By Willa Ahlschwede
Willa Ahlschwede was born in Omaha, Nebraska but currently lives, travels and writes from her homebase in Ollantaytambo, Peru.
Hundreds of dancers twirl and stomp in a rainbow of masks and costumes. Whips snap, firecrackers pop and drums boom as the surging crowd of dancers and onlookers file down the street and into the old colonial church for mass. It is my first time experiencing the most important party of the year in Ollantaytambo: when the local government, the Catholic church and every family in town spends five days honoring their patron saint, the Señor de Choquekillca, who is embodied in a cross adorned in a traditional poncho and finery.
In Peru and across the Andes, fiestas are serious and celebratory all at once. Though raucous and overwhelming with round the clock drinking, feasting and dancing, it is also a homecoming, a family reunion, a rite of passage and a chance for people to give thanks to each other and the Señor for another year in this harsh and beautiful place.
For visitors, it is a chance to join in the festivities and witness history come to life in the dances and songs which have been passed down for generations.
In Ollantaytambo, the Festival of the Señor de Choquekillca begins the Saturday before Pentecost and ends the following Tuesday. Around seventeen dance troupes perform throughout the week, each with their own stunning costumes and choreography which tell different stories of the past.
The central day is Sunday, starting with mass in the morning after which the Señor is carried to the Plaza de Armas and all the troupes perform one after the other. I watch the men and women step and sway, the caporales or troupe leaders who have been doing this for years alongside kids dancing for the first time. Families hover nearby, old friends greet each other, exhausted dancers wipe sweat from their brows and the bands play all day.
Throughout the Fiesta, the town adopts the air of a carnival and I float around eating fried churros, perusing the trinkets and toys for sale and being forced to share beer after beer.
There are fireworks most nights, an outdoor concert and a bull fight. Finally, on Tuesday all dancers carry the Señor out of town and down to the Urubamba River where a chapel has been built where the Señor was originally witnessed. There is more drinking, a final benediction and ample plates merienda, a traditional picnic meal including roasted cuy or guinea pig, fresh cheese and various side dishes.
As the sky darkens, the air cools but everyone is still here basking in the glow of the fireworks and the feeling of satisfaction after throwing the best party of the year.
Ollantaytambo is a small town in the Sacred Valley, two hours from Cusco by car and the last stop to board a train on your way to Machu Picchu. As Pentecost Sunday is on a different date every year, the exact schedule of the Fiesta of the Señor de Choquekillca changes accordingly but usually falls in late May or early June.
Full schedules of the week’s events are available in the municipal tourist information office and local businesses in Ollantaytambo during the fiesta. Ollantaytambo features as a stop in most Peru travel packages. Contact this specialist in tours to South America for more details.