Up to the time of the Spanish Conquest, the people of Cusco venerated mallquis, the mummies of former leaders, adorning them with care and carrying them through the streets atop heavy litters on sacred days. Although the appalled Spanish banned this custom, it was retained through a simple solution: rather than abandoning the practice completely, the mummies were replaced with statues of saints and the Virgin Mary, giving birth of the modern Corpus Christi festival in Cusco. Thus, the colorful Corpus Christi celebrations of Cusco are as Andean as they are Catholic.
The main day falls on a Thursday each year, but the festivities begin the day prior, which is known as the Entrada. This year, it falls on Wednesday, May 25th. In the morning, music will begin to play from the Cathedral, a call to the patron saints of Cusco’s 15 parish districts. Especially in the districts furthest away, the faithful of each parish rise early in order to conduct their patron saint to the cathedral.
The furthest districts, San Sebastian and San Geronimo, are located 5km and 10km from the main square, respectively, which means a lot of work for the religious fraternities who bear the litters. Despite this, the two saints traditionally compete to reach the Cathedral first. In San Geronimo district, the faithful rise very early to give St. Jerome a head start- keep an eye out for him rushing by!
Each saint and virgin is prepared in advance, dressed in luxurious robes and decorated with jewelry and flowers. Bands from each district provide the music for their saint’s procession, while others brandish incense.
On the morning of the Entrada, altars are set up around the main square. When the religious images arrive, they’ll circle the square and then rest in their assigned altar. Around 4pm, they’ll be taken into the Cathedral, where each will be placed in one of the lateral naves to spend the night awaiting Corpus Christi, the Body of Christ, who doesn’t enter until the following day.
We have a hostel in the main square of Cusco, Pirwa Posada del Corregidor, that has a restaurant with a view overlooking the square- visit Plus Restaurant and take a seat in the balcony for a privileged view of the festivities!
The following day, Thursday, May 26th, is the main day of festivities. The archbishop will lead back-to-back masses in the Basilica Cathedral throughout the morning, until midday. At noon, the cathedral’s custodia is taken out in its heavy silver litter. This, the recipient which holds the host, is the most extravagant icon to be processed; it’s fashioned from gold and silver, covered with symbolic carvings and studded with precious stones. Nearing 1pm, the other saints will join ranks behind the custodia for a parade through the main square and the principal streets of the city.
Afterwards, they’ll be taken back to the cathedral, where they will remain until the Octava the following week, when the festivities begin again and they return to their home parishes. On the Octava, which falls on June 2nd this year, there will be plenty of traditional folkloric dances on show that date back to colonial and pre-Columbian times. You’ll also see mythical Andean characters such as chauchos in their feathered headdresses, masked qollas and pabluchas, and ukuku bear men.
The dish most associated with the celebration is chiriuchu, which means cold bites. It includes several room-temperature elements: roast guinea-pig, boiled chicken, ch’arki sheep jerky, sausage, cheese, toasted corn kernels, and squash and corn fritters. If you’re interested in trying some, head to Plaza San Francisco (two blocks from the main square, where Pirwa Colonial, one of our hostels in Cusco, is located) for the annual Chiriuchu Food Fair. It will be there on May 25th and 26th.