A Party for the Original Talking Head

If you think what happens during the Virgen del Carmen Festival is bizarre, wait until you hear how it all got started.

Legend has it that at some point in the 13th century, a young woman was passing through the small town of Paucartambo. She had with her a silver plate she was hoping to sell. While walking through the streets, she happened upon the disembodied head of a woman. Of course, she put the head on her silver plate, and of course, it began to speak.

The head said her name was Carmen, and she was here to help the people of Paucartambo. In short time, she began healing people in the town, and—as if a talking head in and of itself was not enough—performing other miracles. And so the Virgen del Carmen, also known as Mamacha Carmen, became the patron saint of the mestizo population.

Today thousands of people from all over Peru and the globe make their way to Paucartambo (a three-hour drive from Cusco) for the annual Virgen del Carmen Festival. The festival takes place July 15-18 every year, and begins with a full day of processions, featuring bands and colorfully costumed dancers. The dancers all represent an aspect of, or event in Peruvian history.

And while the daylight processions are fascinating (and include dancers performing perilously on rooftops), things get really interesting at night. The processions continue, but this time with the raucous addition of fireworks, many of which are carried by the dancers themselves.

The revelry is known to last throughout the night, with participants and spectators alike heading for a mountaintop known as Tres Cruses, where the spectacular sunrises are rumored to occasionally have hallucinogenic effects.

Back in the town of Paucartambo, the processions continue for five days, with the statue of the Virgen del Carmen being paraded through the streets on the second day of the festival. That procession ends with a mighty battle between the forces of good and evil, in which the righteous conquer the demons.

Are you ready to experience the Virgen del Carmen Festival yourself? Check out the trip here from The Explorer’s Passage, which will spend three days there.