As the imperial capital during Inca times, Cusco was the most important place of pilgrimage in South America, a status it retains today. During Easter, June and Christmas, the city centre becomes the focus for relentless fiestas and carnivals celebrated with extravagant processions blending pagan pre-Columbian and Catholic colonial cultures.
Around Jan 20 Adoración de los Reyes (Adoration of the Kings). Ornate and elaborate processions leave from San Blas church and parade through Cusco.
Last week of Jan Pera Chapch’y (Festival of the Pear). A harvest festival in San Sebastián, 4km southeast of Cusco, with lively street stalls and processions.
First week of March Festival de Durasno (Festival of the Peach). Food stalls and folk dancing in Yanahuara and Urubamba.
Easter Week Semana Santa. On Easter Monday there’s a particularly splendid procession through Cusco, with a rich and evocative mix of Indian and Catholic iconography. The following Thursday a second procession celebrates the city’s patron saint, El Señor de los Temblores (Lord of Earthquakes), and on Easter Friday, street stalls sell many different traditional dishes.
May 2–3 Cruz Velacuy, or Fiesta de las Cruces (Festival of the Cross). All church and sanctuary crosses in Cusco and the provinces are veiled for a day, followed by traditional festivities with dancing and feasting in most communities. Particularly splendid in Ollantaytambo.
Weekend before Corpus Christi Qoyllur Rit’i (Snow Star, or Ice Festival). Held on the full-moon weekend prior to Corpus Christi in an isolated valley above the road from Cusco via Urcos and Ocongate to the Amazon town of Puerto Maldonado. The festival site lies at the foot of a glacier, considered an apu, or mountain god. Close by, and visible during the climb to the festival, is the sacred snowcapped peak – Ausangate. This is one of the most exciting festivals in the Americas, with live music that continues for days, several processions, and bands and dancers from various communities who make an annual pilgrimage to recharge spiritually at a time when the mountain is said to be blossoming in a metaphysical rather than botanical sense. As it involves camping at around 4600m at the foot of a glacier, it’s only for the adventurous; some tour operators organize trips, but it’s primarily a Quechua festival, with villagers arriving in their thousands in the weeks running up to it.
Corpus Christi (always nine weeks after Easter). Imposed by the Spanish to replace the Inca tradition of parading ancestral mummies, saints’ effigies are carried through the streets of Cusco, even as the local mayordomos (ritual community leaders) throw parties and feasts combining elements of religiosity with outright hedonism. The effigies are then left inside the cathedral for eight days, after which they are taken back to their respective churches, accompanied by musicians, dancers and exploding firecrackers.
Second week of June Cusqueña International Beer and Music Festival. Lively, with big Latin pop and jazz names, at its best from Thursday to Sunday.
June 16–22 Traditional folk festivals in Raqchi and Sicuani.
June 20–30 Fiesta de Huancaro. An agricultural show packed with locals and good fun, based in the Huancaro sector of Cusco (S/5 taxi ride from Plaza de Armas, or go down Avenida Sol and turn right at the roundabout before the airport).
Last week of June Cusco Carnival. Daily processions and folk dancers, plus lively music on the streets throughout the day and night, peaking with Inti Raymi.
June 24 Inti Raymi. Popular, commercial fiesta re-enacting the Inca Festival of the Sun in the grounds of Sacsayhuaman.
July 15–17 Virgen del Carmen. Dance and music festival celebrated all over the highlands, but at its best in Paucartambo.
July 28 Peruvian Independence Day. Festivities nationwide, not least in Cusco.
Sept 14–18 Señor de Huanca. Music, dancing, pilgrimages and processions take place all over the region but are especially lively in Calca, with a fair in the Sacred Valley.
First week of Dec Yawar Fiesta. A vibrant, uncommercial corrida de toros (bull fight) at the end of the week in Paruro, Cotabambas and Chumbivilcas. A condor, captured by hand, is tied to the back of a bull that battles to the death.