When people think of Carnival, they usually think, as I did before moving to Peru, of Rio de Janeiro. But Carnival is celebrated all over South America, especially in the Peruvian Andes. In the Sacred Valley of Peru, the carnival celebration lasts for almost two weeks straight. Every community, no matter how isolated and how small, has its own celebration.
During the five years that I’ve lived in Peru, I’ve had the chance to attend many Carnival celebrations. What I’ve found is that the most unique and memorable events take place in farther-reaching heights, outside of towns and cities. And in order to get to many of these events, you need to be in the know about when to go, where to go, and how to get there. The details for the best events in the Sacred Valley are not published online.
What’s more, every year, dates change. Since every single community has its own celebration, it can be difficult to keep track of which events are happening when. In order to give you some orientation for celebrating Carnival this year, here are my favorite Carnival picks.
There are so many celebrations taking place during Carnival season. It’s sometimes hard to keep track of. This is why I’m just focusing on the heights above Pisac, in a region known as The Potato Park.
The carnival season kicks off two weeks before the principle Sunday of carnival with Dia de Los Comadres, Godfather’s day. This year, 2019, Dia de Los Compadres falls on February 21st. During this special day, it’s a tradition for women to visit their Godfathers. The celebration brings people together to spend quality time together, and it’s also a time for joking and having fun. In the Cusco area, it’s a tradition for women to make fun of their compadres by making life-sized size dolls of their Godfathers to hang in the streets.
On the following Thursday, which falls on February 28th this year, communities in the Cusco region celebrate Dia de Commadres, Godmothers’ Day. Though each of these holidays each has its own unique characteristics, the idea is pretty much the same: to celebrate and dance in the streets, while making fun of your Godparents along the way.
Another thing to keep in mind about these celebrations is that according to tradition, there is lots of leniency on who is recognized as being a comadre, or a compadre. It is a very common thing for communities to choose a yearly representative as the designated comadre or compadre.
In the weeks leading up to Carnival, there is no shortage of festivals in the Potato Park. This high-Andean expanse, located high above the community of Pisac is one of the most traditional regions in the Sacred Valley. You might not be surprised to know that Carnival celebrations in these regions are very traditional as well.
During my first Carnival experience in Peru, I was lucky enough to attend this carnival celebration with an indigenous family who I’m very close with. If I didn’t have them to make the trip with, I wouldn’t have even known about it. The festival takes place every year on the same day as “Dia de los Compadres,” at the top of Apu Pantara Pantillicya, an important mountain where representatives from a handful of surrounding communities converge for an afternoon of dancing, music, and lots of drinking.
In order to attend this festival, simply take a taxi from Pisac to the community of Cuyu Grande. From there, make your way to the great mountain dawning over the village. Though it is a steady one hour climb to get to the top, the trail is well-maintained. Make sure that you leave early for the event in order to make sure that you can watch the dancers perform the Carnival entrance. You can’t help but be stunned in witnessing the lively energy of the many dancers.
If you’re not interested in doing it yourself, then I recommend that you go to Pisac and spend a few nights at Casa Camacho where you can organize a trip with the owners, a warm-hearted local family.
Of all the carnival celebrations I’ve been to, this is by far the most traditional, and the most breathtaking. But unfortunately, Chichiuani and the carnival above Cuyu Grande take place on the same day, so you’re going to have to choose between the two.
Chichiuani takes place very high in the mountains (more than 4,500 meters) above the community of Chahuaytire. Be advised that getting there is an adventure in itself. Be ready to hike for an hour and a half straight up the face of a mountain, without a trail, in order to reach the starting point. If you get there before the event starts, you’ll find hundreds of men, split between two groups who are standing in a line and facing each other from a distance. It’s as if they were two opposing armies in their battle lines before fighting.
If you get there in time, you’ll see the men putting finishing touches to their ornate outfits which serve to embody the spirit of the wayata, the revered Andean Goose. When the start to the event draws nearer, the men get hyped up for the adventure ahead. They start screaming in unison like wayatas, banging drums, playing horns, jumping up and down.
And then, suddenly, the set-off running through the mountains, just like a gigantic flock of geese. Unless you’re in great shape and acclimatize to high elevations, it’s difficult to keep up with them while they ascend and descend innumerable mountainsides while on a day-long voyage into the towns below. But even if you can’t keep up, don’t worry. The simple experience of visiting “base camp” before the start of the event is a memorable experience.
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