One thing that Peruvians are really good at is celebrating! There are a dizzying number of festivities which combine the rituals of the predominantly Catholic population with colorful indigenous earth-based festivals, frequently interwoven throughout the symbology and celebrations and offer an absolute sensory symphony. Peruvians have roots which deeply connect them with their “Pachamama” (Mother Earth). So much of Peru is based on an agrarian culture, insuring good harvests and fertility of their herds is of paramount importance. The majority of the celebrations are joyous in nature and strengthen social bonds and hope for the future.
Aside from “Saint’s Days” which happen daily all over Peru, announced by the blasting of firecrackers in the early hours of the morning and frequently by parading a statue of the Patron Saint of the Day through the streets often followed by a brass band, there are many other festivals and holidays to navigate. It is estimated that there are as many as 3,000 folk festivals throughout the year in various parts of Peru, hundreds of which are celebrated in Cusco. So many opportunities to feast and dance!
Here are a few of the more popular ones based in Cusco:
CARNIVAL – Variable days in February – starts 40 days before Easter Sunday
One of the largest festivals in South America, made famous by the parades in Rio, Carnival is celebrated a bit differently in Peru. The biggest show is in Puno (an 8-hour bus ride south of Cusco) with dazzling costume competitions and parades honoring The Virgin of Candelaria, where they play music and dance in the streets until they quite literally drop! In Cusco, Carnival is celebrated more with water. If you are in the plazas, expect to get drenched with water blasters and balloons, and sprayed with silly string and foam. No one is immune, but if you are armed with any of the afore-mentioned items, you are considered fair game! Join in the fun – and bring a change of clothes!
SEMANA SANTA (Holy Week/Easter Week) all of Peru but most notably in Cusco and Ayacucho
This is the week before Easter, and in Cusco starts on Monday with “Señor de los Temblores” or Lord of the Earthquakes – also known in Cusco as The Black Christ. In 1650 there was a terrible earthquake in Cusco with much damage and many aftershocks. Particularly interesting is this holiday’s fusion of Catholic and Inca beliefs. The Black Christ is housed inside of the Cusco Cathedral, built upon the ancient Inca foundations of the Wiracocha Temple (Wiracocha is the Inca Creator God). In 1650 the Black Christ statue was carried in procession through the streets, just as the Incas used to parade the mummies of their Incas and high priests before the Spanish outlawed this custom, and miraculously the earthquakes stopped. So many candles were burnt beneath the statue in gratitude that it is now permanently blackened. Today The Lord of the Earthquakes is still paraded through the streets while the onlookers throw bright red ñucchu flowers (salvia esplendes), as they did in ancient times as an offering to their Pre-Colombian god, Wiracocha, now symbolizing the blood of Christ. The Main Plaza in Cusco is jam-packed with people during Monday evening with barely room to move! Peruvians love to celebrate!
In many cultures has traditional fasting as a ritual. In their truly festive style, the Peruvian people FEAST instead of fast! Good Friday is actually the most celebrated day in Semana Santa, much moreso than Easter Sunday. Most businesses are closed and the Peruvians are all at home with their families feasting upon their Doce Platos – 12 special traditional dishes (excluding red meats) representing the Twelve Apostles!
Q’OYLLURIT’I – The Snow Star Festival – coincides with the full moon at the end of May/beginning of June
The ancient Inca used the Southern Cross constellation, visible in the Southern Hemisphere, as a guide as to when to sow and reap their crops. In April, this constellation disappears under the horizon, and to the Inca this symbolized a time of chaos. With the full moon in May/June, the Southern Cross constellation reappears on the horizon and the Q’oyllurit’i festival was originally in honor of this, bringing order again to their world. However, in 1780 a miraculous image of Christ appeared on a huge rock in the Sinakara Valley (15-16,000 feet above sea level) where the festival is held. The rock has since been embellished and had a church built around it. Christ is now considered by many to be the “Lord of Q’oyllurit’i”, and this celebration is considered to be the largest pilgrimage of indigenous nations in the Americas, with tens of thousands of people (many estimate 70,000) making the pilgrimage during the 4 days that it takes place 8 kilometers outside of the town of Mawayani, at the foot of Ausangate Mountain (21,000 feet elevation). There is a fascinating ritual held by “ukukus” – the Quechua word for “bear”. He is a mythological creature deemed to be fathered by a bear and mothered by a human. The people who want to become Ukukus must climb the High Andes mountain to the glacier and survive the night to earn the right to be an Ukuku. They then wear special costumes and masks and are the policing body of this festival, using whips to call into line anyone who is seen to be acting in a disrespectful manner. Historically they cut blocks of ice from the glacier to bring back to Cusco, which when melted was used as holy water. There are virtually no facilities in this valley, so it is a camping event. There is non-stop dancing, music and firecrackers for the 4 days that this takes place – bring earplugs if you intend to sleep!
CORPUS CHRISTI – Body of Christ – 60 days after Easter Sunday
This festival has been celebrated all over Peru since Colonial times, but reaches its peak in Cusco. It takes place 60 days after Easter Sunday. The ornately dressed statues of 15 saints and virgins are all brought from their respective churches in Cusco and paraded around the Main Plaza. They enter the Cathedral one by one to spend the night in the Cathedral to greet the Body of Christ, embodied in the Sacred Host which is housed in an enormous gold goblet. The processions and the excitement and fervor of the citizens are an amazing show.
INTI RAYMI – The Celebration of the Winter Solstice – June 24th
Inti Raymi is the second largest festival in South America (after Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil). It is the celebration of the winter days starting to become longer – the solar new year. In Cusco the celebrations begin on June 1st (no kidding – they celebrate ALL MONTH) with various dances in the plazas, art festivals and an endless list of performances and events. This is considered to be the most important expression of folklore in Cusco. The Spanish outlawed this celebration due to its “pagan” identifications and it was lost for 100s of years. In 1944 a group of scholars and artists in Cusco got together and it was decided to reintroduce it based on the historical record. The peak of this weeks-long festival starts at 8AM on June 24th at the Q’oricancha, The Temple of the Sun (now a Dominican church – Iglesia de Santo Domingo). Hundreds and hundreds of people have roles in this theatrical performance on the green front lawn of what was the Temple of the Sun, which was sheathed in gold when the Spanish arrived into Cusco in 1532. They are all making various offerings of chichi (corn beer), potatoes, corn and flowers. Everyone in the Four Quarters of the Inca Empire, known as the Tawantinsuyo, is represented – from the Inca military to the jungle dancers. They make their way up Avenida El Sol around noon with a spectacular entry into the Main Plaza of Cusco. Actors representing the Inca (King) and Qoya (Queen) are carried on litters above the crowd who throw flower petals as they pass by in procession around the Plaza. The entire procession then ascends the steep mountain streets to Saqsaywaman, the famous Incan ruin overlooking Cusco for the final chapter of this most spectacular affair.
PACHAMAMA RAYMI / MOTHER EARTH DAY – August 1st
This is an Andean ritual which pays tribute to Mother Earth in honor of all she gives us. A key concept in the Andean culture is that of “ayni” or sacred reciprocity. This is a day set aside to symbolically give something back to Mother Earth. A beautiful mandala is created using many items from nature – seeds, coca leaves, dried fruits, flowers, rice, incenses, sweets and many other items. It is infused with the love that the people of Peru have, who are so closely connected to their Pachamama and it is offered to the spirits of the Andes Mountains and Mother Earth. This also marks the beginning of the Andean New Year. During the first 12 days of August is a period called “Las Cabañuelas”, brought over by the Spanish, where the weather is watched closely and a prediction is made for the weather for the upcoming year, to help the agricultural communities decide when to plant.
SANTURANTICUY – December 24th
This festival dates back to the Spanish Colonial period and is one of the largest handicrafts fairs in Peru. It takes place in the Main Plaza in Cusco and offers various religious images which are all handcrafted by local artisans, many things that are never seen anywhere else, or at any other time of the year. It is the custom of many Cusqueñans (people from Cusco) to have a nativity scene in their home during Christmas. December 24th, known as Noche Buena, is the big day in Peru, moreso than Christmas Day itself. On the 24th at midnight, a small figurine of Jesus is placed in the manger, and everyone goes to bed happy that Jesus has arrived! During Santuranticuy the campesinos, or country folk, come in from all over the region, selling various native plants, mosses and flowers to decorate the manger scenes. They have no place to stay in town, so they camp out in the Main Plaza and it is the custom of the city folk to bring them hot chocolate and snacks to tide them through the night, and you’ll see them standing in long lines waiting for a cocoa!
NEW YEARS EVE – Dec 31st
In the Main Plaza of Cusco New Year’s Eve is celebrated with festivities and bands playing! One thing that tourists notice with some amusement is that there is yellow underwear being sold on every street corner. The yellow represents gold and prosperity and you will even see people wearing their yellow underwear on top of their clothes to pronounce to the world that they are calling in abundance! There is absolutely no doubt when midnight hits as fireworks fill the sky! Everyone turns up in the Main Plaza with their own fireworks and they are going off in every direction! If you are lucky enough to be above the city on one of the mountainsides, looking down – it is a sight to behold! If you are in the Plaza itself – do be careful, as there doesn’t appear to be any supervision whatsoever! The bars and discos are open all night and you can party and dance until dawn!
By Lisa McClendon Sims