Realised that I have been in Cusco for almost a month, and felt that it was about time for me to leave the city for a little while. Also turned out that the "Festival of Virgin del Carmen" was taking place on the same weekend. The festival is very famous in the town of Paucartambo - about three hours away by bus. Two of my Dutch friends, Jani and Suzan were also going, with a group of their friends, and they invited me to come along.
The festival is a three day event, from 15 to 17 July. We left on Friday afternoon (oh dear, couldn't go in for work!), and as with all group activities, included many periods of waiting for various people. Finally got to the bus station at 1:30pm - apparently told that buses were leaving frequently for the festival, but found out that the next one was at 4pm. Which would mean arriving at 7pm, and having to put out tents up in the dark. No, that's no good!
Just as we began to ask taxis for prices, we were approached by some people who had seats available in a combi (mini-van). Luckily there were only four of them, and there was enough room to fit in nine more!! Though the combi stopped numerous times (even before leaving Cusco), it was a much nicer way to travel than in a bus. Within a few minutes, the combi was filled with laughter and excited chatter. In my "original" group were Jani and Suzan, their ex-housemates Stella (Iceland), Sandra (Holland), her friends Maria (Holland), Devin (USA); their fellow Spanish student Lotta (Holland) and her boyfriend Cesar (Cusqeño guide). Met in the combi were South African couple Alison and Steve; travel buddies Leonardo (Columbia) and Cesar (yes, another one! but from Lima), Bolivian ex-pat Ivan and the driver Jonatan. Somehow, we all managed to fit in the bus (even picking up a Cusqueñian - whose gender we debated for a while!).
The ride was pretty nice, in terms of landscapes. There were a few dodgey incidents, including hiding in an alleyway to evade the police (only public buses were permitted entry into Paucartambo), smell of burning rubber (brake pads) and near misses off crazy sandy curvey mountain passes. We finally arrived into Paurcartambo at around 6pm, but waited ages outside the city gates, as the combi was too exhausted to go on. We stood around waiting, feeling pangs of hunger and the cold, whilst Cesar, went scouting for a safe camp site for the night.
He came back about half an hour later, announcing happily that we could camp in a school, for 2 soles per person per night (60 cents, US). I imagined us all sleeping in the empty gym room, and thought that would be a nicer and warmer alternative to sleeping outdoors with our tents! It turned out that it was even better... we were given a classroom to ourselves!! Wicked!! We quickly moved the tables and chairs to the perimeter of the room, and spread out our sleeping mats and bags.
To satisfy our hunger, we walked into town, and walked into yet another school. There was a rumour that the food was free, and shortly after sitting down, plates of food were brought to our table. On it were rice, mashed potatoes, a vegetable crumble and a piece of unidentified meat with sauce. Didn't realise at the time, they were literally free, and I stepped over the line by asking if they had a veggie version (there were four in our company!). No, they replied, that was all they had. Not quite the three course-rs I'm used to, but there was still enough food to sustain me for the evening, especially when eating off the leftovers (veggie) of my friends' who didn't fancy it anymore. My meat was donated to Devin, who asked many questions regarding veggism - and actually turned veggie himself shortly before leaving Cusco!
Ivan explained to me later that there were free facilities during the festival, as they wanted to encourage many poor people to come and participate. Hence lots of free drinks, food and accomodation. Also great for us stoestringers, though towards the end, we did feel we should be contributing back into the local economy somehow!
After dinner, we spent some time in the Plaza, where they were setting off some fireworks. Not the biggest fireworks ever, but still created a nice happy atmosphere, as well as something which felt more intimate (as the sparks could actually fall on you!). Amused ourselves eating popcorn, and when too stuffed, played games with them, to the disgust of an onlooking Peruvian. We competed to see who could kick the popcorn, and wasted many by trying to throw them into each others' mouth. I fluked the first three times, but that was about it...
The festival was supposed to be a continuous three day party, but by about eleven, after watching a few passing masked procession and making it to the Church, I went back with Stella and Jani for a couple hours of sleep before waking up for the sunrise...