Tuesday, February 2, 2010

La Candelaria

My brother's being in Puno right now for the festival of the Candelaria has gotten me thinking back to 1988, when Liz and I had the fortune of being able to attend the festival. (These photos are from then.)

The yearly festival celebrates the Virgin of Candelaria, or Mama Candelaria, the patroness of the city of Puno, which is located on the shores of Lake Titicaca, in southern Peru, at an altitude of 12,420 feet above sea-level.

A supay

Characteristic of the festival and a recurrent motif in the folklore traditions of the Altiplano -the high plateau which spans the southern Peruvian and northern Bolivian Andes- are the supays or devils.   These extravagantly-costumed dancers -which are also a main feature of Carnival in Oruro, Bolivia- are said to have originally represented the visions seen by the Altiplano's miners under the effects of coca, hunger, and poisoning from the mercury used to extract the silver from the ore of Potosí.  Today teams of supays dance in the streets, in a diablada (devil dance).   The diabladas are joined by other types of costumed dance crews dressed as shepherds, bears, black men, Spanish overseers, angels, and the sicuris, who dance and play drums and pipes.

A "bear"

A "Spaniard"

The festival itself involves the crews dancing through the streets to the sounds of drums and zampoñas (pan pipes), and culminates, if I recall correctly after 22 years, with the arrival of the litter bearing the effigy of the Virgin at the church at Parque Pino in downtown Puno. 

A diablada
Virgen de la Candelaria

Even it is the third largest folkloric festival in South America, after Carnivals of Rio and Oruro, it is not much known about in northern latitudes, and remains a hidden gem amongst so many that Peru has to offer.

Certainly Liz and I knew next to nothing about it until we decided to go to Puno, while we were living in Peru for six months, during a break from our studies, and we simply picked the date because there would be "something" going on in town then.   It was, needless to say, an something neither of us has forgotten.

A supay

It is quite an experience, with the whole town thrumming with the vibrations from the drums, while fireworks go off at unexpected moments. The inescapable noise draws you in and makes you a part of the event, whether you want to be or not, while the nightmare figures whirling everywhere one looks add a surrealistic, dreamlike quality to it all, which is heightened by the drumbeats and, for visitors, by the lower oxygen level at that altitude.

 One particularly odd moment was when, while walking the streets one afternoon, I saw an elephant shoot across an intersection.   It was such an unexpectedly weird thing to see anywhere, let alone high up in the Andes, that I stopped in my tracks.  No one else seemed to have noticed, so I was seriously starting to doubt my senses and wonder if perhaps I were not hallucinating from oxygen deprivation even though I felt fine.  It wasn't until the rest of the elephants caught up a minute or two later, advertising the fact that a circus had just gotten into town for the festival, that I was able to regain my composure!

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