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31 Jan-11Feb 2014. We are in Puno for Festividad Virgen de la Candelaria. Don is in bed flattened by food poisoning. The first big day of the dance competition begins tomorrow, but I have heard that the people from the villages come into Puno to do their own opening ceremonies today so I set out to see what I can find. Following instructions I head up a narrow cobblestoned street to a kind of square at the top of a hill, past small shops, past many people making their way in the same direction, past a group of tethered horses, and suddenly I am in the middle of a party, a feast, a gathering of hundreds. Many people are dressed in typical Andean dress, many in their special festival dance costumes. Everyone is hanging out eating from big spreads of potatoes, drinking beer, chatting. I can see they are from different villages because of their different costumes, and at the same time the connection between them all is palpable. Once each year all the people from the villages come together for this special festival. And first they have a big gathering and eat and drink together.

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In the top photo you can see some branches tied up in serapes. Everyone has bundles of branches, great high mountains of leaves and bushes, and they parade through the streets with them, in their arms and on their backs, and those in the dance groups, dressed in their special outfits, dance through the streets all the way down to the big cathedral, around Plaza des Armas, and then back up to the square in front of the Church of San Juan, the home of the effigy of the Virgin of Candelaria.

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And then, to my complete astonishment, in their many separate groups they pile up the branches and leaves and bushes in the street and set fire to them! All around the square each group makes its own special ritual around their fire. A lot of beer drinking is going on. Every drinker from time to time splashes beer onto the ground to honour Pachamama the Earth Mother. Some groups dance around the flames. Some groups have dancers in special costumes. A lot of poking and stoking of fires is going on, and a lot of dancing, and a lot of milling around. And music. Non-stop music of the Andes.

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As usual I’m bopping along with the music, and suddenly the man in the orange shirt pulls me in to dance with him.

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After a while I move on to another group. This group seems to have the most elaborate ritual of all. I think I hear chanting. A man throws something onto the fire that sends up sparks, and then he drinks some beer and splashes some on the ground for Pachamama. Then a woman, one of the elders of the village, performs the same ritual.

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This ritual is followed by traditional dancing.

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As usual I have wriggled my way right to the front where I sit on the ground so I don’t block anyone’s view. Next thing I know there are four horses dancing in the circle in front of me. Suddenly it doesn’t feel safe and I try to move back a little, but they are excellent horsemen and I watch it all without being trampled.

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And all this is just the beginning.

Each year, high in the Andes in Puno, Peru, the Festival of the Virgin of Candelaria takes place during the first two weeks of February, and rivals Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival in size, scope and brilliance. The sheer size of Candelaria is staggering: fifty thousand dancers, and fifteen thousand musicians, plus another twenty-five thousand indirectly involved including the many artisans who make the extremely elaborate costumes, hats, shoes, bells and masks. Like all festivals in South America it is a rich mix of the indigenous sacred practices, both Aymara and Quechua, and Catholicism. Throughout the days of Candelaria there are dances and ceremonies dedicated to Pachamama and the other indigenous gods. At the same time there are masses and solemn processions for the Virgin of Candelaria. It all blends together.

On the first Sunday in February a dance competition is held at the stadium. These are the dances of the people from the villages and are called autoctonas. This year there are one hundred different groups with anywhere from one hundred to three or four hundred dancers and musicians in each group. The program said it would start at 7am and finish at 3pm. We arrived around ten and lasted for about five hours, by which time we’d figured out that the 3pm finish was wildly unrealistic. In a stroke of spectacular luck we were able to get in to watch the dances from the press area instead of having to watch from behind the wire fence. I related the story of how that came to pass in this post.

That day I took nearly 1300 photos. Here I offer a selection that I hope conveys something of the extravagant orgy of dancing we witnessed. One after the other the groups paraded onto the field, took their places, and danced their hearts out. As they filed off the next group, waiting on the sidelines, immediately took their place. It seemed with each group the costumes became more and more elaborate and colourful. Some groups had masses of leaves draped around their necks, some had masses of party streamers draping riotously from their hats, and many had great bunches of flowers on their hats. Beading and embroidery and flying skirts and scarves and feathers were everywhere. Almost all groups had dancers in matching costumes, with perhaps one or two or half a dozen special characters in the mix. In one group there was a man dressed in a leather jacket and high boots and a cowboy hat, wielding a pistol and a whip. Another group had a man dressed as a condor. One group had all the dancers spreading a grid pattern of bright yellow petals all over the dance ground before they commenced dancing. All groups had children participating, even toddlers. And in all groups the musicians, with their panpipes and flutes and drums, moved in choreographed patterns on the dance ground along with the dancers. Covering a whole football field, it was a joyous riot of colour, and movement, and flying feet.

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Every now and then the dancing would stop and teams of men would hose down the entire dance ground. And the audience. A welcome relief from the intense heat.

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And as the dancers filed off at the end of their dance about one in four took out their cell phones; an incongruous juxtaposition.

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Though they had finished performing at the stadium in the dance competition they were not done yet. From the stadium, following one after the other, each group danced through the streets of Puno to the Church of San Juan, and then down to the Cathedral, around Plaza des Armas and then beyond, taking hours to cover a few kilometres, drinking beer along the way, and sloshing it onto the ground for Pachamama, cheered along by the enthusiastic crowds of thousands lining the streets. Since the last group to perform would probably not have left the stadium until after seven we heard the dancing and music going on well into the night. This was a party that required stamina. And drinking chops. Did I mention beer yet?

Next post: The various processions of the effigy of Candelaria, some more dancing in the streets, and fireworks. Excellent fireworks. And more than a few devils.






All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.