The founder of Bradt Travel Guides on the joys of joining the party – even if you’re not exactly sure what’s going on...
I realised last summer that a unifying impulse in the human race is that we love to throng. Give us Brits a royal event – or an Olympic Games – and we’ll turn out in our thousands. It’s the festival spirit, and despite so much evidence to the contrary, we actually love to celebrate, to be happy.
As does the rest of the world. The poorer the country, the more lavish its festivals, offering the locals an opportunity to escape from the drudgery of rural life. For us, these are one of the delights of travel.
George and I discovered this accidentally when backpacking through Peru and Bolivia in the 1970s. We were heading down to the jungle from Cusco when the bus halted at Paucartambo, unable to proceed through the frenetically dancing crowd.
We decided to stay. As the only tourists there we had to abandon any attempt to understand what was going on. One group of dancers reminded us of agitated birds’ nests, while another looked like animated sacks whipping each others’ legs with vicious intensity.
As in all Latin American festivals, there was a Christian element – the procession of the Virgin of Carmen was the climax of the three days. She swayed towards us, a stiff white cone of lace and jewels, smothered in flowers; her doll face was almost hidden under an elaborate crown. Preceding her was a pure-white llama, decorated in a woven coat studded with silver. On the rooftops of houses lining her route were dancing devils, demons and winged monsters. Before she could come under their malign influence, a flight of angels appeared and beat them out of view.
At night we heard music, and peeped through a doorway into a large room. Tables laden with dishes were ranged round the walls, with the victors and vanquished dancing together in the middle. A friendly shout went up and we were pulled into the room, filled with food and drink, and danced with until we had to beg for mercy.
In the central Andes you can seek out fiestas with the help of a saints’ calendar. In any of the many San Pablos, for instance, you know that the villagers will celebrate St Peter’s Day. But it’s almost impossible to travel for any length of time during the dry season without stumbling across a fiesta.
One I remember particularly well was in Achacachi, Bolivia. We were on a bus on the way to a festival further down the valley, but found our way blocked by a brass band and elaborately costumed villagers. We hastily gathered our stuff and got out. Almost immediately, we were swept up into the parade. The costumes were extraordinary, and even more perplexing in their symbolism – although perhaps the ‘gringos’, with their blue eyes painted on light bulbs, represented the Spanish conquistadors.
I left the scene for a while to change a film and returned to see George dancing off down the road arm in arm with a large white bear, and hitting bystanders on the head with a banana. “It seemed the right thing to do at the time,” he said afterwards; certainly the bear and the bystanders enjoyed it enormously.
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