This February, Cusco and the Sacred Valley of the Incas will celebrate Carnaval with water balloons, colored talcum powder, folkloric dance competitions and parades, a float parade, and taking an ax to a few gift-laden trees….
If you’re plan to travel to Cusco in February, don’t be surprised if you find a water balloon, foam spray, or colored talcum powder heading right towards you. Water games are how much of the city celebrates Carnaval, and even protesting that you don’t want to play won’t exempt you. If the mayhem doesn’t tempt you, you’re better off staying indoors. Otherwise, beware roving bands of children with buckets, or better yet, arm yourself. Sunday, February 7th is the main day of Carnaval this year, but it’s not your only chance to cover your friends in rainbow-colored powder. A week later, there’s the farewell to Carnaval. In Spanish, it’s referred to as the remate, which means the re-killing, and it will fall on Sunday, February 14th– the same day as Valentine’s Day.
Aside from urban warfare, you might notice a tree or two decorated with ribbons and laden with gifts. This means that the community is hosting a yunza. While groups form circles around the tree to step dance and crack the whip, person after person steps up to hit the tree with an ax. When the tree falls, everyone scrambles for the gifts, which are usually utilitarian pieces such as plastic bins for washing. Whoever took the last swipe with the ax will be responsible for providing the gifts and decorations for next year’s tree. Since different communities organize separate yunzas, these can be spread out throughout the month, regardless of the date.
As with other celebrations in Peru, Carnaval is a great time to see folkloric costumes and dance. On both the central day and the remate, Cusco will host a parade in the main square. Various towns in the surrounding valleys are known for their colorful dance contests and parades. If you’d like to watch, do as the Cusqueños do and head to Coya in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, about an hour and a half away from Cusco city proper. Or, opt for the slightly smaller but much closer option, Pisac, located 20 minutes outside of Cusco city proper.
The two Thursdays prior to Carnaval are known as Compadres Day (this year, January 28th), when the men are treated to food and drink, and Comadres Day (this year, February 4th), when the women are treated to food and drink. These days are set aside to honor the males or the females in your life who you appreciate. The traditional offering is frutillada, a fermented drink made from frutilla, a small wild fruit similar to a raspberry. One traditional meal on this day is thimpu, a plate of meat, cabbage, potatoes, chickpeas, rice, peaches, pears, and yucca (tarot root) all boiled separately and then combined. Kapchi is another traditional stew, based on local wild mushrooms and made creamy with milk and cheese.
During this time, you might see life-sized dolls hanging from the trees or posts. They are made from old cloth, plastic bottles, cardboard, and other on-hand materials and then dressed in old clothes and shoes. They usually satirize some character in the neighborhood or workplace: a drunk, a politician, a rich man, etc. On midnight on Wednesday, they are hung up to surprise and amuse on the following day.
This year, there will be a competition among the different districts for the best allegorical floats, with the winners taking various prizes and being shown off in a parade in the main square of Cusco. Grab a beer at Plus Restaurant and enjoy watching the goings on from its colonial balcony overlooking the square. The date of the float parade hasn’t yet been announced, but as always, we’ll keep you posted!