Festival Finery in Peru
Krissa Henderson | Date posted: June 15th, 2012
On the last weekend in May, Ollantaytambo celebrated the Señor de Choquekillka with one of the biggest festivals of the year.
I’ve heard a few explanations of how Choquekillka started and have managed to piece together the basic story behind it. The festival was started by the Spanish shortly after they invaded Peru as a way to convert the people to Catholicism. The theory is that there was an important Inca festival around this time of year, and the Spanish started this festival as a way to replace this festival with one of their own. Legend has it that one day a man was walking on a trail on the side of a mountain and fell down a cliff and into the river. He grabbed onto a small plant that shouldn’t have held his weight, but it did. Shortly after, a cross floated by in the river and somehow he was saved. The cross was taken from the river and made into a decorated shrine that stays all year in a protected chapel and comes out only for the festival.
Celebrations started Saturday morning at 5 a.m. with dancing and fireworks—the loud kind that boys think are cool and most girls hate. This year, there were approximately 16 dance groups, all of which had been frantically sewing, embroidering, and hand beading their complicated costumes, and practicing their choreographed dances all throughout the month of May.
Each group has a theme; some are based on profession, like the group of artisans all in embellished traditional dress, and a group of bakers in colourful skirts carrying decorated baskets of bread. There are some seemingly random groups, such as Majeño, a group of men who carry around litres of beer, shake them up, and spray onlookers at the end of each dance, and a colourfully dressed group called Saqra (or Devils) that wear animal masks, call out to onlookers from the rooftops and balconies, and scare children.
Each group of dancers is required to dance for four days from 5 a.m. until anytime from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. The troop, their family and friends also choose one family as a sort of home base to be in charge of feeding and providing entertainment during the festival.
During the four days, the dancers participate in a number of parades and masses and have programmed hours when they must stay with the Señor de Choquekillka in the church as he cannot be left alone throughout the entire festival. While the dancers guard the Señor, their family and friends come and hang out outside of the church dancing and drinking until the time has passed and the next group arrives to care for the Señor.
The costumes were really the highlight of the festival in my opinion. Parts of them are purchased, but many are made by hand. Some people make a new costume each year, while others continue to embellish existing costumes until every square inch is covered in sequins, rhinestones, or beads. There are a variety of interesting hats and masks, and dancing in a troop is a serious commitment. Dancers who arrive late to mass or to meet their groups get whipped by their fellow dancers or by priests!
I was particularly inspired by Saqra in their colourful costumes with their unique customs and am crossing my fingers I get to dance next year!