The past week in Cuzco we got an up close and personal introduction to Semana Santa, or Holy Week. This is the week leading up to Easter Sunday in the Christian faith, though the celebrations, food, and traditions here in Cuzco are markedly different from those that we’re used to in the States.
Semana Santa begins with Palm Sunday one-week prior to Easter. Here, Easter Sunday is not the climax of the week’s festivities. Contrary to celebrations back home, emphasis is placed more on the festivities and food of the preceding week. We discovered this firsthand on Monday, en route to our GSW fundraiser pub quiz that we make and hold weekly at the English pub, The Real McCoy.
After a long day teaching English and sports class at our Los Nogales School, we ran out of the house, pub quiz materials in hand, and began scrambling down the Cuzco cobblestone steps to get to the pub near the Plaza de Armas. Not so fast. We hit what amounted to a human brick wall going down the stairs towards the plaza, and we realized that people were packed liked sardines into the space. The near-claustrophobia I felt weaving our way through the crowds was all too reminiscent of the Carnival celebrations in Rio de Janeiro just a few months ago. Doing the baby-step/elbow dance, we were finally able to make it through to the other side and to our pub quiz, but were left wondering: why all the crowds on a Monday night?
As it turns out, an important part of Semana Santa celebrations in Cuzco revolve around the Señor de los Temblores, a statue of Christ kept in the main Cathedral in Cuzco. Legend has it that the Christ figure was responsible for stopping a major earthquake that hit Cuzco in 1650. The people took the Christ figure out of the church and onto the streets, and consequently the earthquake stopped. This particular Christ statue also has a unique feature: the dark coloring of his skin, caused by the religious fires they burned below his effigy during the procession. This oddity has come to represent the indigenous people, and is revered by the people of Cuzco. Every year during Semana Santa, this statue is removed from its home in the Compania de Jesus church and paraded around Cuzco, ending at the main cathedral in the Plaza de Armas. The parade may consist of only the statue and one float, but Cusqueñans show up en mass for the occasion.
Needless to say, it was a real treat to witness and learn about this yearly event in such an unexpected way.