The feast of the Virgin of the Carmen began the 15th of July and went through the 17th in Paucartambo, a provincial town in Cusco. It draws many faithful and visitors from all over the world. It is one of the most anticipated celebrations in Cusco. Once a year people gather to be part of the much-loved fiesta.
Some two weeks before I went to Paucartambo I remember hearing people in Cusco talk about it and and many were making preparations to go. Wherever I went, it seemed, I would run into friends and others who were excitedly planning their itinerary for their three days of the feast.
In the Tupac Amaru and San Sebastian Plazas I also saw the dance troupes, we call them comparsas, practicing their different steps; Qhapac Colla, Qara Chuncho, Saqras, and more of the fourteen dances that accompany the Virgin in her day. All of these were go to different places to perform for Carmen. Some go to Pisac, others to Accha, and many to Paucartambo where this celebration is lived with great intensity.
The faithful who travel to Paucartambo form groups of family and friends. They prepare their cars and trucks, and some rent vehicles, in order to travel comfortably. Others just travel on the buses, a sacrifice. All make the journey with devotion in hope of obtaining the blessing and protection of the Virgin. Hearing about all this made me want to travel to Paucartambo for the first time to have the same experience.
My friends Walter, Arnold and I planned our departure for the 15th, the day of the serenata or evening serenade. Around 2 pm we left in Walter’s car with lots of expectations and hopes. Both of my friends had been before and and they told what to expect in the colonial town of Paucartambo and what events to expect. The town is located some 110 Kms from Cusco at 2830 meters above sea level.
We arrived at 6 pm when it was getting dark and looked for a secure place to park the car. We could see the picturesque narrow streets, the white adobe houses with tile roofs, and the wooden balconies painted blue. Just as I had imagined, it was filled with people everywhere. We left the car in a lot next to the Mapocho River, prepared our cameras and went out into the streets.
It was a good night to begin taking pictures. All the homes seemed to have something to offer. There were restaurants, grocery stores, chicherías, beer stores, places to store your baggage, and so on.
We walked to the central plaza. In there streets there were vendors with their food carts serving up fast food: anticuchos and hamburgers containing chicken, meat, egg, cheese, and more. It was an entire food fair. Besides the carts, there were strolling vendors rubbing shoulders with people and offering candy, cigarettes, beer, piscos, and more to calm the effects of the cold. Everyone scattered throughout the streets of Paucartambo, filling them.
We arrived at the central square where lots of people were gathered awaiting the fireworks, those colors that mix with the sky and paint fiesta in people’s heart.
After the colorful spectacle began the Qunuy, or bonfire. The Qhapac Colla dancers light Straw and sawdust a bit away, on the road that surrounds the plaza. In that way they draw the spectators so that the Qollas, the Chunchus, and the Maqtas, all well dressed in their costumes, can portray purgatory. They show off their teasing, racing, and accrobatic jumps.
The Chukchus wear masks that show different expressions and wear yellow kerchiefs on their necks. They have white shirts and each of them carries a yellow bag filled with rags. With them they strike whoever tries to invade the road. During the three days they have the responsibility of ensuring the road around the plaza stays clear for the dancers and the Virgin.
Once the qunuy is finished, people can return to the roadway where they form groups and share drinks of alcohol with each other to close the night. The musical bands enter the middle of the plaza and perform dianas until dawn.
The 16th is the central day of the Virgin of the Carmen. At 9 am mass is held in the main chapel. St 10 am you hear the much awaited mass featuring the songs of the Qhapac Collas, the Qhapac Negros, as well as the comparsas of Maqtas, Auka Chileno, Contradanza, Chunchachas, Chukchu, Kachampa, Majeño, Panadero, Qhapac Negro, Qhapac Chuncho, Qhapac Qolla, Qoyacha, Saqra, Siclla Huayra, Doctorcito, and Waca Waca. They radiate their fait by dancing and singing in the plaza and in the streets. The Collas climb into the balconies and from there throw out dolls and miniature furniture. Then each comparsa returns to their cargo, the home where its respective cargo holders receive them. They await them with abundant food and share their delicious offerings with guests who enter their homes freely. They might offer chicken soup with rice or noodles and roast pork (lechón) accompanied by moraya (white freeze dried potatoes). Those are the most consumed dishes.
After lunch people fill the streets again. By 3 pm the Saqras, the demons, await the procession of the Virgin of the Carmen. They hide themselves on the rooftops and on the balconies above the plaza. They wear masks and costumes which fill with color the fiesta. Once night comes partying develops (la juerga) and it continues excessively.
The 17th is the Day of the Blessing. Everyone returns to the main chapel so that after the mass, the Carmen can give her blessing to all present.
Then the dance troupes parade to the cemetery along with the crowd in order to visit all the dancers who have passed away. The spend time with the now dead dancers through songs and memories and by drinking there by them along with the bands that are never lacking on these occasions. After this they return to the cargos scattered throughout the town.
In the afternoon the Virgin makes her second procession, this time crossing the Carlos III stone bridge. On it she makes her blessing to the four quarters and then returns to her chapel.
After the procession, people return to the plaza to see the battle between the Qollas and the Antis. It is a theatre containing religious, social, and cultural significance. You can see there how the identity and custom of Andean towns are maintained. In the battle, the costumes clearly identify who are the Qollas from the highlands and who are the Chunchus from the lowlands. In it, both peoples (naciones) dispute the love of the Virgin. The Saqras and Waka Wakas also participate.
Every year this celebration takes place in the town of Paucartambo with its distinctive groups of dancers. It is a colorful feast that draws in both visitors and the faithful. Blows do not bruise there nor is there fear. All is fiesta.