Water Balloons and Silly String in the Square: How to Miss Carnival in Cusco While Experiencing It All

My friends and I managed to spend a week in Cusco and its surrounding environs without quite figuring out we were there during their annual Carnival celebrations.

We thought it was odd that they seemed to throw a parade in the Plaza De Armas every single day. 

“It’s just like Disney World!  A parade for the tourists each noon!” 

We had no idea why children thought it totally appropriate to shoot water pistols and silly string at us despite our protests of confusion. There was a woman who intentionally dumped a bucket of what we assumed to be waste from her third floor window onto my friend’s head–how unspeakably rude! 

Then there were the pigs slowly roasting on spits, sumptuously decorating each colonial cobblestoned square. A Peruvian brass band or flutist was never far off. DJs and raised platforms seemed spontaneously erected among spirited crowds of midday merrymakers. Walking down any central artery risked confrontation with dancers resplendent in Inca period regalia. 

“Christ! These people seriously know how to get the most out of each day!”

View of Cusco Plaza De Armas from  Sacsaywaman lookout as it cleans up after a parade in preparation for yet another parade.

View of Cusco Plaza De Armas from Sacsaywaman lookout as it cleans up after a parade in preparation for yet another parade.

Henry David Thoreau must be the Mayor. 

Inspired to find our own Walden Pond, we hiked and climbed four days in the Andes mountains on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. We returned by train and bus to find that the festivities continued. Scrambling to the lookout at Sacsaywaman, we stared down at yet another cavalcade spectacle galloping the city’s ancient streets.  

At dusk it could get grim–robe adorned masked marchers chanted Latin epithets. The skies smelt of incense as the cortege paced by carrying coffin-sized cathedral artifacts. (Actually, this one thing that we vaguely understood to be some religious or funerary ritual, turned out to be a provocatively morbid protest against utility rate hikes.)  

Then, abruptly, more parties.

We stayed just off the Square of the Church of San Blas and each midnight was punctuated with celebratory fireworks (which we mistook for violent gunfire) and every morning we awoke to what we assumed was some sort of daily religious market.

Everybody seemed to have money while nobody seemed to have a job. They all wept clasping crucifixes while taking a shot of Pisco or downing a third Cusqueña at half past noon. It didn’t make sense but we just went with the notion that the Cusco population was entirely comprised of very religious afternoon binge drinkers. 

Dressed as decidedly lavender Dr. Seuss characters, five representatives from the Cusco Chamber of Commerce toddled passed on stilts.   

I kind of wanted to live there. 

On the last day, after both my friends abandoned this procession of pleasures for the bleakness of reality, I finally asked someone what was going on.

“Why these are the last minutes of the last day of our Carnival!”

I nodded in resignation.  I had once again narrowly dodged an authentic cultural experience while abroad.

Sacsaywaman Sleepytime

Sacsaywaman Sleepytime

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