Every July, Catholics honor the Virgen del Carmen (sometimes called Mamacha in Peru and other Latin countries). A particularly over-the-top version of this event takes place in the Andean town of Paucartambo near Cuzco. Here, the Virgen del Carmen Festival has become so famous and so synonymous with the town that it’s often referred to simply as the Paucartambo Festival. Here’s what to expect at the Virgen del Carmen Festival in Paucartambo.
Inside the Virgen del Carmen Festival in Paucartambo
The Virgen del Carmen festival is an important Catholic celebration that honors one of the invocations of the Virgin Mary. The festival is enthusiastically celebrated in Spain and in many Latin American countries. In Pacuartambo, Peru this festival is a cultural highlight of the year.In 1972, the Virgen del Carmen was declared the patron saint of the folkloric dances of Cuzco and, in 1985, Pope John Paul II officiated a Virgen del Carmen ceremony in Cuzco. The Virgen del Carmen is also sometimes called Mamacha del Carmen and she is the patron saint of mestizos (a person of mixed European and Indigenous ancestry). Like many festive Latin Catholic celebrations, it can be easy to forget that this is a religious event–though mass held multiple times a day in the town’s small church (pictured above left) is a reminder. In the main plaza in Paucartambo you will find a fountain decorated with 17 statues representing 17 of the dance troupes–called a comparsa–that perform during the Virgen del Carmen Festival in Paucartambo. We were told that participants must have roots in Paucartambo in order to join a dance troupe. Since 1990, additional troupes have been thoughtfully added and there are currently 19 troupes that perform during this festival in Paucartambo including the Qhapaq Negro, pictured above, whose members represent black slaves brought to work in the mines. Their costumes are made up of many symbolic elements, including a spinning rattle meant to simulate the sound of slave chains. The Virgin del Carmen festival in Paucartambo spans four days from July 15 through July 18. We were told that the first and second days were among the most eventful with the bulk of the dance troupes performing and long days of events from 6 am into the wee hours and that proved to be true. The costume worn by members of the Qhapaq Qolla group includes taxidermied vicuña (a wild relative of the llama) and other elements symbolizing life for the people of the highlands who are celebrated as traders by this dance troupe. A llamero (llama herder) also walks among the dancers leading a llama loaded with products from the highlands. One of the most memorable moments of this festival in Paucartambo involves flying objects–dolls, small plastic items, woven baskets–that are tossed to the crowd by members of the Qhapaq Qolla, further enforcing their representation of highlands traders. Members of the Qhapaq Ch’unchu group represent jungle warriors and they serve as protectors of the Virgen. One of the most unusual elements in this group is a troupe member dressed as a monkey (pictured above right) who performs silly choreography. A classic good-vs-evil conflict plays out near the end of the Virgen del Carmen Festival in Paucartambo when the Saqra troupe–representing devils–appears. The Saqra devils cannot look at the Virgen. Instead, they perch on balconies and rooftops and try to get her attention with their antics. The Contradanza troupe is made up entirely of men with choreography and costumes inspired by agriculture, farmers, and farm work. Some also believe that the work of this troupe mocks Spanish colonial ballroom dancing. Though women take part in various elements of the Virgen del Carmen Festival in Paucartambo, the Qoyacha troupe is the only one in which men and women technically participate equally. While most troupe members parade on foot, performing choreography as they go, members of the Majeño troupe parade on horseback as they represent muleteers. All K’achampa troupe members are men and their choreography acts out and celebrates the bravery and triumphs of Quechua warriors. We were told that 90,000 people visit Paucartambo over the course of this festival each year. During the days that we were there, we estimated there were a few thousand people in the crowd and very few of them were foreigners. During the Pacific War in the late 1800s, Chilean soldiers invaded Peru. The Aqua Chileno troupe mocks Chilean soldiers represented by the dancers. Waka Waka troupe members do not perform set choreography. Instead, their moves imitate bullfighting. Every year on July 17, Waka Waka troupe members simulate a bullfight with one troupe member representing the bull which is ultimately vanquished. Smaller celebrations and rituals happen throughout the year in the lead-up to the main Virgin del Carmen Festival. In Paucartamo, for example, buildings are repainted in early July before the festival begins. One of the most specific dances is a celebration of bread bakers which is performed by apron-wearing members of the Panaderos troupe. Members of the Chukchu troup wear sickly yellow masks, which makes sense when you learn that they represent plantation house slaves who became infected with malaria in the jungle. Their choreography includes throwing flour on crowd members in imitation of the spread of disease. Sometimes inspired by real members of the community, members of the Wayra troupe represent lawyers and the judicial system as a whole and often parody the educated class in general. Hundreds of locals (and quite a few people who were born in Paucartambo but moved elsewhere) work for the entire year to produce the costumes, choreography, and cuisine that make this festival in Paucartambo such a famous cultural occasion. Some give time. Some give expertise. Some give money. Some give goods and services. Members of the Negrillos troupe also represent slaves, but unlike the Qhapaq Negro, these dancers represent young slaves forced to work in the cotton fields and vineyards. Some of the complex choreography performed by members of the Negrillos troupe represents enslaved people’s struggle for freedom. The main characters in the Danzaq troupe can be described as playboys who spend time wooing young maiden dancers, hitting on married women, and “comforting” widows. Parts of the Virgen del Carmen Festival are somber and religious, including the procession of the faithful into the Pacaurtambo church bearing representations of the Virgen del Carmen, like the woman above. This is most commonly an honor reserved for a member of the family that sponsors a troupe. This patron carries their personal Virgin and leads the procession. The Pawkartampus troupe is named for the town of Paucartambo and is made up of both men and women. In addition to the dance troupes that perform during the Virgen del Carmen Festival in Paucartambo, a group called Maqt’a also plays an important role. Maqt’a members do not perform choreography. Instead, they roam through the crowd to “keep order” during the festival. Members of the Ch’unchcha troupe, which is one of the newer additions to the Virgen del Carmen Festival in Paucartambo, are usually young women. The Virgen del Carmen Festival in Paucartambo dates back to the 1700s and one of the official taglines of modern Paucartambo translates to “top tourist destination of the faith”. At the height of the Virgen del Carmen Festival in Paucartambo it seems as if there’s something going on virtually 24 hours a day. The tiled roofs, cobblestone streets, and traditionally painted adobe buildings of central Paucartambo certainly provide a picturesque backdrop for this festival. Structures with balconies, like the one above, also provide vantage points for a few lucky visitors. One of the most important events of this festival takes place in the afternoon of the second day when the Virgen del Carmen is taken out of the church and is paraded reverently through the center of town with various troupes in attendance.
See the Virgen del Carmen Festival in Puacartambo for yourself in our video, below.
Travel tips for seeing this festival in Paucartambo
Paucartambo is just 60 miles (100 km) from Cuzco but that journey along mountain roads takes 3-4 hours each way. Therefore, it’s most convenient to spend a night or two in Paucartambo to give yourself time to take in the festivities rather than try to cram it into a day trip.
Paucartambo is not usually a tourist town, so accommodations are limited to a few hostels and those will almost certainly be booked during the festival. Camping is allowed in some areas around town during the festival in Paucatambo and some residents rent rooms in their homes to help accommodate people who’ve come to see the celebration. We stayed with Lourdes Cchauna and her family in a double room in their simple home for about US$40 per night. Tour companies, including Apus Peru, offer guided trips to see this festival in Paucartambo and usually provide camping or other accommodation as part of their packages.
While in Paucartambo, be sure to also check out the Carlos III Bridge. Built-in the 18th century and named for King Carlos of Spain, this stone bridge spans the Mapacho River. It has been rebuilt many times and is still regularly used by the community.
One word of warning: if you drive your own vehicle to Paucartambo during the festival know that parking space is limited and parking areas get jam-packed as more and more people arrive. When we were ready to leave Paucartambo, we found that our truck had been hopelessly parked in among other vehicles and we were unable to move. We had to wait for hours for drivers to return and move the cars around us before we were able to drive out.
Paucartambo lies at just shy of 9,000 feet (3,000 meters) and July is South American winter, so be prepared for cold temperatures, particularly at night.
Other things to see and do around Paucartambo
Since you’re already there, here are some other things to do and see around Paucartambo.
Tres Cruces, a kind of natural viewpoint near Paucartambo, is famous for spectacular sunrises, especially in the months of May, June, and July. When conditions align, you get epic skies and views all the way down to the Amazon Basin from this vantage point at 12,500 feet (3,800 meters). You can visit this spot at any time. However, many festival-goers and troupe dancers make the pre-dawn trip from Paucartambo on the morning of the second day of the festival.
At the Ninamarca archaeological site, on the way to Paucartambo and Cuzco, you can see 30 pre-Incan round stone chullpas which are believed to have been used as burial sites by members of the Aymara and Quechua cultures.
Here’s more about travel in Peru
Here’s more about Festivals in the Americas