I happened to be lucky enough to stumble upon a parade on my first night here. A group of children were dressed in traditional costumes dancing while a band played. They made their way to the cathedral and then danced about a 1/2 hour outside before going in.
Peru is a land of festivals and you don't really have to look for one, you are bound to walk right into one at some point of your travels. One Sunday, we noticed a huge commotion coming from a church we intended to visit. We no sooner got in and saw this huge procession gearing up to march through the city. We ran back out to capture the moment, resplendent with small fireworks.
Every single village in Peru has an Anniversary, and they typically each celebrate it in a spectacular way. Ollantaytambo's Anniversary is October 28-29th. The event begins with a daytime procession by every local diplomat, professor, and student. There are many special foods served on the street during the Anniversary including cuy and trucha. In the evening, an enormous stage was set up in the town square and bands performed all night long. I only lasted until 4am, dancing with Carlos who had gold stars on his teeth, but the square was still packed when I left.
I stumbled upon these events by accident when my bus couldn't go any farther on the road to Ollantaytambo due to the number of people in the streets, and we all had to walk the remaining distance to town. A few weeks later is was Quillabamba and Urabamba's anniversary. Quillabamba is a smaller town, so all of the men from there road motor bikes through the Sacred Valley to celebrate, and you could offer them crates of soda and pour confetti on them as they passed through your village. Urubamba's Anniversary was similar to Ollantaytambo's but larger and raining, because it is in mid-November. If you can, definitely try to attend a town's anniversary!
Christmas is essentially a religious celebration in Cusco. But for the visitor, there are some special traditions that make this a magical time to visit the ancient city.
You won´t see the massive commercialization here that you do at home. Ask a Cusqueňans what´s special about Christmas and they are bound to mention the all important Panetóns – on sale everywhere in the build up to Dec 25. These are cakes with dried fruit and which brand or bakery has the best, fruitiest cake is often a hotly contested issue. The panetóns come in boxes of different sizes and are an ideal gift for local families. How about a paneton from the bakery of the Santa Catalina Monastery?
Meanwhile, many organizations are getting ready for their Chocolatadas. As a way of considering others at Christmas, businesses, churches and other organizations regularly organize a Chocolatada. The name comes from the cups of hot chocolate given out to children from poorer communities. It’s not only chocolate though, they might also give out other items, like toys, panetóns, bags of sugar and so on. In the days leading up to Dec 25, you can see lines of people waiting for the chocolate hand out by local businesses. What you don’t see, though, are the many organizations who travel to remote communities to give out chocolate and gifts. They will often go to the same community year after year. If you are in Cusco around this time, taking part in a Chocolatada is a great, fun way to meet local people.
On December 24th Cusco’s Plaza de Armas becomes a huge street market called Santuranticuy; ´the saints’ market´. Traditionally this is where people come to buy their images of Jesus and other figures for the family nativity scene. To this day, the main items on sale are mosses, grasses, sculptures, wooden stables and handicrafts of all kinds devoted to the nativity scenes so important in local homes. Many of the sellers travel far from the mountains, some of the journey on foot, and spend the nights around the 24th sleeping in the portales, or archways, around the square. The market has a lovely calm but busy atmosphere. When you have finished admiring the handicrafts you can escape to one of the balconies overlooking the square to sip your own hot chocolate and soak up the atmosphere.
At 12.00 midnight on the 24th, Cusqueňans raise a toast, embrace and a family member will place the image of Jesus in its manger in the nativity scene. Now the baby is in place, Christmas has officially begun. After hot chocolate, champagne and of course panetón, some gifts might be exchanged.
Cusco has a large international community, though, so as a visitor, you can always find your own version of Christmas.
How about camp and extravagant at Fallen Angel? Or traditional British at Real McCoy? The Dutch and Belgian communities even celebrate Sinterklaas on December 6th with gifts for children. You can attend a midnight mass, or shake your stuff till the morning at Mama Africa, Ukukus or Siete Angelitos.
Wherever you go, the time of year often brings travelers and locals together and there is bound to be a great, friendly atmosphere.
On the 25th, families will stay at home for their enormous lunch of turkey, potatoes, apple sauce, and, of course, panetón. Most businesses are closed but many restaurants are open serving a special Christmas menu – either Peruvian or international style. You will find the city unusually quiet, making this a great day to wander around and enjoy Cusco without the traffic.
Best to conserve your energy, though…for the far more raucous New Year!