Everything about the Carnival in Peru

Celebrated in February, a week before Lent, it is one of the most exuberant holidays in all of Peru and throughout Latin America, a time of feasting and partying.

The roots lie in the Catholic faith, which was brought over from Spain during colonization, but some of the traditions date back to Inca and Pre-Inca times, such as that of yunza.

Though the carnival is celebrated in all Peruvian cities, and you might well expect it would be a big thing in Cuzco, it is especially prominent in Cajamarca, a city in Peru’s northern highlands, in the Andes Mountains (elevation: 2,750 m) known for its Baroque colonial architecture and the tragic ending of the last Incan emperor (and the Incan Empire), Atahualpa, who was captured there, imprisoned and eventually murdered on late afternoon of 26 July 1533 by his conquistador captors, led by Francisco Pizarro.

If you want to celebrate the carnival in Cajamarca, it will require advance booking and planning in order to beat the crowds and find somewhere cheaper to stay. Most accommodations raise their prices during the carnival to more than double and almost everything is booked up a month before the carnival.

How do Peruvians Celebrate?

The carnival here is quite different from the one in Brazil, don’t expect allegorical chariots (unless in traditional cities such as Cajamarca or Cuzco) or samba, but trees decorated with plastic trash and laundry baskets and splashing of water as well as paints!

Especially popular is water ballooning everyone you see. Children’s plastic water pistols and paints (dilutable with water) are also used. It resembles the Indian Holi celebrations a bit, as far as paints are concerned.

Definitely don’t wear clothes you don’t want to ruin to the carnival!

There will be bands playing everywhere, beer drinking (and beer sharing), parillas (BBQ´s), cumbia and salza dancing (though there might also be marinera, Andean music and other styles, depending on the region), competitions, raffles and games and the yunza carnavalesca (see below).

Cajamarca and the Carnival

Cajamarca is renowned for its thermal springs and spa – there are more than 60 pools in the Inca baths (Los Baños del Inca), colonial architecture (mainly the churches), beautiful buildings of the Catholic Church (e.g., Santuario Virgen del Rosario en Polloc), places of pilgrimage, and stunning nature (lakes – e.g., Laguna San Nicolas, rock-cliffs of breath-taking shapes – e.g., Cumbe Mayo, and green valleys). There are also numerous waterfalls, e.g., Catarata de Llacanora, Catarata de Wamamachay (in Celendín, where you also find the bridge Puente de Cilindros loved by adrenalin-seekers), El Cornelio, Huasmin and others.

Have Granja Porcon (ideal for forest walks) and Hacienda La Colpa on your to-see-list. Located 9 km south of the city of Cajamarca, Hacienda La Colpa is dedicated to raising dairy cattle and is famous for its stable and the peculiarity of calling the cows for milking by their names.

Located 8 km from Cajamarca, there is the Ventanillas de Otuzco necropolis, notable for its 337 funerary niches similar to windows belonging to the Cajamarca Culture. It is said that through some of them you can enter mysterious secret passages that connect with Cusco.

The best viewpoint is the natural hill of Santa Apolonia.

The carnival there held every year attracts thousands of visitors from Peru and abroad. This year it took place in between February 9 to 14 and was thus immediately followed by another huge event – Día de San Valentín.

The selection of The Queen of Cajamarca Carnival takes place on the Friday prior to Ash Wednesday, at the end of February or early March. Each district presents a female candidate aged between 18 and 22, and a panel judges them on various criteria such as deportment and eloquence to find a winner. The Carnival Queen is presented during the following days wearing her crown and sash, as a major component of each event.

The carnival in Cajamarca begins then on Saturday, when the Carnival King, Rey Momo or Ño Carnavalón, enters the city in the form of a giant, cartoonish mannequin. For the next few days he rules over the carnival parades, a time of merriment and unruliness. Saturday is also the Paint Day. Not even the police are spared! If you come with a baby, beware that truly, there are no exceptions to the spraying water and paint.

This picture is a courtesy of photographer Rhazú Vásquez.

Sunday is the day of the parade known as the Concurso de Patrullas y Comparsas. Troupes of musicians and dancers dressed in costumes present traditional music and dances in the streets of Cajamarca, with prizes on offer for the best in a variety of categories. Each dance has its own significance and symbolism.

Carnival Monday is the main day of celebration with the Gran Corso de Carnaval, an even bigger parade, consisting of colourful floats, music bands, dancers and other performers dressed in costumes and masks. After the parade, the celebrations continue at the Plaza de Armas with the tradition of yunza.

The Shrove Tuesday is when the death of the Carnival King is mourned, and on the Ash Wednesday, the Carnival King is buried at Baños del Inca, a small town just outside Cajamarca known for its thermal springs. His will, which is filled with satirical comments about government and local authorities, is read out. The Carnival ends with traditional dances.

The Yunza – The Slightly Sad Side of the Carnival Celebrations

The yunza or cortamonte is performed during carnivals in many locations in Peru. It consists of cutting down a perfectly healthy tree in the vicinity of the town and taking it to the main square or another location for the event. The tree – palo cilulo – is then decorated with balloons, multicolored serpentine, sometimes also masks, and gifts of all kinds (mostly plastic practical items such as sieves, trash cans, laundry baskets, brooms, shovels, but we can also find clothes for children and other items). At the end of the carnival celebrations, people dance around this tree, and then the organizers knock it to the ground with an axe, and the dancers fight for the gifts with sharp elbows and no mercy. Women usually don’t have a chance to get anything, the men win, typically already heavily drunk, sparing no effort in frantically hitting around them to grab as much as possible.

What I don’t like about this supposedly Inca and pre-Inca tradition is that healthy trees have to die (maypoles or live Christmas trees are equally painful for me), and since practically every town and sometimes even neighbourhood have their celebrations with yunzo, we are talking about the death of hundreds of healthy trees. I also find the final fierce battle for gifts absurd – until then, the neighbours dance together and send each other a glass of beer as a sign of friendship, and then they beat around to grab a plastic basket worth four euros! By the way, a worth two beers, of which they had drunk dozens during the event – alcohol is incredibly expensive in Peru.

By the way, I have seen a similar fight among children (and their mothers) at birthday parties ending with a piñata – see my article. I’d really rather buy my child a few sweets than treat bruises and sadness at home.

The yunza was prohibited in several districts of Peru, e.g., in the District of El Agustino in Lima, “for the lack of the principle of authority, security and the use of public roads”.

In Cajamarca, it was prohibited as an act of empathy with those affected by the intense rains caused by El Niño.

There are several records of injured and dead people each year caused by carrying out this practice, generally due to the fall of the tree… The organizers of the event do not plant the tree they cut for the purpose of these celebrations in any stand, but directly in the ground (lawn, sidewalk, road).

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