Call it dumb luck, but the day after i arrived in the small Peruvian village of Ollantaytambo for two and a half weeks, the most important annual festival in the town’s history kicked off for the next 4 days. I was in Ollanta (for short) to spend time with some some old friends who were living there as they neared the opening of their new craft brewery (Sacred Valley Brewing Company). Ollanta is a village of 2000 people, that you can’t get to Machu Picchu without passing through. But despite the heavy influx of tourists it sees as a result, the festival de Choquekillka is a prime example of how local tradition triumphs above all else and how when given the opportunity, the locals will out-party the visitors while dancing into the wee hours of the morning.
The festival celebrates the legend of when the christ of Choquekillka cross miraculously appeared at the head of the Incan road, ending days of spiritual strife. The spirituality of the event permeates the celebration throughout. 17 dance groups, ornately dressed with everything from bead art capes and handmade knit masks to whips and even dead baby llamas, pay homage to the local deity with parades, dances and a non-stop celebration. The whole town comes out every day to witness the festivities and leaders of the dance groups set up private parties (cargos) throughout the town as well. I had the pleasure of attending a few of these cargos and ate until i couldnt anymore, had a beer in front of me immediately after i finished the previous one, drank an intoxicating corn brew called chicha, ate guinea pig for the first time and danced with reckless abandon.
On one of the days i attended a picturesque bullfight, on another the evening ended with a dangerously intimate fireworks display, on another we walked down to the pampa to celebrate the afternoon away and every day ended in Ollanta’s central plaza, where my friends at Sacred Valley Brew Co were pouring beers amidst the crates and crates of the local Cusqueña lager that were littered throughout the entire town. The dance groups would march into the plaza and entertain the crowd while paying tribute to the Señor. The parties were fantastic, but it wasn’t until i started gaining a better understanding of what the traditions and the dances meant that i truly began to appreciate Choquekillka as a timeless local tradition and a unique display of faith and solidarity…
I met one of the dancers, William, from the group Qapaq Qolla, who closes out the celebration each year and he began to describe the details of his outfit and of the festivals traditions to us. He talked about how speaking Quechua (the ancient Andean language) and understanding the history of Choquekillka are major prerequisites for being in a dance. I was amazed at how much William revered the Q’achampa dance group, who are considered to be the most sacred and traditional of all of the groups. During their performance he pulled me aside and gave me the type of play-by-play of their performance that i would give to someone who didn’t understand a baseball game. When members of the Q’achampa square off in the middle of the dance circle and exchange whips to each other’s legs, it’s a male proving ground that serves as a model of piety to the Señor and is just flat out entertaining:
The whole time, William was so enthused…and i likened his giddiness of the dance to the way i feel about my “religions”: baseball and music…the two things that make me fly up out of my seat and vibe out on the regular and it started putting the festival, the town, the celebration and their faith into perspective. How a small town like this who doesn’t live at the pulse of amenities like baseball stadiums, concert halls, gastro pubs and gasp…supermarkets, finds a purpose to their simple, yet sustainable lives in the spiritual traditions in which their livelihood’s were founded. It was incredible. Watching the closing ceremonies on day 4 and seeing William and Qapaq Qolla so reverently chant and move with deliberate grace as the cross of Choquekillka bowed to every corner of the crowd of thousands, i was silent…as was everyone else. We were mesmerized by the ceremony and i was overcome with the memory of the last 4 days. Thinking about all of the people i met and of the exposure to a remote culture that i could’ve never imagined i’d have when i arrived in the town.
Until next time….i’l be prepping for my trek into Machu Picchu and bumping the new First Aid Kit album on repeat!