Where is Paucartambo’s Virgen del Carmen festival? It’s halfway.
The mountain village of Paucartambo is halfway between Cusco and the Manu Biosphere in the Peruvian Amazon and the fiesta is held every year halfway through the month of July. The fiesta is halfway between a celebration of Christianity and one of Andean Pantheism and the Virgen del Carmen – the patron saint of the town – is halfway between being the mother of God (the Virgin Mary) and the Mother Earth (Pachamama).
We visited the fiesta this past July with our children’s Spanish teacher and her boyfriend. The long, winding, dusty road from Cusco took us about five hours, even with a stop at Ninamarca, where we climbed a ridge to see several well-preserved stone tombs from the Lupaca Pre-Inca culture. The Virgen del Carmen festival attracts thousands of pilgrims from all over and the sheer numbers overwhelm Paucartambo’s ability to house everyone; many people end up camping out or sleeping in the streets. Our Spanish teacher’s boyfriend is an architect who occasionally works on municipal projects near Paucartambo, so we were able to secure (very basic) government worker lodgings about 30 minutes from town. We settled our belongings and took a combi back to Paucartambo.
We arrived in town and made our way to the main square, a trapezoidal open area surrounded by colonial buildings with light-blue second story balconies. The entrada (entrance of the dancers) had not yet started but masked jesters were interacting with the crowd and snapping their whips, while fire engines rolled through the square with sirens blaring. By mid-day, many masked semi-mythical characters – malaria victims, Ukukus (half man-half bear), condor-men and warlike jungle Indians – were making their way into the square. We got our seats on the square and by mid-afternoon the entrada festivities started.
There are 16 different types of dances, all intricately choreographed and performed, and rehearsed for weeks beforehand. We watched Saqras-- Euro-Andean devils in vivid rainbow-colored costumes, animal masks and hairy wigs -- dance and gyrate around the square. After that, we watched Capaq Negros (black slaves imported to work the silver mines) do a spinning-stomping dance and twirl noise-makers to the accompaniment of drums. While this was happening, we also watched drunken Majeños (republican-era merchants) on horseback, brandishing pistols and beer bottles. There were also the Auca Chilenos dancers, who personify the painful memories left in the Peruvian consciousness by the occupying Chilean soldiers during the 19th century War of the Pacific. We also saw the Contradanzas, who gracefully mimicked the French cuadrilles that were popular in the salons of the Spanish elite during the late colonial period (when Napoleon controlled Spain). While the costumes and choreographed routines were excellent, two things make the Virgen del Carmen fiesta special: the viewer’s proximity to the dancers and the fact that they all wear masks. The Paucartambo square is pretty small and interaction with the dancers is inevitable and definitely enhaces the viewer's experience. The wearing of masks, not to mention copious amounts of alcohol, strips the dancers of any inhibitions and allows them to express themselves more freely. By 7:00 pm, we were exhasted from a full day of travel and festivities. We had some dinner and headed back to our lodgings while the fiesta in Paucartambo was still going strong.
The fiesta originated, according to local legend, hundreds of years ago when a wealthy woman named Felipa Begolla, who periodically came to town to trade goods, discovered the head of a beautiful woman lying among pots and pans in her wagon. Felipa couldn’t speak or move and the lovely apparition spoke to her calmly and told her that her name was Carmen. Felipa put the head on a silver dish and the townsfolk crowded around in wonder. A local carpenter was commissioned to carve a wooden body of the head and it was mounted on a litter and carried to the local church. This act has been symbolically re-enacted every July 16th since.