Festivals of Cuzco

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April 5th 2013
Published: October 6th 2013
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Cuzco from Puno & Ollantaytambo

Celebration Time Is Here!

An intoxicating swirl of color-drenched costumes, traditional dances, and wild masks characterize the many indigenous celebrations in Cuzco. Equally impressive are the solemn Catholic holidays, and best of all are the celebrations that blend the two cultures. I was in magical Cuzco from March to July for lots of colorful festivities and the tasty street treats that accompanied them.

A variety of festivals were sandwiched between Cuzco's two most important ones--in March, the honoring of the city's patron saint, El Senor de los Temblores, the Lord of the Earthquakes, who protects the town from earthquakes, and in June for the winter solstice, a recreation of the Inca's sacred Inti Raymi, for the return of the sun. Additionally, I often happened upon random celebrations on my daily wanderings around town.

Just as I knew of the Virgins of Guadalupe, Fatima, Lourdes, etc, here, each church has a special Virgin, Christ and /or saint, with a Spanish (San Sebastian) or indigenous (El Senor de Choquequlica) name that is the protector of the parish. The statues of these protectors wear Intricately hand-embroidered gowns, heavy with gold and silver thread and have a special day to be celebrated.

Quite frequently, I'd come across one of these statues being paraded through the town to a church that opened its normally-closed doors. Accompanied by brass bands, old men carry the statue mounted on a heavy, flower-bedecked bier, and old women carry embroidered banners.

Embroidering these banners and saints' clothing is a big business in Cuzco. I was staying in a working class neighborhood just above a street with a dozen little shops filled with young people ruining their eyes for the beauty of the church. The banners are also a way of advertising the generosity of the family or business that pays for the expensive works, for the names of the sponsors are embroidered as large as that of the saint's.

Random Festivals

Even though I was in Cuzco for months, I never got tired of exploring its streets, and I was occasionally rewarded with some unannounced, uncrowded festival attended mostly by townspeople. One of my favorites was sponsored by a bank that celebrated its anniversary by bringing dance groups from all over the country.

In Peru, as in most traditional societies, the indigenous people of each valley and mountaintop have their own individual clothing and dances that distinguish them from their neighbors. In my later travels to small villages, it was great to see people wearing the outfits I'd first seen here.

A photo exhibit by an anthropologist questioned the validity of the dance groups with their smiles, short skirts and splashy colors that perform in the festivals. He considered them form without content and devoid of meaning when compared to the serious sacred festivals of the indigenous people from whom the costumes and dances are derived.

Yet this criticism can be leveled at groups all over the world that try to keep alive ancient customs. Traditional indigenous people are not going to come to the city to put sacred rituals on display, and the younger generation and city kids are not going to dance to pray for rain. But at least all have a chance to honor their heritage.

El Senor de Temblores and Easter Week

A huge, Catholic celebration was for El Senor de los Temblores, the Lord of the Earthquakes, on the Monday before Easter. When, in 1650, an earthquake destroyed much of the colonial city (the Incan foundations were undisturbed), people gathered in the principle plaza with a statue of a black Christ, and the tremors stopped. Since then, honoring this Cristo has been one of most important holidays for Cuzco, and the streets were packed with Peruvian tourists.

El Senor was taken from his opulent chapel in the cathedral on his gold and jewel-encrusted bier and borne through the streets by more than thirty men who were replaced by another thirty every couple of blocks. Clearly, the bier was massively-heavy, and the faithful were doing their penance in carrying it.

All along the route, buildings were decorated with palm branches, flowers and banners, and balconies hung with colorful tapestries and filled with spectators. The throngs of spectators had tears in their eyes, threw flower pedals and followed the Cristo in procession.

Lucky children in their school blazers were singing in front of their decorated schools or setting up flowered alters along the way. Unlucky children were selling whips for flagellation (it was Holy Week, after all), cotton candy, massively-popular jello, and other snacks. The contrasts between rich and poor were easy to see here.

Good Friday brought a crucifixion and more processions. In front of the most sacred temple of the Incas, the Qorikancha (the Spanish topped it with Santo Domingo church), Jesus and a large cast of faithful followers and Roman soldiers reenacted the Stations of the Cross, ending in the hoisting of the now-bloody Jesus up on a cross. While I no longer consider myself Christian, I was rather moved by the whole sad drama.

Later that day, the cathedral's bloody Jesus was carried through the streets in a golden coffin, followed by Maria Dolorosa (Sad Mourning Mary) who wore a long black cape with a big embroidered silver heart pierced by many swords and lots of teary tourists. Easter was quiet with people packing the churches, then heading home to families and restaurants. I went for a hike up to the Cristo Blanco (White Christ) on a hill overlooking the town. My most sacred moments and feelings of being reborn and resurrected are most often in nature.

Corpus Christi--Colorful Blend of Cultures

Corpus Christi married Catholic and Incan festivals. Hundreds of years ago, the Incas took the mummies of their former leaders from the sacred center of Qorikancha in an annual procession around the city. For Corpus Christi, Virgins and saints from local churches and nearby villages are carried in processions to and around Cusco, hang out in the cathedral for nine days then head home in another procession.

I was in tiny Ollantaytambo in the nearby Incas' Sacred Valley and learned that 60,000 perople were expected in Cuzco for the entrance processions--yikes! I stayed put, climbed up to some ruins and watched the town's little procession. I returned to Cuzco for the last few days which contained plenty of spectacle.

One day I noticed the cathedral doors open--a rare occurrence, and got in for a special mass with my descent Spanish and feigned piety while other tourists were turned away. There weren't many of us in there, but our breaths were taken away by the visiting statues dressed to the nines in their best embroidered costumes or traditional indigenous clothing. Half of the crowd joined a procession around the church while the rest of us sneaked out our cameras and cell phones to capture the opulence.

Finally, the statues were brought out and paraded around the plaza. Most of the bearers were men in black, but a few groups wore traditional clothing and those carrying arrow-pierced St. Sebastian carried him barefooted. How lucky to be a lingering traveler who could enjoy the festivities after the masses of tourists had left.

Inti Raymi--Incan Winter Solstice Celebration

Finally, Cuzco's biggest celebration: Inti Raymi, the Incan celebration of the return of the sun. The celebration doesn't actually take place on the winter solstice, but on June 24, arbitrarily set in 1929 by a group of intellectuals who revived what they imagined the festival to have been 500 years ago.

Hundreds of locals dress up in spectacular costumes representing people and nobles from all parts of the huge Incan Empire. Ceremonies and rituals were conducted in the three sites most sacred to the Inca and in Quechua, the language of the Inca which is still widely spoken.

However, the town was hideously packed with tourists. I got to the first venue, the Qorikancha, an hour early, but the crowds were already jostling for space. The ceremony was impressive with the groups emerging from the temple, and parading with flutes and drums and dancing. (See panoramas for photos)

I followed the procession to the plaza, but there the crowds were impossible, and I wasn't overly interested in hearing the big kahuna give a long speech. The stomach parasites I'd been battling for a week cried out for a bathroom, so I ran up to my hostel on a hill. I didn't regret missing the rest of the spectacle since I'd seen the highlights on a video in a museum shop. Some things are best appreciated from afar.

The Inti Raymi marked the beginning of the tourist season and its crowds--time for me to retreat to less-touristy Bolivia and Lake Titicaca where I'd enjoy more celebrations. With its spectacular festivals, gorgeous colonial architecture, small city feel (in the off-season), friendly people and great food, Cusco was one of my favorite places. No wonder I stayed four months!

Additional photos below
Photos: 42, Displayed: 28


6th October 2013
blowing his horn

Picked this pic for the title...blowing his horn for the fantasia of colours &delights on show in this blog...sensational Tara
6th October 2013
blowing his horn

Thanks, David!
It's true--the colors were surreal and the joy palpable. Glad you enjoyed it!
6th October 2013
indigenous dancer from Andean village

Nice Choice
Her vibe of pleasure in the moment...nice choice for opening pic
7th October 2013

Being there
Hi Tara, Thank you for your splendid descriptive writing and dazzling photos! I felt like I was there right with you, jostling through the crowds and showered with color and magic. Great job!
7th October 2013

Thanks, Sara
That's high praise coming from a great writer like yourself! We'd always thought we'd be here together in Cusco and Machu Picchu, so I imagined you with me--glad you could feel it. Hope your back's better!
7th October 2013

When we can't be on the road.....
we can live vicariously through you. Magnificent! Oh the wonderful people and the amazing colors. We'd love to be there for the winter solstice.
7th October 2013

Winter solstice--yikes!
Yes, people and colors were amazing, but I have to say, those solstice crowds were impressive. Then again, if you were willing to pay a small fortune--maybe $100, you could have a privileged place to sit for the festivities up at the ruins and a snack besides. That would be the way to go!
7th October 2013

I love a good festival!
Really enjoyed this blog Tara. Loved the photos too. Cheers Ren
7th October 2013

Thanks for your kind words, Ren, and I'm glad you enjoyed the blog. These really were among the best foreign festivals I've been to.
7th October 2013

I'd love to check this place out.
Nice blog Tara. I\'ve never been to Cuzco before so reading this article has given me an insight to the wonders that await one\'s curiosity. If I ever manage to visit the place, I\'ll definitely check out the festivals. Budgeting is a real problem that\'s getting in the way. I might have an opportunity to go there soon though, thanks to mystery shopping. If this can help anyone, take a look at SQM (link: http://goo.gl/jda1d7) which provides this service. I believe you can save up to 50% off on some trips. Will definitely check out Cuzco and its crazy colors and celebrations if it pops up in the roster list.
7th October 2013

Cuzco on a budget
You can make Cuzco more affordable than any shopping site can. Do as I did and stay in the cheapest dorm you can find, (Magic Hostel was great) and eat from produce you buy at the central market. Also, staying for awhile saves money (and lets you really know the place) since you're not paying for transport. Forget shopping sites!
7th October 2013

Wonderful! You've really captured Cusco in your pictures. What great timing too, the spring equinox. You described it well, making me feel its vibe all over again. Four months no doubt went by too quickly!
8th October 2013

Equinox and solstice--good points!
Isn't it great to mark these changes (right now the new moon is a Cheshire cat here)? And yes, those months flew by--I could imagine living in that sweet city for years. Glad you got to experience it too!
8th October 2013

Great blog!
Loved your blog, especially the pictures! The colors... so bright and vivid! Makes me wish I can go to Peru soon.
8th October 2013

You can do it!
Hey Jay, Glad you liked the photos--really, the colors of Cuzco are the best. Hopefully, I've inspired you to come to Peru, especially in the low season (not summer or winter holidays)--it's pretty affordable and really great!

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