Wednesday, February 18, 2009


Carnaval in Cusco, 1926
Photo by Martin Chambi

Not much known in the US beyond its association with Rio de Janeiro (most, for example, don't realize Mardis Gras' connection with it), Carnaval is an important part of the calendar in much of the Americas.

Being tied to Easter, it is a movable feast and is celebrated on the weekend and the Monday and Tuesday immediately before Ash Wednesday which marks the advent of Lent. Carnaval thus represents the last chance to have an unabashedly good time before the stringency of Lent, even in Peru, where most people -though nominally Roman Catholic- no longer observe Lent with any particular strictness.

Throughout the country, during Carnaval, gangs of children and young people roam the streets dousing each other and passersby with bucketfulls of water, leading to the cruel irony that at the hottest time of the year one must ride in automobiles and buses with the windows rolled up. Every store and streethawker suddenly seems to offer an array of water pistols, squirters, and balloons. In addition, celebrants cover each other's heads with talcum powder and even dab one another with shoe polish.

Costume parties are common, and in some areas -notably Cajamarca and Ayacucho- dancing through the streets by costumed contingents -called comparsas- are a hallmark of the celebrations.

Comparsa in traditional dress. Ayacucho, 2008.
Photo by Dionisio Garcia

As a kid, that made our summer visits to Ayacucho all the more fun and memorable.

Water play, of course, played a big part of our entertainment. However, there were rules: no soaking old people, women with infants, people dressed "well" (suits or nice dresses), nor priests and nuns, and definitely not the comparsas. Other than that, one walked under our windows at at peril of our water balloons!

Carnaval. Huaraz, 1991.

Another exciting aspect was the prospect of being invited to a corta monte.

A corta monte -called a palo silulo or yunsa in other parts of the country- is a celebration at which a tree (quite often one brought in for the occasion) is decorated with balloons and ribbons, and loaded with suspended fruit and gifts. Invited guests dance around the tree, taking swigs of alcohol and then taking swings at the trunk with an axe. If properly timed, the last and decisive swing will be dealt by the person or couple selected to sponsor of the corta monte the following year.

As a kid I got to attend one in Ayacucho, in the plaza in front of the Convent of Santa Teresa, and another, hosted by my uncle Willy, in Chimbote. Of course, being but a child, I was not part of the fun of chopping down the tree, but -like all the other children about me- I was not shy about rushing in for the gifts when the tree came down!

The excesses and liberties that mark Carnaval have not always sat well with the ecclesiatical and even the secular authorities. The Church, of course, waged it's perennial campaign against "sin", and the government tried to discourage too much excess. Perhaps the least successful was the attempt by one of the military dictators -Manuel Odria, I believe- to recoup the lost work days by decreeing that Carnaval was to be celebrated only on the Saturdays of the three consecutive weekends before Lent, with the only effect being that people still celebrate it at the traditional time but warm up by starting to party three weeks before that!

This year Carnaval falls this coming weekend, ending on Tuesday, February 24th, and a contingent of the usual suspects -Diego, Liz, Juan Ramon, and Dan- has been dispatched toward Ayacucho for the celebrations-with a previous stop in the jungle city of Iquitos, on the banks of the Amazon River.

Edit: 4/20/09 to add Huaraz photo, which I couldn't find when I wrote the post.