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Virgen del Carmen Festival: Patron Saint of Paucartambo, July 15-16

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Dancers parading through the town of Paurcartambo on our Virgen del Carmen
festival tour of Peru.
One of the most amazing cultural events I've experienced in all my travels is the Virgen del Carmin Festival held in the remote village of Paucartambo high in the Andes of Peru about four hours drive over a winding mountain road from Cusco. We organize an escorted Virgen del Carmen Festival trip to Peru every few years and this summer July 15 and 16, 2013 South America Program Director Kirsten Gardner will be leading a group of Wildland travelers to experience what one previous traveler likened to a Fellini movie! We will be joining hundreds of native Quechua and mestizo residents who walk and drive to Paurcartambo from villages afar to dance, play music, sing and drink in the 2-day celebration that honors its patron saint, La Virgen del Carmen, which the local townsfolk endearingly call La Mamacha Carmen, or Little Mother Carmen.
 
Local father carries his young son in the Peru festival.
Although some Peruvians come from as far away as Cusco and even Lima, there are still relatively few foreign tourists who make it. Perhaps it's because there are no accommodations for outsiders since the village is full up; so we bring our own truckload of tents, tables, chairs, food, toilet tent and our full cook and trekking crew and set up a camp in the nearby soccer field. It's close enough to walk into the village but far enough that we can sleep far removed from the firecrackers and all-night music and dance celebration. 
 
At the entrance to Paurcartambo stands a stately XVIII century stone bridge built under the reign of Charles III, King of Spain. Entering the cobblestone streets of town its humble and tidy houses are painted white with bright blue balconies and doorways, a very picturesque town to walk and explore during our stay.We typically camp 1 or 2 nights over the key transition days at the height of the celebration.

 
                  Local costumed revelers trying to steal some of Steve's 3-day beard to grow facial hair on their masks!
 
Although numerous onlookers come to watch and photograph, many small groups of families and friends arrive to participate as members of a dance troupe or a band of folklore musicians, fireworks craftsmen, as well as journalists to document this important event in the life of the village. The town bustles with the approaching festival. Each year a different family gets the honor of sponsoring one of the dance troupes. The dancers who are of all ages have prepared all year practicing their dances and preparing their elaborate costumes. 
 
Every year in honor of La Mamacha Carmen the local people of Paurcatambo render their traditional songs and dances accompanied by local folklore bands who try to outdo last year’s performers. Sponsoring families proudly host a dance troupe and their musicians in their homes where you can hear them rehearsing in courtyards while their costumes and masks are carefully inspected for mending. Last time we attended the festival our guides, Percy Avandano and Jose Antonio, asked around and one of the families invited us in a home for an insider's view of everyone as they were preparing to go out to dance and sing again, and again, day and night with much food and drink.
 
Mocking a drunken Spanish colonist!
Each of the festival dance troupes represent characters in Peruvian history: mocking drunken, big-nosed Spanish conquistadors, mock bull fighters, jesters, healers, devils, and ethnic tribal peoples from different regions of Peru. They parade down the streets of this old Spanish colonial town competing with each other sometimes colliding at the same street corner for a raucous but respectful encounter. Walking at the head of the dancers is the patron family sponsoring each troupe who solemnly carries a small representation of the Virgin 
 
Everyone shares in the excitement as the festival of La Mamacha Carmen begins, a festivity which is renowned for its splendor. As we see in scenes of daily life traveling throughout Peru, the Virgen del Carmen Festival combines age old pagan rites worshiping deities of the mountains, cosmos, land and water dating back to Inca and pre-Inca times, combined with an abiding catholic faith in God. 
 
First Day, July 15
On July 15 the festival begins in earnest filled with religious activities—people go to the church to pray and to listen to mass, flowers decorate everywhere—a sign that the festivity has begun. On this day, as we are driving to the village and setting up camp, the Virgin Mary is brought to the front of the church, still inside, dressed in regal garb and bejeweled. A mass is said in honor of La Virgen del Carmen attended by town officials, religious authorities and parishioners. During the homily and throughout the mass the faithful beseech Our Lady of Mount Carmel for her blessings. After mass the prioste or festival guardian visits the former priostes, local authorities and important people of the village to invite them to a luncheon which he hosts. During the luncheon traditional dishes are served: suckling pig, moraya, or kispiña, tamales, turrones aside from a large variety of breads especially baked for the occasion such as ayuyas and costraayuyas

Our guide Percy ran into his mother selling bread in the festival
market on our Wildland Adventure festival tour of Peru.
 
After the luncheon the town comes alive as dance troupes and their bands wind their way around the village streets and the main square.becomes the scene of a play called El Bosque or The Rainforest. The well dressed actors dance crazily throwing bags full of jungle goods such as coffee beans, coca leaves, peanuts, fruit and wooden objects at the public. Look out or you might be hit by a flying bag or perhaps an orange! I was. I actually saw it coming when I happened to catch eyes with a guy who had an orange in his hand and clearly saw me as a sitting duck tourist! It's all in good fun. As the sun sets the fireworks are lit representing the flames of hell. They are carried on top of long poles. As the dancers circle the plaza the fireworks shower them with colored sparks followed by mortars shooting skyward and bursting high overhead. 
 
 
Percy and Antonio tell us about each troupe, what they represent and the names of the dances performing such as: collas, chunchos, contradanza, siclla, cachampa, chujchu, panaderos, majeños, auca chilenos, and negros. Each dancer does his/her best and proudly performs since this festival is widely known in the Department of Cusco and the media is there to share it. They are so proud of their costumes  so our guide pulls them aside and they happily explain what they represent, details of their costumes (jaguar teeth!), and a bit of their personal story how they garnered the honorable role as a performer in this pious celebration. 
Street scene watching a dance troupe parading though the town streets on Virgin del Carmen Peru tour.
Second Day, July 16
The second day of the festival, July 16, is the central day of the celebration entirely devoted to the presentation of traditional folklore groups and dancers in their awesome costumes each group portraying events in Peruvian history. The dancers now holding their masks in their hands in sign of respect to Mamacha Carmen, slowly begin to merge into one long line of colorful costumes each with its Andean indigenous band, but moving more slowly and solemn as they approach the front of the church singing and chanting.

The peak moment of the festival is when the Virgin del Carmen is brought
out of the church in solemn procession through the town in triumph of
good against evil protecting the village for the coming year. 
At this moment in the afternoon comes the high point of the entire festivities: La Mamacha Carmen is finally carried slowly out of the church in a procession with solemn music playing paraded through the main streets of Paucartambo. The dancers and bands now begin to walk backwards as she advances to bless and protect the village for the coming year. It's majestic. Local people look out over their colonial balconies throwing rose petals everywhere and crying. The opportunity for colorful photography in Peru of native Andean culture is unbeatable.
 
 
 
Sarajas or devils are all over the rooftops and
balconies cringing and receding in terror as
the Virgin del Carmen is carried through the town.
Suddenly demons or sajras appear everywhere—on rooftops, in balconies, in trees. One of the most typical dances during the celebration is the ajras or the Dance of the Demons which has become a local trademark. They stare at the Virgin in terror and you see them cowering at her sight. These sajras leap all over while they cover their eyes in fear of La Mamacha Carmen, and you see them receding away in a symbolic gesture of good triumphing against evil as the village is protected once again. When the procession ends the town explodes in gaiety. People party in their homes and in the streets. Meanwhile the prioste in charge of this year’s festival entertains his guests and everyone is dancing to the tune of huaino, kashua and marinera music. The party goes on into the night and those who want to return after dinner in camp the guide will accompany anyone who wants to see more, perhaps to enter a private home.  
Saq'ra Devil at Virgin del Carmen Festival, Peru

 
Third Day, July 17
This morning after a hearty breakfast we walk over to the village cemetery where representatives from surrounding communities come in procession dressed in their best attire with flowers in hand accompanied by their hired band of Andean musicians to render homage to the souls of the dead. It's akin to the Day of the Dead in Mexico where relatives gather to spend time with their loved ones in the spirit world. At this point we say goodbye to our camp crew and head off, either on to Manu National Park in the Amazon or back to Cusco contented and amazed knowing we have just experienced a rich cultural tradition of Andean life and spiritual belief, wildly different and more bizarre than you could ever imagine! Although not as amazing as the Virgin del Carmen festival, there are many other religious holidays and festivals in different communities throughout the year (but especially at Easter and in June, July and August) we always enjoy planning into our Wildland tours of Peru. 
Local musicians gather in the cemetery to honor their ancestors on the
last day of our Peru tour to Virgin del Carmen festival. 
To join this special departure read more about our Escorted Trek to Machu Picchu and Virgen del Carmin Festival.
 
Watch our full 6 min video of Wildland President Kurt Kutay and our 
Peruvian guides leading a group at the Virgen del Carmen festival.

keeping it wild,

Kurt Kutay
Got questions about travel to Peru? Ask Kirsten!
Read Kirsten's blog on her Escorted Trek to Machu Picchu + Virgen del Carmen Festival

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