Wandering around the streets of Puno packed with festival-goers in late January, I couldn’t help getting curious about the background of their venerated Virgin of the Candelaria. According to some, the Virgin of the Candelaria was a young lady whose spirituality protected the residents of Puno, Peru during an attack from Bolivia. To others, she represented the fertility both of the Punean people and the land on which they depend. Still others traced her as an incarnation of the original, biblical Virgin Mary, remixed Peruvian altiplano-style.
Despite the varied and disparate claims about her identity, though, no one from southern Peru and Bolivia seemed to disagree about the thrill of converging on Puno to pay her homage and, just as importantly, to celebrate as if she wasn’t looking. With the city brimming with people and energy, the Fiesta de la Candelaria unified mestizo, Aymara and Quechua cultures in an event I can only say was worth going out of my way to see.
A Full-on Fiesta
The festival itself spans two weeks during which dance groups from different neighborhoods in Puno and smaller communities from the surrounding region pour through downtown all day and night along a set route. Stopping to chat with a group of the dancers, I soon learned the importance of this opportunity for them to dance and express themselves. They told me about their elaborate costumes that drained many of their salaries for an entire month, and the dances themselves that required hours of choreography.
But beyond the cultural significance, I just had to look around to see the event was also economically important to many of the people and businesses in the area. Every street was dotted with stores that specialise in creating and altering costumes for the parade, and thousands of artisans were employed to make masks, boots, jackets, pants and embroidery for the festival.
The First Week
The first week of Candelaria is more oriented toward traditional indigenous dress and dance styles, the latter known as danzas autoctonas. It kicks off with a judged competition after which everyone files into the streets.
Packed tight in the crowd and chatting with a few of the local residents, I asked a few innocuous questions that elicited an educational play-by-play commentary of the parade.
Usually carried out in a two-steps-forward-one-step-back fashion, the dances tend to convey the universal struggles and joys of life. The people around me described dances, like the cajelo, in which the male dancers whip the ground out of frustration about crop yields; other more romantic steps depict the oft-repeated challenges, disappointments and yearnings of a young man embroiled in the impassioned pursuit of a girl.
Just as kinetic as the dancers that they accompanied, the musicians playing the zampoñas (panflutes), sikus (panpipes) and bombos (drums) melded harmonic woodwinds with percussion I could feel in my chest.
As the town visibly calmed on the eighth day of the festivities, a religious celebration known as La Octava served as celebratory punctuation. Religious services were carried out, and fireworks burst before us, all given musical meaning by many of the groups’ musicians.
Yet just as quickly as the town calmed, it became frenetic once again. The second week shifted to parades of costumes with more pomp and flash, known as trajes de luz (‘light suits’), and seemed to be celebrated more for the sake of having fun, spending time with family and, of course, getting blindingly drunk. This was when the serious partying started to pick up, day and night, with beer streaming into the city to supply the bottomless demand.
As I strolled around, I saw large tents sponsored by the big breweries in Peru lining the streets, and each conjunto (musical group) eagerly staked one out and filled it with their brew of choice. As an independent visitor ambling around, I was quickly pulled into a street dance party and taught the customary etiquette of passing a bottle of beer around a drinking circle. Everyone made sure to emphasise that drinking at high altitude quickens the effects.
Tiring after a bit of dancing, a few new friends and I wandered around Central Puno to get an up-close view of the dance groups winding around the city. The men seemed to prefer large, elaborate costumes that resembled stylized devils (diabladas), kings (morenadas), gorillas and many other things; each of these styles had countless applications. The ladies’ costumes, however, were more uniform in style, although what they lacked in variation they made up for in sheer quantity of reflective sequin.
Exuding pride for their neighborhoods and communities, the dancers and musicians were fed beer by the crowd and kept their spirits up despite hours of choreographed repetition. As the night wore on the dancers became increasingly exhausted, and even in the chilly Andean night I could see the perspiration produced by every wrenching and passionate step. After a bit, I learned to stand behind a person or two to stay free of the sweat flung from the dancers’ gyrating heads.
On the final day of the celebration, the Virgen of the Candelaria herself made an appearance during what I was told was called La Veneración. Raised high on a platform carried by several men, the virgin’s flower-engulfed figure was carried through the streets of Puno accompanied by dancers that led her to the central plaza, the Plaza de Armas. After a brief ceremony, local officials and clergy carried her back into the church, where she will remain for another year until the festival that bears her name once again draws people from all around the region to drink, dance, and celebrate life.