Leah in Cusco Part IX: Descent of the Kings
This weekend I got to experience a big fiesta in the nearby town of Ollantaytambo. It was a three-day event that takes place starting on January 6th of every year. The fiesta is called “Bajada de Reyes” and people from neighbouring communities travel to Ollantaytambo to participate in the celebrations. “Bajada de reyes” means “descent of the kings”, and refers to the procession of saints brought down from smaller communities in the mountains around Ollantaytambo. Each saint figure represents one of the three kings or wise men who visited Jesus on Christmas. The statues are dressed in their finest robes and carried through the streets. The festivities include music, dancing and plenty of food and drink. It seems that the eating, drinking and dancing don’t actually stop for the entire three-day duration of the fiesta!
I went to Ollantaytambo (or Ollanta as it is known locally) on Sunday, the first day of the fiesta. I met up with Mosqoy students from Ollantaytambo and the surrounding towns who were there to participate in the fun. We were led to the end of an alley where a band was playing and sat down on the curb. As we enjoyed the music and watched couples dancing in the street, local people began passing out plates of food. We were treated to soup and a massive plate of meat and potatoes. It was delicious! People had been arriving carrying crates of beer, and it wasn’t long before a few bottles of Cusqueña were passed our way. It was really neat to see how quickly we were welcomed into the celebrations. The sense of community is so strong. Everybody is joyfully caught up in the festive atmosphere, whether friend, family or complete stranger.
With our bellies full of food, we ventured down the hill to see the corrida de toros. The streets were packed with people laughing, eating and dancing. It seemed that the whole town had been converted into a street market, with a different vat of steaming soup on every corner. We passed groups of women in traditional indigenous dress, men in collared shirts talking on cell-phones, and children playing tag among the food stalls. When we arrived at the other end of town, we climbed up the hill for a view of the rodeo ring. I was a bit reluctant to watch the bullfights as they seem cruel to me, but I was assured that these ones were purely for fun and no bulls would be killed that day. The spectacle drew a massive crowd, and people were seated with their families and friends all the way up the dusty hillside. Vendors moved through the throngs of people selling popcorn, sweets and cotton candy. In the ring below, bulls were led out and taunted by men with red capes. Each bull got a few good passes in and some cheers, then was led out of the ring and put back on the truck. I still couldn’t help but feel sorry for the bulls, who must have been confused, scared and angry. I did my best to think of it as a cultural experience. In addition to the bulls, there were also groups of men on horseback showing off their equestrian skills.
In the court next to the bullring, groups of men and women in regional costumes performed traditional dances. A member of our Mosqoy family, Adrian, was dancing in the fiesta. In his dance, boys and young men carry whips and lash each others’ feet and legs! I was told this is to show their strength, although somebody else explained it is also a form of purification or cleansing of their sins. We kept expecting those dancers to come perform by the bullring, but unfortunately they never showed up. Apparently they danced in the plaza that year instead so we missed them. I did get a picture of me and Adrian in his costume though. As he said, I guess I’ll just have to come back for the next fiesta to see him dance!
After the sun set it got quite cold, but we warmed up with some very competitive games of foosball. An outdoor arcade had been set up with the usual fair games, blinking lights and stuffed teddy bear prizes. We considered a jaunt in the bouncy castle but realized we were probably a bit old…. So we continued up the hill to a plaza where a band was playing. There we joined the merrymakers dancing on the cobblestones outside a little chapel. Boys still dressed in their regional costumes from the day’s traditional dancing were now dancing cumbia with girls in high heels. The older generations sat around the outside of the square tapping their toes, eating and chatting. It wasn’t long before bowls of tasty soup were passed our way, which I gladly accepted. And before I knew it I was drawn into the conga line that had broken out around the entire square!
It had been a lovely day, but we eventually had to make our way back to Cusco. The parents of one of the Mosqoy students generously tried to convince us to stay in their house for the night, but we had obligations in the city. Some of the students had to get back to Cusco for classes on Monday morning, and I had a weaving meeting in a different community the next day. So we piled into a taxi (along with two members of a band and their tubas!) and drove back to Cusco thoroughly exhausted and happy. I can’t wait for the next fiesta…!