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.