By R.S. Gompertz
The town of Puno, Peru is perched at 3,800 meters (12,500 feet) and is shaped like a steep funnel that drains into Lake Titicaca.
In early February, mid-summer in the Andes, an ancient, pre-Columbian festival takes place to honor Pachamama, the earth mother, goddess of time, nature and fertility to people of the Andes. This tradition was co-opted by the Spanish who brought the Virgin of Candelaria (“La Morenita”) to the New World from her original home in the Canary Islands. Like other manifestations of the Madonna, many miracles and special powers were attributed to “Mamita Candelaria” as she appropriated Pachamama’s time and place of honor in early February. Not so miraculous is the fact that La Morenita’s skin turned from brown to beyond pale in transition from the Old World to the new.
What used to be a small regional fiesta has blossomed in to one of Latin America’s biggest celebrations. The sheer scale of the event is amazing. Nearly 200 groups, thousands of dancers and musicians from around the Peru and Bolivia overflow the town with faith and fiestas.
Energetic marching bands and precision dance troupes compete for titles in the stadium and parade through the streets from early morning till late at night. Imagine doing high-altitude Zumba along a 7 km parade route wearing a heavy demon suit or high heels and a sequined miniskirt to get a rough idea. Next, imagine you ascended from sea level a day or two before. Now drink a few beers and shots of Pisco along the route. The participants range from very young to very old and, by the end of the route, all seem trance-fixed from the altitude, alcohol and aerobics.
The many performance groups must raise funds and seek sponsorship to pay for the elaborate and expensive costumes, food, lodging and transport to the event. In addition to 50 or 100 dancers, one or two brass or Andean pipe bands may need to travel with each team. (If you blew brass and marched in a US High School pep band, you may have a few great memories. If you play tuba in Peru, you’ve got a job for life.)
It may appear a bit chaotic, but this is a very large and well-run festival. The behind-the-scenes logistics to train, transport, shelter, feed and deploy all of these pilgrims and performers to this high-altitude town during the Andean rainy season are simply mind-boggling.
There are four major categories of dance groups: Indigenous, slaves, overseers and devils. There are variations within these themes, but the music and dances are fairly consistent.
The Sikuris and Tinku groups bring traditional folklore mostly from the Aymara people of the Andes and, occasionally, the Amazon. The mountain people are dressed in layers of woven textiles and Alpaca wool. The people from the jungles (or impersonating them) wear substantially less. Together they represent the deep indigenous traditions, the campesinos, shamans and ancient warriors. They are usually accompanied by musicians playing marches and dirges on drums and “sikus,” bamboo pan flutes.
The “Morenadas” have a few possible explanations, the most common being a dance commemorating the slaves imported by the Spaniards to replace the decimated indigenous population. The kidnapped Africans also died in large numbers and are often represented in blackface with parched tongues extended. They wear tiered hoop skirts, shiny black or silver masks with exaggerated facial features and tall feathered headdresses.
The athletic and intimidating “Caporales” represent the slave overseers and are often led by an aggressive viceroy figure brandishing a whip. The outfits are exaggerated versions of the boots, jodhpurs, jackets and hats worn by the plantation overseers.
“Diabolada” is the dance of the devils which mixes indigenous and Spanish Catholic roots in symbolic battle between white angels and wild multicolored devils. The demon outfits often carry vivid dragon motifs that would be at home in a Chinese New Year’s celebration. The heavy multi-horned headdresses can reach up to two meters high and usually have one or more fierce vipers emerging from the top. The devils are chaperoned by dancing teams of chanting women in vivid miniskirts and knee-high boots often porting angel wings or devil horns.
Last year, the Diabolada contingent from the Puno police force was over 1000 strong. The hometown advantage means they don’t need to travel and are fully acclimated to the altitude. They march late at night, are the local crowd’s favorite and usually win the overall competition. Their amazing contingent seemed to stretch for blocks. (They probably have significant access to taxpayer funding and with a sizable, synchronized police like this, Puno could be the safest town on earth. On the other hand, perhaps they dress like devils for a reason.)
A close look at the images embroidered on many of the outfits and accessories and reveal symbols and motifs from the Nazca lines, the ancient gods, glyphs and the Catholic liturgy. The venerable and timeless Pachamama still shines through in this a veritable hodge-podge of ancient lore and conquest.
For reasons no one could explain, large gorillas and men dressed as gaudy, zaftig women bounce through the festivities from time to time. Many groups are interspersed with small armies of highly stylized “Cholitas,” color-clad Andean felt-derby wearing women who sing, spin and twist their dresses and petticoats hypnotically back-and-forth to the beat of brass bands.
If the colors are amazing and the sounds are overwhelming. Imagine bass drums pounding, symbols crashing and horns blaring as you pulse with the crowd in an urban canyon turned echo chamber. It’s an emotional experience and spectators love to jump into the street to dance with the performers, snap selfies or hand out water, beers and shots of spray foam or hard liquor. It’s a Candelaria miracle nobody gets trampled.
We watched three days of this amazing festival, sometimes at street level, other times perched in the balcony of a restaurant along the route. I have never seen or experienced anything like this and will be flashing back to this peak experience for a long time to come.