Eternally spring-like because of the combination of altitude and proximity to tropical forest, the pretty village of PAUCARTAMBO (“Village of the Flowers”) is located some 110km from Cusco in a wild and remote Andean region, and guards a major entrance to the jungle zone of Manu. A silver-mining colony, run by slave labour during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it’s now a popular destination that is at its best in the dry season between May and September, particularly in mid-July when the annual Fiesta de la Virgen del Carmen takes place; visitors arrive in their thousands and the village is transformed from a peaceful habitation into a huge mass of frenzied, costumed dancers. Even if you don’t make it to Paucartambo for the festival, you can still see the ruined chullpa burial towers at Machu Cruz, an hour’s walk from Paucartambo; ask in the village for directions. Travellers rarely make it here outside of festival time, unless en route to the rainforest by road.
The beautiful main plaza, with its white buildings and traditional blue balconies, holds concrete monuments depicting the characters who perform at the fiesta – demon-masked dancers, malaria victims, lawyers, tourists and just about anything that grabs the imagination of the local communities. Also on the plaza is the rather austere iglesia, restored in 1998 and splendid in its own way, simple yet full of large Cusqueña paintings. It’s also the residence of the sacred image of the Virgen del Carmen, unusual in its Indian (rather than European) appearance. When the pope visited Peru in the mid-1980s, it was loaded onto a truck and driven to within 30km of Cusco, then paraded on foot to the city centre so that the pope could bless the image.