It was about 3:30 in the afternoon and my afternoon coffee at La Valeriana awaited - just reward for the steep climbs up to the quiet backstreets of San Blas and the panoramic viewpoint at Plaza San Cristobal. It would give me time to ponder the remains of the Inca temple of sun that I had just seen at Qorikancha, the perfect manifestation of what makes Cusco such a fascinating place to be; the most sacred temple of the Inca empire supplanted by a huge Spanish church in a monentus clash of cultures 500 years ago.
With La Valeriana almost in sight, thoughts of caffeine were quickly banished by an almighty thump of a drum, a toot of a horn and the cacophonous start of a seemingly impromptu parade. People began to stop and gather, flashes of colour came into sharper focus and I suddenly found myself in the midst of something important. But what exactly?
The Virgen Natividad is literally translated as the Nativity of Mary and is a religious festival which celebrates the birth of the Virgin Mary on 8th September. It is one of the most important and vivid celebrations of the year in Cusco, with thousands of participants and spectators filling the main streets and squares of the centre with a riot of colour and vociferous noise. Behind all the fanfare, there is always a deeply symbolic meaning to these events and the Virgen Natividad is no different, with the main protagonist thought to be capable of bestowing children on couples otherwise unable to conceive. The festival is therefore a celebration of the Virgin Mary's birthday and also a way of paying thanks and respect.
On the day before the main festivities, donations are typically made by newly engaged couples and handed over to the Mayordomos of the festival - quite literally, the butlers. These donations can take the form of fireworks, robes, richly decorated ciriones candles and cash and all are used as contributions towards the celebrations, with many fireworks set off that night in the city. The collection is taken on an extravagant procession towards Plaza de Armas - the city's main square - with groups of dancers, singers, drummers and musicians in tow. It was this part of the festivities which had broken the relative peace of an otherwise typical Wednesday afternoon in the former Inca capital.
It is a spectacular, overwhelming, disorientating affair; an explosion of eye-popping colour, with a soul-stirring soundtrack, that sends the photo count on my Pentax camera soaring. Before I can properly appreciate the rich detail embroidered onto the back of a scarlet jacket, my eyes are taken by the swirl of dozen bright yellow densely layered skirts worn by a group of local women in bowler hats. Somewhere at the head of this is the Virgin Mary herself, paraded on a ceremonial platform for all to see and worship.
Then there are the masks, which is where things start to become a little bizarre. At first glance they are unnerving, perhaps even a little mesmerising, but mostly they are rather baffling. Elongated noses, piercing blue eyes, razor sharp teeth, bushy black beards and gorillas with metal chains through their noses all pass before my eyes and the shutter of my camera, all with no obvious link to the rest of the proceedings.
Various activities and parades take place throughout the three day festival. Prior to the celebrations is the entrada de los flores, where hundreds of locals begin gathering in the early hours of the morning to bring fresh arrangements of flowers to the temple. Devotees then gather outside the Templo de la Almudena Cusco on the eve to sing songs, say prayers and venerate the Virgin Mary, followed by traditional dancing and the serving of caldo de gallina (Peruvian hen soup) at midnight. Around 30 parade groups from across Peru then come together for the main processions, which can be enjoyed by locals and unsuspecting visitors alike.
Now where was that cafe again?
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