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This is the second post in the Travel Highlights series sharing some of the most enduring highlights of all our travels.

Guelaguetza Festival, Oaxaca, Mexico:
The dancers don’t walk, they dance,

in a long parade, non-stop for about two hours, each accompanied by their own brass band. It’s a crowded joyous melee. Every now and then someone yells out Viva Oaxaca! and the crowd responds Viva Oaxaca!, and then Viva Guelaguetza! and the crowd responds Viva Guelaguetza!, and Viva Mexico! It’s so much fun. The streets are packed on either side, and in the middle the musicians are playing to beat the band, and the dancers are dancing their hearts out.

For ten days we were immersed in the dancing

Photo by Don Read

Photo by Don Read

and music of Guelaguetza, a festival of the indigenous people of Oaxaca. They present their traditional dances, music, costumes

and food. It’s a wild party where their cultural traditions are affirmed, deepened, shown to each other and the world, and madly celebrated. It’s about maintaining and sharing their traditions, and about gifting. After every dance performance gifts are thrown to the crowd, ranging from tiny woven corn-sheaf artifacts, to traditional pastries, to small plastic bottles of mescal, to pineapples. Yes pineapples. Beware the flying pineapples! Imagine one hundred dancers in a line coming at you at a fast trot, then weaving in and out, waving their pineapples in the air, and at the end of the dance hurling the pineapples into the crowd! I’m not joking.

There are several daily dance performances, a food festival, a mescal festival, a mushroom festival, puppet performances, two large parades, performances by the State Traditional Folk Ballet company,

four four-hour performances at a sold-out stadium seating ten thousand,

a competition for the Corn Princess, a mole (sauce) festival, two dance/pageant performances of a key piece of Oaxacan history at the again sold-out stadium,

and much more. It is popular with foreign tourists, and even more so with Mexican tourists who come from all over the country.

For two weeks every July (pre-pandemic, and presumably post) the entire state of Oaxaca celebrates, and everyone is invited to the party. Pure magic. You can read more about our experience of Guelaguetza by following these four links.

Pushkar Camel Fair, Pushkar, India:
The Pushkar Camel Fair is an annual livestock fair and Hindu pilgrimage. At its core this is not a touristy event; both the enormous livestock fair and the religious rituals have been taking place in this way for hundreds of years.

Thousands of people and animals descend on the town from all over the Thar Desert. They come to buy, sell and trade their livestock. An entire tent village of thousands springs up in a matter of days in a huge dusty field next to a stadium, next to the town. Those who come range from villagers with a few cattle or camels to sell, to the elite of the elite selling Marwari horses for $10,000 or more. We are told that a really good camel goes for about $50,000.

The gathering attracts about 30,000 animals and their owners, and about 300,000 people. Tourists come from all over, at least as many from India as from other countries. It’s a huge carnival – a livestock trading fair, plus games, cricket matches, camel decorating and camel dancing competitions,

horse judging, performances, a midway and a circus, and an important religious ritual all rolled into one.

Pushkar is a Hindu holy town and religious ceremonies are held every day. One day there’s a procession of flower-bedecked cars and vans, a big silver wedding chariot pulled by a white horse, a marching band, and at the rear a camel chariot and in the back this couple dressed as Hindu gods.

There are devoted ash-covered holy men.

There are dance performances at the temples. There’s a huge Hare Krishna wooden elephant-on-wheels, being ridden by “someone special”, the whole thing accompanied by amplified chanting, and by hundreds of people, as it rolls slowly around the large courtyard of a temple.

The camel race. Wooooohooooo! What a wild rush that is. One camel runs off in the wrong direction. One loses its rider. Most of them bump into each other. Some go in a big circle around the stadium, some in a much smaller circle. Some go in any old direction at all. My ordered Virgo mind wants a properly organized race, with a track, and a starting line and everything. Clearly I’m in the wrong country for that. Wild fun! I have no idea how they determine the winner.

At both the opening and closing ceremonies hundreds of school girls, in bright colourful traditional dress fill the stadium with their dancing. Hundreds of them. All dancing together. Flashing eyes, flying feet, waving arms, curling fingers, swirling dresses, pounding rhythms, and flying dust. Spectacular!

Our nine days in Pushkar during the annual camel fair was an extraordinary and unforgettable time. If you ever have the chance go. Just go. Check out the tent city of thousands. See the throngs of people coming from all over India

cramming the town and the stadium. Go into the temples and to some of the religious ceremonies, go to the crazy competitions, see the exquisite temple dancers, and the closing parade.

Just go. It’s exciting and exhausting and enriching and a big piece of joy all rolled into one. The best fun ever!

The Pushkar Camel Fair is held every year during the Hindu month of Kartik. The dates for 2021 are 11-19 November. You can read more about it in these three posts

Festival of the Virgin of Candelaria, Puno, Peru:
I am in the middle of a party, a feast, a gathering of hundreds. Everyone is eating from big spreads of potatoes, drinking beer, chatting. All the people from the villages have come together for the festival. Then they dance through the streets, carrying bundles of branches, finishing in front of the Church of San Juan, the home of the effigy of the Virgin of Candelaria. And then, to my complete astonishment, in their many separate groups, they pile up the branches 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. And 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. And in an astonishing piece of good luck we get press credentials giving us “front row seats” to all of it.

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. There are about one hundred different groups with anywhere from one hundred to three or four hundred dancers and musicians in each group. Covering an entire football field, it’s a joyous riot of colour, and movement, and flying feet.

Then they parade – dancing – through the streets of the town. For hours.

During the week there’s always something happening, from impromptu street parties to spectacular fireworks displays. We just follow the music.

The core of Fiesta Candelaria is the music and dance festival and competition. On the second Sunday it’s the turn of the dance groups from the various neighbourhoods of Puno. These dances are called traje de luces, or suit of lights, and are essentially an expression of the history and spiritual practices of the Mestizo people of the Andes: dances related to fertility, sowing and harvesting, mining activities, the black slave community, the Spanish Conquistadores, and most important of all the Diablada or devil dance: a fight between good and evil that arose from the rescue of some trapped miners who prayed tirelessly to the Virgin of Candelaria.

There are eighty different dance groups. Almost every group has its own 50-member brass band. Every group has four to five hundred dancers. The sheer size, scope and colour of it all is truly mind boggling. Imagine this – a football field filled with 500 dancers, half of them men dressed in shiny brightly-coloured suits, and half women dressed in high heels, perky little hats, next-to-nothing skirts, and enough glitter and sequins to light a city, all 500 of them dancing in carefully choreographed patterns at a hundred miles an hour. Breathtaking!

Because there hasn’t already been enough dancing and parading and blowing of trumpets and pipes, on the Monday after the second Sunday of the dance competition there is a parade through the streets of Puno.

Every group participates, drinking beer along the way, energized by the raucous crowds. It is truly epic!

For two weeks every February (pre-pandemic, and presumably post) the festival of the Virgin of Candelaria is held in Puno, Peru. It’s one of the best events we’ve been to. You can read more about it in these three posts.

Next post: pushing out of our comfort zone – tubing and kayaking in the Cowichan Valley.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2021.