Paucartambo, Peru

Where the cows spark

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Once a year, the small village of Paucartambo in the Peruvian Andes turns into a madhouse. Then wolves and drunken Spaniards dance in a shower of sparks. A story about a day of pure magic.

"Qué lindo!" The woman in front of me calls ecstatic. Sparks fly through the air, I hold my hands protectively in front of my face and try not to be pushed around. A little girl is sitting on the shoulders of the woman. "That should be nice ?!", I think to myself. "This is sheer madness!" Then I close my eyes. I can hear the staccato of the orchestra, which has accompanied this spectacle for hours and is now reaching its climax. I smell fire and cotton candy. "What actually happens here !?" shoots through my head. And then, inevitably: "Qué lindo".

A village wakes up

We first heard about a couch surfer at the Fiesta Virgen del Carmen. "It's awesome. Lots of dancing, ”promised Albert. Almost every Peruvian we met agreed with him. The fiesta in Paucartambo should not be missed. Nothing came of the overnight stay at Albert, but we had to experience the fiesta.

Paucartambo is a tranquil village at 2906 meters above sea level. Almost 14,000 people live throughout the province, most of them from agriculture. The tranquil village prepares for the Fiesta Virgen del Carmen for almost half a year. Then, in four days in June, thousands of visitors crowd the streets. Most are Peruvians. Paucartambo is, although only 2   Hours from Cusco, a little insider tip for tourists. The few that are there have stayed in apartments on the main square. Travel agents charge 125 euros for the Fiesta experience. Included in the price are arrival and departure, guide and an overnight stay with breakfast. However, these beds are limited, which is why most visitors camp next to the large soccer field.

A virgin, a lot of gringos

We are traveling on a budget and therefore travel with a shared taxi, a Colectivo, from Cusco. It is Saturday, the last day of the celebrations. As soon as we get out the move sounds towards us. In front of him: a small doll from Virgen del Carmen. On the one hand, the virgin symbolizes Pachamama, which the Quechua and Aymara-speaking peoples venerate as "Mother Earth". On the other hand, the elaborately designed figure is also a sign of turning towards Christian belief. This contradiction between the traditions of the old peoples and the influence of the Spaniards will accompany us throughout the day.

Many stories are told about Carmen herself. The best known goes back to the 13th century. At that time a young, rich woman was on her way to Paucartambo. With her she had a silver plate. She wanted to sell them in the village. Then she saw a severed head lying on the floor. The head was beautiful and he started talking to her. "My name is Carmen," he said. The young woman put her head on the silver plate and returned to her village. When she got there a strong beam came from her and the head. The villagers soon asked Carmen to fulfill their wishes. And it is said that some of them have been fulfilled.

The ceremony not only tells the story of the beautiful head. Centuries of Peruvian history pass us during the ceremony. Or better said: whirls. Because the move is a series of wild hunts and joyful dances at first glance obscure figures. Like the Chapaq Negro. Like everyone else, they are elaborately decorated and are reminiscent of the African slaves who worked in the nearby silver mines. And with their blond mustaches and blue eyes also at their exploiters: the Spaniards.

Other participants in the move startled us. Their faces look like a distorting mirror. With their long noses and large warts, they can scare you at first glance. These masks reveal a problem that the Spaniards brought to the Andes: malaria. Other participants are the "conquerors" themselves. They do not get away well. With their big sombreros, blonde hair and the inevitable beer in hand, the "gringos" are at least easily recognizable. Today they have adapted to local traditions. In Paucartambo, the Spaniards drink the local beer Cusquena.

In addition to a cultural and religious ceremony, the Fiesta Virgen del Carmen is one thing above all: Fiesta! Alcohol levels rise as the sun goes down. People dance, eat and drink in the streets. Replenishment is provided, as we can see: a man carries a dead pig on his back through the crowd. Cotton candy is sold next to him. A street further on we discover a sign. "Sell guinea pigs, dead or alive" it says. We sit on the plastic stools in a side street and fortify ourselves with rice and vegetables. The Spanish traces can also be seen in the sweets: there are churros with chocolate sauce.

A few corners away we find ourselves in the middle of a fair. In the courtyard of the local school, table football tables are set up in rows. Trampolines are lined up on roulette tables. Children also play a game that we don't quite understand. They throw Centimos on the floor with number plates, a boy hands out the prizes.

Shortness of breath and the dance of the fighters

The cold comes with the evening. The people who walked the streets all day gather in the main square. At the center are elaborate bamboo constructions. We estimate that it will probably still be lit. Dancers whip through the air with their whips. In this way, they ensure that a passage remains free for the masked to walk through.

It is not that easy, because it has now become tight on the square. "A kingdom for an apartment," I think to myself. Because the other tourists have a good overview of the spectacle on their balconies. We can feel the tension and anticipation here. Even if that means someone kicking your feet every few minutes.

After an hour, it begins to smolder. The dancers lay straw on the floor. While we are still trying to understand what is going on, they light the straw bales. People are moving closer together. Taking a breath has also been easier. The dancers now run in a circle through the corridor, start jumping over the straw, sparks fly through the air when they land in the straw. A woman in front of me has her child on her shoulders. I would like to offer her to change places with me so that it does not get hurt. But the orchestra's increasingly urgent staccato drowns out every word.

When cows burn and the sky sparkles

Black-clad men carry a cow-shaped bamboo construction down the corridor. Small rotating fireworks are attached from the back of the cow. In addition, fire throwers on stems are now making the rounds. "It's moving," my friend calls. And really, the construction in the middle of the square that we thought was going to be lit is now being carried into the corridor.

And suddenly many cogs turn and throw colorful fireworks into the night sky. The construction is sophisticated, one wheel sets the other in motion. Nobody is worried about the sparks, so I stop and enjoy the spectacle, the music and the delighted calls of the people around me. Sometimes it is wise to just enjoy.

  1. Bettina

    Great inspiring post and great background information !!!

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