Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Puno — A cultural experience from start to finish.

We left Cusco by bus to our next stop — Puno, which is an unassuming town on the shores of Lake Titicaca, the highest and largest navigable lake in the world. As we entered Puno, it seemed at first to have little character, dusty and forlorn. But what awaited us was a cultural experience we could not have dreamed of.

We were in Puno for two specific reasons: to experience the Candelaria Festival (Dance competition and local festival) and to visit three islands on Lake Titicaca.

We arrived Friday afternoon as the town was setting up for the celebration. Saturday morning there was a special outdoor mass at the main Cathedral, which we attended, followed by a procession of the Virgin Mary around the square. Several streets were blocked off as the dance troops created iconic art representative of their local home. They used a base of what we think was sawdust and plaster and water tinted with food colouring and then adding flower petals for decoration. Large groups were involved, some drawing the outlines of the designs, others spreading colour and brushing it into place. The results were spectacular.

In the streets, hawkers were selling raincoats, sun umbrellas, ice cream, folding chairs and an assortment of local food to the crowds that were accumulating. We also started to see dance troops arriving in full costume for the dance competition that was to begin at 7:30 am Sunday morning in the local stadium, with 80 troops listed to perform.

We arrived at the stadium Sunday morning around 9:00 am. On the way, we witnessed many of the troops that had completed their performances dancing in the street, or settling in for a day of drinking and eating along the main street outside the stadium. Even at 9:00 am, the scene was almost overwhelming.

The first weekend of the two-week festival was more of a local affair. Although there were tourists in town, primarily we sat with local townspeople in the stadium to watch the large dance troops perform. The troops have anywhere from 50-200 participants, each dressed in their local costumes. Almost all the troops included a band of bamboo wind instruments as well as percussion instruments of some kind. Each performance included an introductory dance to get them all out on the field and then another synchronized dance routine taking them all over the stadium field twisting and turning in full regalia. We were out of breath just watching them run around in heavy costumes at 13, 000 ft!

The locals were better prepared than we were for the weather and the long day in the stadium stands. Many came with picnic lunches, blankets and umbrellas. But as we witnessed the day before, hawkers were out in full force to sell you anything you forgot to bring with you. Women with bags of cooked corn, fried cheese, bread, fried trout, big hunks of cooked ham, guinea pig and chicken, chopped salad and cut limes were setting up for the lunch crowd. You could buy litre bottles of soft drinks with paper cups, ice cream, and snacks, plastic sheets or rain ponchos. Anything your heart desired was at close reach.

We took a break from the stadium after a few hours to take in the street scene. By then, thousands of dancers were in the streets, eating, drinking and dancing. A beer garden was set up, as well as endless food stands serving fried meats, chopped salads, and pressed or iced fruit juices. We had never seen anything like it.

That night there was a procession through town of all the dance troops and a party that went on until all hours of the morning. We could hear the drums in the distance from our hotel room well into the night.
When we woke up the next day, it was as if it never happened. The beautiful street art had been swept away. The dance troops had all left town. Puno had returned to its quiet self. But just an hour away, on the islands of Lake Titicaca another cultural experience awaited us.

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