During a sizzling Sunday in Lima, just as I wrapped up work at the Karikuy Bed & Breakfast, I was ambushed! Before I could even greet my playful neighbors, they doused me with cold water and a flurry of flour. While this might sound outrageous on any regular day, it’s all part of the spirited festivities of Carnival in Peru.
A History of Carnival in Peru
The Festival of Carnival, as celebrated in contemporary Peru, is often linked to the Christian tradition of marking the period leading up to Easter. However, its roots delve much deeper into the annals of Peruvian history, tracing back to age-old indigenous celebrations of the harvest season. These ancient festivities were not just mere gatherings but were grand, elaborate ceremonies that played a pivotal role in the cultural and spiritual life of the ancient Peruvians. They paid homage to the sun and rain deities, recognizing their crucial roles in ensuring a bountiful harvest. These ceremonies were intricately woven with rituals, dances, and offerings, reflecting the deep reverence the ancient civilizations held for the natural world.
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Over time, as Spanish colonial influence permeated Peruvian society, many indigenous traditions, including the harvest festival, began to merge and intertwine with Christian customs. This amalgamation led to the evolution of the modern-day Carnival, a fusion of ancient Peruvian reverence for nature and the Christian observance of Lent. While the festival has undergone numerous transformations over the centuries, the essence of gratitude, celebration, and community bonding remains intact. Today’s Carnival, with its vibrant parades and water fights, still carries echoes of those ancient ceremonies where Peruvians would gather to honor the gods and seek their blessings for a prosperous year ahead.
In the city of Lima it is common to see water fights break out on the street amongst friends and unsuspecting passers-by. Carnival is most intensely played on Sunday and pits man against women. Groups of both sexes will approach each other with buckets of cold water, eggs, flour or talc and even water based paints. The result is a messy yet hilarious sight as the victims walk away, heads held high even though covered with paint and eggs.
In the country side Carnival is celebrated in a similar manner, although traditional dances are more common as well as the ritual of “yunza” (called “umisha” in the eastern jungle, and “cortamonte” on the coast). A specially-transplanted tree is decorated with gifts, and guests dance around it before it is ceremoniously cut down. The couple who strike the final blow of the axe to bring down the tree are given the honor of organizing next year’s celebrations.
As a result of the current wave of nationalism throughout Peru the tradition of the yunza has begun to spread through more neighborhoods in Lima. On neighborhood streets concrete is broken to plant a large 40 ft tree to use as the festivals centerpiece, the festival is celebrated with live music, heavy drinking and dancing, customary to Peruvian festivals.
The Epic Peru Carnival of Cajamarca
The Peru Carnival of Cajamarca is not just a fleeting moment of festivity; it’s a reflection of the city’s rich cultural tapestry and its deep-seated Andean traditions. Preparations begin weeks in advance, with locals meticulously crafting intricate costumes and rehearsing traditional dances. The streets come alive with parades featuring large groups of dancers and musicians, each showcasing distinct regional dances and melodies.
While water fights and playful skirmishes with paint are common across many Peru carnivals, Cajamarca adds its unique flavor with events like the election of the Carnival Queen and the “Concurso de Coplas,” a competition of traditional Carnival songs. These celebrations culminate in the grand parade on Carnival Monday, where the city’s main avenues are flooded with dancers, musicians, and onlookers, all immersing themselves in the jubilant spirit of the festival. For those seeking an authentic Peruvian festival experience, the Peru Carnival of Cajamarca offers an unforgettable immersion into the heart of Andean culture.
Carnival is one of the most notably festive occasions in Peru, in contrast to the other more solemn traditions. I would recommend any adventurous traveler with a good sense of humor to visit Peru during the Carnival month of February. That is if you don’t mind the occasional water balloon or egg on your head. I encourage everyone to take part in the festivities your are guaranteed to have some fun!
Founder of Karikuy, an organization in Peru that brings travelers to visit and explore the country. Julio also runs the Karikuy Volunteer program and is the editor of this blog. Julio likes to write about his adventures in Peru as well as Peruvian folklore, mysteries and secluded locations.