On the first Sunday in February, the stands and terraces around the football stadium in the town of Puno in south-eastern Peru start to fill early in the morning. The crowds are casually dressed, many wearing baseball caps, others in the bowler hats typical of the indigenous Aymara people. Some of the children are wearing colourful papier maché face masks. A sign on the railings advertises pollo al horno, baked chicken, while other vendors sell drinks, ice cream or hot corncobs.
They are here not for a football match, but for an annual event that is even more popular: the Candelaria dance and costume contest. All day, and well into the evening, dance troupes perform their routines in front of the eight judges seated at tables along the touchline. The music is loud and rhythmic, the costumes elaborate and colourful. Some of the women are in layered skirts and fringed shawls that twirl as they dance. Others sport tall feathered headdresses, coloured pompoms, or false heads that caricature figures from Peruvian myth and history.
Each group of dancers begins its performance on the far side of the pitch, opposite the main stand. A little girl scurries around the perimeter looking for her troupe. A young boy helps his father into a gorilla suit, then watches him set off towards the starting point with the head that will complete the costume stuck under his arm. Anxious group leaders count their dancers to make sure everyone has turned up. As the dancers stream off the pitch, their routine finished, they are pursued by photographers, television reporters and friends who have come to support them. Volunteer fireman in bright red suits periodically spray water across the pitch to keep the dust down.
This all-day dance display is one of the highlights of Puno's Candelaria festival, an extravaganza that lasts up to two weeks and attracts participants and spectators from many miles away. In the Catholic church, Candlemas marks the purification of the Virgin Mary 40 days after the birth of Jesus; in Puno this is linked with the Incas' worship of Pachamama, or Mother Earth, resulting in a colourful spectacle that combines religion, history and cultural tradition.
In the weeks leading up to the festival, the streets of Puno echo with the sounds of musicians practising for the competitions and parades. Some play alone or in small groups on street corners; others rehearse in school halls. The town is a small one, its centre organised in typically Spanish style with criss-crossing streets and pretty squares. Puno's main attractions are the church of St John the Baptist, which houses the statue of the Virgin of Candelaria, the triumphal arch commemorating Peru's struggle for independence – and a stunning location on the shores of Lake Titicaca.
This vast stretch of water, the highest navigable lake in the world, stands at 12,500 feet above sea level. But apart from the thin air, which can leave newly-arrived visitors gasping, there is nothing to give a sense of altitude – no towering peaks surrounding the shores, just gentle slopes and the occasional hilltop. Looking out across the water into the distance it seems as if the lake is disappearing into the horizon.
Titicaca was created high up in the altiplano by the movement of tectonic plates that caused the formation of the Andes mountains, and its existence is at the heart of Andean culture. The Aymara Indians, whose civilisation goes back centuries, believe the lake is sacred; Inca legend insists that the sun god, Viracocha, rose from the water to create the first Inca man and woman.
The descendants of the Aymara and the Incas – now intermingled – still live in settlements around the shore or on the islands scattered across the lake, and they make a frugal living from fishing, agriculture and weaving. Most accessible by boat from Puno is the island of Taquile, a green mound some 25 miles away. The path from the jetty to the island's main square involves a steep climb through farmland terraced by the Incas, past flocks of sheep, and crops of broad beans, potatoes and sweetcorn.
From the summit, there are panoramic views across the lake to the snow-capped mountains of Bolivia on the other side. A paved open space constitutes the island's main square. It is surrounded by a grubby white church, the modern municipal building from where the island's six communities are governed, and a textile centre where visitors can buy the colourful belts, bags and hats woven or knitted on the island.
All are items that form part of the traditional costumes seen everywhere on Taquile. The men wear red belts with their white shirts and black trousers. Those who are married wear red hats, the bachelors have a hat that is half red, half white; and they carry a small red bag containing leaves of the coca plant. Visitors look drab in comparison with island's women, their pink or red tops and coloured skirts providing a dramatic splash of colour against the landscape.
The islanders are keen to maintain their traditional way of life, but are also hospitable to visitors. Gerardo owns a small restaurant, tucked away on the hillside, a haven of peace that contrasts with the noise of Puno. An elderly lady sits weaving in the courtyard outside. Inside, while Gerardo dispenses soft drinks, his wife produces a delicious buffet: the Peruvian speciality, ceviche (raw fish marinated in lime juice); cheese, corn, grilled fish and rice, all served on terracotta plates.
But a visit to Taquile can be little more than an interlude in the festivities of Candelaria back on the mainland. On the day after the stadium competition, the dance troupes are out again: this time they will be judged for their performance in a parade, before a final winner is announced.
All along the street spectators fill the temporary grandstands or set folding chairs down beside the road. The mood is good-natured as they applaud their favourite groups, sometimes dancing alongside them as they pass. The dances are the same as those performed in the stadium, but the dancers are in procession this time, and the spectators are much closer.
Brass bands, rattles, pipes and drums provide a pulsing rhythm that regulates the dancing, an endless procession of sound and colour. Close up, the symbolism of the costumes and the dance steps are easier to identify: girls in native costume represent the jungle that covers part of Puno state; men wearing large black heads with prominent pink lips symbolise slaves, and are usually accompanied by a broad-shouldered, extravagantly bearded white figure smoking a pipe: the Spanish colonial master. There are many different dances, notably the diablada or devil's dance – a display involving much shaking of pitchforks, which is thought to date from pre-Inca times.
Dominating the procession is the Virgin of Candelaria, removed from her regular position inside the church and displayed prominently beside the main parade route. Many dancers carry flowers, which they offer in front of her; she is the reason that many people take part in the festival, as one young man told me. "I'm not particularly religious," he said, "but when you start dancing in front of the Virgin you connect with her. I was dancing but I felt I was floating."
The celebrations will, eventually, come to an end – although the exact duration of the festival varies from year to year (depending on the day of the week that Candlemas Day, 2 February, falls). There is a final Mass followed, perhaps inevitably, by dancing in the streets, ending in the main square in front of the Cathedral. Gradually, the crowds disperse and the music fades. But not for long. In a few more weeks it will be Carnival, and the festivities will start again.
Cathy Packe travelled to Puno as a guest of Journey Latin America (020-8747 8315; journeylatinamerica.co.uk). KLM (0871 231 0000; klm.com) flies to Lima from 15 UK airports; return fares start at £681. Connecting flights from Lima to Juliaca, the airport nearest to Puno, are operated by LAN ( lan.com).
The writer stayed at the Libertador Lake Titicaca hotel (00 5151 367 780; libertador.com.pe) where rooms are available from US$150 (£100).
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