas to reach the main Plaza de Armas where the procession enters the Cathedral amidst a great deal of rejoicing, accompanied by bands of musicians, troupees of dancers and the crackling of fireworks. When the carriage and the ecclesiastical authorities enter the Cathedral, it's the turn of the saints and virgins to make their journey to the Cathedral, entering one by one. Each believer follows their favorite image through the narrow streets.
From the early hours of the morning, on the Thursday of Corpus Christi, tens of thousands of Cusco residents gather in the main square to wait for the procession. Around mid-day the silver carriage bearing the image of the Holy Sacrament leaves the Cathedral to be carried around the Plaza de Armas in a colorful procession. On returning to the Cathedral it will again be the turn of the saints and virgins, decorated in all their finery, including finely embroidered robes and gold and silver jewelry.
Images include San Jeronimo, San Sebastian, and San Christopher. Legend has it that the teeth of the burly image of San Christopher are made from the teeth of Seri Topaz, one of the last Inca descendants.
Following the lively procession the crowds gather in the street Plateros to eat the typical Corpus Christi dish of Chiriuchu, whose main ingredient is roast guinea pig garnished with toasted corn, pork, chicken and seafood like seaweed and fish roe. This is all normally washed down with Cusqueña beer or the local home brew known as chicha.
During the next 7 days the Virgin of Belen and the saints will stay within the Cathedral in the company of the Dark Christ, conducting their mysterious business and being recharged with sacred power. Thousands of people will visit the Cathedral during this week, before the images are returned to their respective churches, again accompanied by musicians, dancers and the faithful.
(The Festival of the
Sun- Sacsayhuaman, Cusco, 24 June)
This event is really more a pageant than a fiesta, with hundreds of locals playing the parts of Inca priests, nobles, virgins of the sun and soldiers. The coveted role of the Inca Pachacuti is awarded following lengthy auditions.
The event begins at about 10.00 in the morning at the Koricancha, or Temple of the Sun, and winds its way up Avenida del Sol to the Plaza de Armas, before climbing the back streets to arrive at the ruins of Sacsayhauman at about 14.00. Thousands of people are gathered to watch the arrival of the Inca and his Coya (queen). Men sweep the ground before him, and women scatter flowers. The Inca takes centre stage and talks to the Sun, the principle object on Inca worship and from whom the Incas claimed direct descendency. He then receives reports from the governors of the four Suyus (regions) of the Inca empire. The Inca re-lights the sacred fire of the empire, drinks some chicha and sacrifices a llama by pulling out its beating heart and holding it up in reverence to the Sun. (all faked but very realistic). The success of the coming years activities, such as harvests or battles, are then read in the entrails of the llama.
Finally the ritual eating of Sankhu (corn paste mixed with the llamas blood) ends the ceremonies. The Inca makes a last address to his people and then departs. Music and dancing continue throughout the evening.
Paucartambo is a picturesque but quiet place situated in a valley above the eastern jungles, 115 km from Cusco. It is best known for its yearly festival of the Virgen del Carmen, a very colourful local fiesta with the best traditional dances, and the most varied and exotic masks and costumes to be seen anywhere in the Cusco region.
The dancers represent semi-mythical characters, some of them derived from Peruvian history, such as the Auca Chilenos - representing the Chilean soldiers who occupied Peru in the 19th century - or the Capac Negros, the freed slaves. Other characters include malaria victims, ugly gringos, Ukukus (half man half bear), condor-men and warlike jungle Indians.
The centre of all this festivity is the figure of the Virgin of Carmen, who is honoured with songs, dances and masses inside the church, and paraded around the town. Her final act of divinity is to drive away the demons - represented by the Saqra dancers - who perform daring acrobats on the rooftops of the town, dressed in Inca colours and costumes from the Vice-regency days. Once the procession is over, a symbolic battle is staged amongst the devote dancers and the demons with the traditional victory of the faithful.
With nothing happening in this town for 362 days of the year, there is little in the way of tourist facilities. Hardy visitors usually end up sleeping in heaps on the floors of old buildings, many of which lack any sort of basic amenity.
One of the traditional activities of the Paucartambo festival is a pre-dawn visit to the heights of Tres Cruces, some 3 hours by car from the town. At this unique spot one can look down from the final peaks of the Andes onto the vast expanse of the Amazon basin. The view is unforgettable. The Incas held this place sacred for the uncanny optical effects that appear during sunrise at certain times of the year (notably May, June & July). Owing to atmospheric distortion observers can sometimes see multiple suns, haloes, or a brilliant rosy glow covering land and sky.
Fiesta de Yawar (Cotabamba, 28 July)
Independence day (celebrated throughout Peru 28 July)
All Saints Day (01 November, Cusco)
Day of the Dead (02 November, throughout Peru)
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