Immerse yourself in the true local culture and vibrancy of Peru by attending the Virgen del Carmen Festival in Paucartambo.
This unique festival, also known as the Fiesta de la Virgen del Carmen, features dances of cultural, historical and religious significance.
It is also a sensationally raucous party in the streets of Puacartambo.
Costumed and masked characters run riot, local beer flows, brass bands perform and fireworks light up the night.
It is a dazzling extravaganza; a true feast for the senses.
What to expect
The Virgen del Carmen Festival is held on July 15-18 every year in Paucartambo, a three hour drive from the city of Cusco.
Parades take place throughout the day, with rows of costumed and masked dancers making their way down narrow, cobblestone streets and across the town’s historic Charles III Bridge.
Flamboyant performers interact with the crowds, using whips to keep them in line, startling them with erratic outbursts and even finding unsuspecting women to kiss and canoodle.
Market stalls peddle traditional Peruvian textiles and crafts, including alpaca hats and gloves.
In addition, you’ll find jewellery, framed photos, key rings and brooches bearing the image of the revered Virgin Carmen.
Restaurants and food stalls sell traditional Peruvian dishes like lechon, ceviche, lomo saltado.
There is also an abundance of local produce, including many different varieties of potatoes – a peculiarity Peru is known for.
History of the festival
The history of the Virgen del Carmen Festival in Paucartambo dates back to the 13th century.
According to folklore, a wealthy young woman was heading to Paucartambo to trade a silver dish when she came across a beautiful, bodiless head.
This head reportedly spoke to the woman when she placed it on the dish, saying her name was Carmen and that she was not to be feared, but trusted.
The locals of Paucartambo soon began asking Carmen for wishes.
It is said that they witnessed rays of light shining from her head and that she performed many miracles among the community.
Known locally as ‘Mamacha Carmen’, she is now the patron saint of Paucartambo and the mestizo population.
Today, this unique festival in Cusco province attracts visitors from across Peru and South America.
Each group of dancers portrays an event in Peruvian history.
Weird and wonderful costumes abound, with masked characters parodying colonial and religious figures, including matadors, demons, lawyers, merchants and warriors.
Capaq Negro is a black-masked character representing the African slaves who worked at the nearby silver mines.
Other characters depict malaria victims, nurses with hypodermic needles and big-nosed, drunken Spanish conquistadors.
They poke fun at everyone and nothing is off limits.
July 15 – Day One
The Virgen del Carmen Festival begins with the blasting of a rocket and the ringing of bells.
People visit the church, pray and leave flowers for the virgin.
Dance troupes and bands swirl among the crowds during the day and the night features a spectacular fireworks display.
Performers jump through fires to ‘cleanse’ themselves; they stage battles and perform crowd-pleasing acrobatics.
This extravaganza, accompanied by the mischievous antics of fire-wielding performers, is an impressive end to the day’s events.
But this doesn’t mean celebrations will come to a halt.
Parties run well into the night, or all night long.
July 16 – Day Two
This is the festival’s main day, in which the Procession of the Virgen del Carmen takes place in the afternoon.
The Virgin Carmen is bestowed with rose petals and flowers as she is paraded throughout town.
This procession is especially relevant, as it is a symbolic display of the locals’ devotion to Christianity.
Blessing the faithful and warding off demons, the virgin’s presence signifies good triumphing over evil.
July 17 – Day Three
Dancers and musicians visit the cemetery on the third day, where they sing, dance and honor the souls of the deceased.
As a result, this is a moving celebration of life and remembrance of death.
The famous sunrise at Tres Cruces
Visitors to the Virgen Del Carmen Festival in Paucartambo also have the opportunity to witness the famous sunrise at Tres Cruces.
Tres Cruces is located on the edge of the Amazon and less than two hours from Paucartambo.
It offers unrivalled mountain and jungle views.
Here you will have the opportunity to see a spectacular light show and optical illusions, including double images, halos and crosses around the sun.
This phenomenon is due to unique climate conditions that occur between May and July.
Minibuses and private cars depart for Tres Cruces from Paucartambo bus terminal during the night, but be sure to leave prior to 2am to catch the first rays of sunlight from the viewpoint.
Take warm clothing and a blanket or sleeping bag because it can get very cold at the lookout.
Getting to the Virgen del Carmen Festival
Many Cusco tour companies offer one or two day trips to the Virgen del Carmen Festival.
You can otherwise take a bus from Cusco to the centre of Paucartambo.
Collective buses depart regularly from Calle Tomasa Titto Condemayta (or ask your taxi driver to be dropped at ‘paradero Paucartambo Coliseo Cerrado’).
The bus ride takes about three hours and costs between 10-20 soles.
Buses are also available to transport festival-goers back to Cusco.
Accommodation in Paucartambo tends to book out early during festival time, so if you want to secure a room in one of the few local hotels or hostels, you must book well in advance.
You can alternatively bring your own tent and sleeping bag and camp out in the town’s designated camping areas.
Getting around Paucartambo
Paucartambo is a small colonial town and therefore the Virgen del Carmen festivities are contained to a few main streets and plazas.
These narrow streets, however, get extremely busy during this time of year with the huge influx of visitors, so be prepared to deal with large crowds.
Interested in other festivals in Peru? Check out our guide to Inti Raymi, the Inca Festival of the Sun.
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