I have over 300 photos just from two days in Paucartambo. I couldn’t stop taking photos of the brilliant costumes, the wild dances, and the crushing crowds. One after another, dance groups would emerge from the the crowd and stun us all with the handmade, intricate designs on their unique costumes. The costumes were as varied as you could imagine–from drunken cowboys to devils, to bullfighters, to yellow fever patients, to doctors, to farmers, and so many more.
The whole festival lasts several days. I don’t know the significance of all the dancers and the costumes, but in general, all of the different groups dance, sing, and pay homage to the Virgen del Carmen (also known as the Mamacha Carmen) who comes out from the church on July 16th. There are representations of people from the high Andes and the low jungle. Their is a guerilla or a war enacted between the two groups, stemming from the capture of a woman and the forbidden love that results. This fiesta is one of the most important celebrations in all of Peru. Over 50,000 people, almost all of them Peruvians, are said to travel to Paucartambo each year. There is one hotel in Paucartambo, so either you know someone and stay with friends and family, or you rent rooms, beds, and bathrooms in townspeople’s homes. We secured two rooms with a private bathroom for the fiesta. And when I say “rooms,” I mean two empty cement floored rooms in which all 12 of us divided up and slept on the floor. And when I say “bathroom” I mean a clean toilet and a shower with cold water. It was definitely an adventure.
We arrived from Pumachaca on July 15th and met up with Hugo, Marichely, and Ivette. We also reunited with the Reese family who had just returned from the jungle in Puerto Maldonado. We went in search of lunch and settled on roasted pig, chaufa rice, and Coca-Cola in a somewhat sketchy pop-up fairground looking area.
After lunch we went to the main plaza to wait and watch for dancers. This first day was a lot of waiting in crowds, then craning our necks to see. The dancers came out intermittently at first, and then by the late afternoon they were more one after the other. We found a good spot near the church and we sat on stools we paid 10 soles for.
Highlights of that first afternoon (besides seeing the amazing costumes and dancers) were Cooper being interviewed by a television station and speaking fluent Spanish on national TV, and seeing some extended Figueroa family members and meeting a few uncles/cousins for the first time. But the best part of the afternoon was when Jeff bought Dave a piece of cake to celebrate his birthday. Our group started to sing Happy Birthday and the entire crowd lined up along the street in front of the church joined in, then added a few verses in Spanish. It was a spontaneous birthday party with several hundred people joining in.
Once the dancing ended for the day, we took a break before re-emerging for the crazy evening festivities. We followed a group of devils or Saqras, through the streets of Paucartambo to their house. Each group of dancers has their own central gathering place. The dancers stay within the same families generation after generation, passing down the costumes and the traditions to their children and grandchildren. In the evenings between the formal dancing for the Virgen, the troupes go to the cemetery and dance for their ancestors. We didn’t get a chance to see all of that, but we did see where the Saqras gathered for dinner with their families. It was really cool. Later on, the plaza fills with people again for a spectacular show involving more dancing, fire, smoke, fireworks, and a fair amount of drinking. There are no regulations or codes that are followed. You don’t know if a giant tower of fire might fall on you, or a mound of hay lit on fire might jump into the crowd and engulf you in flames. There were a few hairy moments, with unruly crowds and close calls. But we all survived to tell the tale.
In the grand scheme of things most of us went to bed pretty early. Apparently Hugo, Marichely, and Ivette snuck out after we were all asleep and stayed out partying until 2am.
The next day we scrounged around for some breakfast and managed to find a place that would cook our large group some egg sandwiches. Then came the part of the festivities called el bosque. The Qollas (white masked dancers) parade through town with their llamas, holding household items, toys, and miniature furniture.
They go up to the balcony and then start throwing things into the crowd. They even brought llamas up on the balcony with them. It gets a bit rowdy. Our group caught two bouncy balls, a plastic mug, a colander, a Peru soccer jersey, a small plastic waste basket, several one sol coins, a wooden spoon, and a few more random items. Jeff got hit in the head with a broken plastic mug and Carmen took a wooden stool to the hand which left her with a mild flesh wound. Kinda unruly. After el bosque we headed back to Pumachaca for a break from the crowd. We had another picnic lunch down by the river and enjoyed a little fresh air far away from the crowds.
Then it was back to Paucartambo for the procession of the Mamacha Carmen. We were a little late getting back from the picnic so by the time we made it down the narrow streets to the plaza to see the Virgin, the place was a sea of people. We got separated and then crushed into the crowds lining the streets. The dancers returned, this time the ones right in front of the Virgin sang and bowed to her. There was a walking band playing loud brass music. As the Virgin appeared, the Saqras hid and recoiled on the rooftops.
City leaders carried her weight upon their shoulders while uniformed police kept the crowds at bay. It was surreal. I happened to be right next to her as she came down a narrow street just off the plaza. People threw rose petals from high in the balconies and they rained down on the Virgin and into the crowd.
The crowd was unreal. For someone who does not like parades or other crowds, this whole festival was an exception to my self imposed agoraphobic rules. Once I knew all the kids were safe and not crushed to death I was able to enjoy the spectacle more. The level of adoration and religious fervor was palpable among the people in Paucartambo. People wept, smiled, and celebrated. It was a beautiful spectacle to witness. We left soon after the first procession of the Mamacha, but the party continued for a few more days. We’d had our fill of crowds so we maneuvered our car through the narrow city streets and wound our way back over the mountains to home.