First, some history
Puno’s Virgen de la Candelaria statue — Mary with a child in one hand and a green candle in the other — was brought from Spain sometime between 1580 and 1590. It is thought to have been made in Seville or Cadiz.
As the local story goes, in the 1700s, the Spanish rulers in Puno were under attack from an Inca uprising lead by Tupac Amaru. Some 12,000 men were gathered in the hills round Puno, many more than in the city itself.
The worried locals took the statue of the Virgen de la Candelaria out from the church for a long procession round the town, they say, coupled with dancing and loud music that lasted into the night.
The story goes that this put off the imminent attack, as the rebels left worried and unsure just how powerful and how many people were actually in Puno. Ever since, the Virgin is venerated and held high as the patron of Puno.
Today, the churches in Puno are decorated from ceiling to floor with huge cloth banners and thousands of flowers. In the centerpiece is the surprisingly small statue of the Virgin, which receives colorful new clothes for each year’s new fiesta.
On Feb. 2, the Virgin is taken out for a long procession round the town, as in the original legend, followed by a large band and a huge crowd. That morning, all the streets along the route are prepared for the event with huge images constructed out of colored wood and sawdust, or for greater respect and impact, completely out of flowers and chopped up plants.
As the statue of the Virgin passes over each image, flower petals are thrown over the statue for good luck. Some people had even constructed special boxes on the end of ridiculously long poles, so they could drop the flowers directly over the virgin herself from the first floor windows and balconies along the route.
I estimated there were in the region of 5,000 people involved during the procession, but this really is small compared to the main event, the colorful folk festival, which completely takes over the town and is just incredible. This starts on the next Sunday following the procession, with a huge dance and costume competition in the city’s stadium Torres Belon.
The competition started at 7 a.m. and although it officially ended at just after 6 in the evening, everyone spilled out onto the streets and continued into the night, drinking pisco, rum and homemade chicha beer out of two-liter coke bottles, well into the early hours. At 5 a.m., I could still hear bands at from my hotel.
The Devil’s Dance
The former Miss Peru, Karen Schwarz, who in 2009 was the center of a controversy between Peru and Bolivia for wearing a Diablada costume, also attended the dance competition in her amazing costume. There was no complaints here, only huge cheers echoing round the hills.
La Diablada dance — which Bolivia claimed as being cultural owners — is a dramatization of the legend between good and bad, which is presided by the archangel Micheal, and the Devil and his army, who is also accompanied by the "chinasupay" (the devil’s woman).
The huge metal masks weigh so much that only the strongest people are able to play the part of the devil. I tried on a mask myself and could only walk about with it for two minutes before my neck complained and I had to give it back.
The Daddy of all parades
The “Grand Parade” takes place on the Feb. 9 and is the height of the festivities. The groups, which paraded in the stadium, the bands, together with many more groups from the neighborhoods, all return for a street procession in front of the Virgin, who will watch over them from a small tent erected especially for her, on the main street.
The entire city turns out, either taking part in, or watching over the five-kilometer parade through the city, starting from the shores of Titicaca and ending at the city’s cemetery. This takes between 4-6 hours depending on the crowd. Groups tiring and not putting in 100 percent are jeered, while those doing well receive food, beer and home made beer called chicha. That usually gets an extra special show, until one of the officials tries to get them moving down the street again.
José Huanca Tonconi, the regional tourism director in Puno, is also one of the dancers in the group Spectacular Morenada Bellavista, boasting an impressive 1,500 dancers and musicians. “According to the hotel figures in Puno, in February 2009 Puno received 19,424 visitors, of which 9672 were domestic tourists and 9752 were foreigners,” said Huanca. “And that’s not including the visitors staying with relatives and not officially counted.”
This year there was a noticeable lack of foreign tourists, as the floods of Cusco and closure of Machu Picchu had obviously affected many people’s plans. In the two weeks I only saw about two or three dozen foreigners, which is a huge shame.
Mask-maker, make me a mask
Today the vast majority of costumes are made directly in Puno. Embroiderers say they have the capacity to meet demand for the dancers of the Candelaria as well as other festivities in the region. Candelaria for these artisans is like a huge fashion show, where they exhibit their innovative and creative work, and take on orders for the following year and other groups.
It’s Big Business, too! A single costume can cost several hundred dollars, which is a very large percentage of the annual salary in the region.
And with a dance group being several hundred people, the embroiderers have their work cut out for the year.
There has been a slow evolution of the costumes, with the most famous, the Diablada, started with just a few staggered embroidered figures, perhaps having some Inca history behind them. Today these costumes are embroidered with Chinese dragons and snakes, having a strangly Eastern mythology and flavour, which seems a bit odd, high in the Andes of South America. This has been a result of Japanese and Chinese immigrants, who began settling in neighboring Bolivia, and bringing their embroidery skills together with a mixing of their culture.
All parties come to an end
The final event of Candelaria, is a music parade with some 1,500 musicians and dancers, consisting of 15 sicuris groups, consisting of about 100 people in each band. The sicuris is a type of traditional panpipe, consisting of two rows of reed tubes, eight in the front row and seven in the lower second row.
Although the Virgen de la Candelaria festival officially ended on Wednesday, Feb. 10 with the sicuris parade, there are always groups that can been seen and heard in the main streets during the following weekend. This year too, with carnival being on the following weekend, the celebrations simply continue into one huge three-week party.
Andrew Dare, a.k.a. Wandering Bear, is a traveler and photographer currently based in Cusco. Visit his website to find out more.