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.
Fiesta de la Virgen del Carmen
Fiesta de la Virgen del Carmen
Paucartambo spends the first six months of every year gearing up for the Fiesta de la Virgen del Carmen. It’s an essentially female festival: tradition has it that a wealthy young woman, who had been on her way to Paucartambo to trade a silver dish, found a beautiful (if body-less) head that spoke to her once she’d placed it on the dish. Arriving in the town, people gathered around her and witnessed rays of light shining from the head, and henceforth it was honoured with prayer, incense and a wooden body for it to sit on.
The energetic, hypnotic festival lasts three or four days – usually July 16–19, but check with the tourist office in Cusco – and features throngs of locals in distinctive traditional costumes, with market stalls and a small fair springing up near the church. Clamouring down the streets are throngs of intricately costumed and masked dancers and musicians, the best known of whom are the black-masked Capaq Negro, recalling the African slaves who once worked the nearby silver mines. Note the grotesque blue-eyed masks and outlandish costumes acting out a parody of the white man’s powers – malaria, a post-Conquest problem, tends to be a central theme – in which an old man suffers terrible agonies until a Western medic appears on the scene, with the inevitable hypodermic in his hand. If he manages to save the old man (a rare occurrence) it’s usually due to a dramatic muddling of prescriptions by his dancing assistants – and thus does Andean fate triumph over science.
On Saturday afternoon there’s a procession of the Virgen del Carmen itself, with a brass band playing mournful melodies as petals and emotion are showered on the icon of the Virgin – which symbolizes worship of Pachamama as much as devotion to Christianity. The whole event culminates on Sunday afternoon with the dances of the guerreros (warriors), during which good triumphs over evil for another year.