Whilst in the sacred valley location of southern Peru, Machu Picchu is obviously the star attraction, and not without merit. Nonetheless, other towns in the region host a number of smaller ruins, that if not overshadowed by Machu Picchu’s grandeur, would be stunning enough sites to tour in their own right. It was for this reason we decided to visit Pisac, a small town overlooked by a sprawling collection of former Incan buildings atop a hill. It was for a completely different reason, however, that we almost wound up never leaving.
On the afternoon of July 15th, when we arrived in Pisac and couldn’t locate our hostel, we wandered to the main square to get a better sense of direction. Instead we saw a man on a horse holding a chicken, while trying vigorously in vain to grab a box tied to a string hovering above him. Considering we had just arrived in town, I took the bold assumption that everyday in Pisac unfolds as this one. Instantly, I was hooked.
In reality, once a year Pisac puts on a spectacle – a town-wide celebration dedicated to the Virgen del Carmen. As of about a week ago that meant nothing to me, and likely still means nothing to you, but it just so happened that we randomly arrived the very day this annual festival kicked off, a recent rare bout of inadvertent but perfect timing. We stood in awe at this half parade, half horse race, half grab-the-box contest, and all street party. I didn’t care if we ever found our hostel at this point, I was ready to live here. Cooler heads (i.e. Christine’s) prevailed, and after about two hours and with dark rapidly approaching, we managed to pull our eyes away from the main square to go drop our bags off. But that’s all I was prepared to do, for as soon as we located our abode for the night, I was jetting back to the main square.
Luckily, as we found out via our helpful hostel hosts, today was just the first of a four-day fiesta (anything less than that really doesn’t even qualify as a ‘fiesta’ per say). There would be plenty of fun to be had, with non-stop music and action until the Virgen del Carmen herself had enough and limped back to church. Returning to the main square, the horse racing part had ended, but the plaza had descended into an open-air party, with a multitude of street food options. Opting for chicken necks, a chicken sandwich, beef hearts, and three rounds of a local drink made from the fava bean (ponche), we got our fill for a total of $4. But that’s was not even really the exciting part – the entire time in the corner we had seen people constructing these weird looking structures, which they kept stacking on top of each other. There were three separate groups more or less, and the structures kept getting bigger and bigger. It was like a team of engineers were competing the build the weirdest looking possible useless wooden robot. Still perplexed, while walking by Christine noticed what she thought was “dynamite” attached to one of them. They were going to blow these things up!
And blow them up they did. Without warning a few hours later, one of them light up next to the unassuming crowd, forcing many to take a few steps back as the next few minutes descended into a dizzying array of lights, smoke, fireworks, and other spinning things (take a look for yourself).
The spectacle of these three firework buildings, for lack of a better term, effectively brought a close to the first day of festivities. I couldn’t believe there were going to be three more days of such action! The next three days, of which we witnessed two, largely consisted of music and dancing. Usually not my cup of tea, but then again usually the people don’t look like this:
Divided into 18 associations, the townsfolk of Pisac dressed up in various costumes that included intricate masks, and performed a number of cultural routines that evoked common historical traditions and themes such as Spanish people are horrible, Chile is an aggressive land-stealing nation, big noses and monkeys are funny, and that the job stability brought on by indentured servitude doesn’t fully mask its negative consequences. Ostensibly a contest, the 18 associations each had a party headquarters scattered throughout town, while at any given point two or three would be parading about. It could perhaps be described as a more tame, less sexy, poor man’s version of Rio’s Carnaval. Or perhaps not, since that doesn’t make much sense. But you get the idea (maybe).
The third day was an official contest, with each association getting about half an hour to show their best. Some were rowdier than others, replete with the occasional danger-inducing but somehow never injury-filled firework into the crowd. In addition, the dances often included whips, interactive crowd measures such as child stealing, candy/fruit tossing, drink spraying, and even silly string. People of all ages partook in each association’s dance routines, including unhappy but ostensibly voluntary child labor.
Given a previous scheduling conflict, we were unable to stay for the fourth and ultimate day of the festival. Perhaps for the best, as our hostel host informed us that in the early afternoon the associations would go around and steal everything they could from anyone they found on the street, only to then return to the plaza and set up a makeshift market where they sell you your items back. But it’s ‘funny,’ she said. Despite moseying on before the finale, we considered ourselves fortunate to have participated in 75% of Pisac’s locally famous Virgen del Carmen festival, all the more remarkable given that we had arrived in town for a completely different reason. The next time we make it to Pisac, however, won’t be under such oblivious circumstances, but rather to begin an annual tradition of partaking in the madness – and everyone is invited!