Behind the masks and colours of the Candelaria

Two weeks ago, a group of HOOPsters embarked on a weekend trip to Puno to join the festivities of the Fiesta de la Virgen de la Candelaria. It was an eclectic and lively few days, and we arrived back in Arequipa tired but with lots of colourful memories. Here’s HOOP programs intern Justine to tell us more about Candelaria and what she got up to during the celebrations – including dancing in the parade!

The Fiesta de la Virgen de la Candelaria is known all over Peru, if not South America. There’s a reason for this: being one of the three most important festivals of its kind in all the continent – or the most important if you ask a Peruvian – it stands on the same level as the famous carnival of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

This carnival takes place in Puno on the Peruvian edge of Lake Titicaca. And guys, it is the kind of event you absolutely don’t want to miss. Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll be able to discover… (Beware, spoiler!)

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The Virgen de la Candelaria is held every year during the first fortnight of February. It lasts for three days, but the most important day is the last. This is when everyone taking part in the event abandons their parade routines and all start dancing together to the beat of the music.

It is absolutely astounding.

This carnival is an explosion of colours, sounds and moves. It involves about 45,000 dancers and musicians, all wearing different costumes and each as stunning as the next. Neither women nor men can really choose the clothes they wear as it’s quite coded. Let me explain this a little more.

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All the dancers and musicians come from different parts of Peru. Puno, of course, but also Arequipa, Cuzco, Abancay, Trujillo… They all come! And to represent their city properly, each group has a particular costume. And within these groups, you’ll find even more variation. Men and women mostly wear different clothes, although it sometimes occurs that you see them dancing together and dressed similarly. There is also the custom that they wear different costumes according to their marital status. So they have different costumes for whether they’re married or not, and if they are married, there are different costumes according to how long they’ve been married for.

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Now that’s all very complicated, but what’s really important is that no matter what they’re wearing, their costumes are so beautiful that you’ll probably think “this is the most gorgeous costume I’ve ever seen!” every time a new one passes in front of you. And what is tremendous is that despite the amazing amount of people you’ll see parading, the way everyone is dressed is always different!

“Hey! Have you seen these delightful young ladies wearing the orange, red and gold hats decorated with huge colourful feathers?”

“Not as magnificent as the dragon-looking men who passed here a moment ago wearing their impressive red masks and capes, as amazing knights, I can assure you!”

“What about these men and women, all dressed in white and blue costumes and playing the Pan flute; have you seen them?”

Wearing colourful hats adorned with feathers, pearls and ribbons, long and short dreamy dresses, beautiful traditional ponchos and woollen caps, hair braided in complex stylings… they all are stunning.

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You will not resist their fabulous dances either. Driven by the sound of the bells strapped to many of the men’s boots which echo as they move forward, you’ll give in to the temptation of dancing as well. You’ll probably try to imitate their furious and wild moves… but will most likely fail and realize how hard it actually is to dance the way they do even though they make it look really easy (unless you’ve taken salsa lessons before – then you might impress everyone!).

But no matter your dancing skills, they will welcome you cheerfully and teach you how to dance the way they do, and all the people watching on the side will encourage you to stay in the parade. It’s likely they will take pictures or record videos of you, just as though you were part of the parade!

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Dancing with them, you’ll realize how hard it is and they will amaze you when they reveal that they have to dance this way for 8 hours without break! When you look at the girls walking on 10 cm high heels, it’s quite impressive indeed.

For the costumes you’ll admire, the music you’ll listen to, the people you’ll meet and talk to, the Fiesta de la Virgen de la Candelaria is absolutely worth going to. You’ll keep its colours, sounds, smiles and energy in your mind forever.

So, if you happen to be in Peru during the first fortnight of February, don’t hesitate – you know where to go!

Words and photos by Justine Carnec

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