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The dismal lack of respect shown to the Inca Empire by their Spanish conquerors reached a zenith in the Peruvian city of Cusco. In the 16th century, when the Spanish arrived, Cusco’s central plaza was dominated by Kiswarkancha, reputedly one of the most impressive Inca palaces and a testament to the might and ingenuity of the people that built it. So, naturally, the Spaniards ransacked its contents, knocked it down and set about building a cathedral in its place. Adding insult to injury, the conquistadores forced the Inca population to construct the Catedral de Santo Domingo with stones grabbed from another Inca site, the vast complex known as Sacsayhuamán (pronounced, more or less, ‘sexy woman’).

In 1650, a century after the Spanish made their presence felt, Cusco was hit by an earthquake. Legend recalls that when the fretful locals brought out from the cathedral an image of Christ, the quake instantly stopped. Milagro. This event is still celebrated on the Monday following Palm Sunday, when Cusco’s streets are roadblocked by the procession of an eerie black Christ known as El Señor de los Temblores, or the Master of the Earthquakes. Starting at the cathedral, the procession is the first act in Cusco’s celebrations of Semana Santa – Holy Week, the most important religious festival of the year.

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To Spaniards such as Sara, whom we met on the road a few days ago, Holy Week in Latin America is nothing about which to write home. Spain has its own Easter culture, which in many towns is at least as extreme as it is here. However, to a couple of visitors from a non-Catholic country, Semana Santa in Peru is an extraordinary sight: strange, mystifying, but often hypnotic and sometimes quite beautiful.

 


 

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The 500km journey from Cusco north to the handsome city of Ayacucho would be an exhausting but spectacular seven-day bike ride, taking in three colossal climbs of more than 2,000m. We opted to cover the distance in 18 hours by bus, leaving on the evening of Cusco’s Señor de los Temblores procession, in order to experience the largest Semana Santa celebrations in Peru.

Ayacucho is overwhelmed by visitors for the ten days leading up to Easter Sunday. Hotels jack up their rates to three, four, five times their normal levels, and yet demand still exceeds supply. But the crowds don’t detract from the sense that Ayacucho during Holy Week is a city at its best, its liveliest and its most enticing. 

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Each evening brings a different procession, labouring slowly along a planned route from parochial church to central plaza. The roads are closed to traffic during the day so they can be decorated with elaborate artworks, created by the schools, citizens and businesses on the route. Sketched in chalk and then filled with coloured sawdust or flower petals, they range from commercial boosterism to folk art. At around 6pm, when night draws in, the population comes out to take in what amounts to an extraordinary temporary art exhibition.

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The nightly spectacle repeats with little variation. After mass at one of the local churches, the procession sets out, solemn parishioners carrying candles and singing softly as they troop through town in the lee of a vast religious artefact; a gigantic Virgin Mary, say. And as they troop, the handiwork on the pavements is instantly lost, trodden underfoot and gone as quickly as it was created. The procession finally arrives in the central square, for prayers, blessings and the sale of assorted trinkets, candies and toys. Eventually, everyone goes home, leaving the town to the cleaners to prepare the streets for tomorrow’s artists.

 


 

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From Ayacucho, there are two ways to reach Huancayo. We chose the more direct of them, an exhausting but spectacular 250km ride. (Exhausting but spectacular rides, we’re learning, are a speciality of central Peru.) Much of the 120km central section, linking the small towns of Mayocc and Izcuchaca, consists of a skinny, often single-lane road hugging the cliff edge, with no guard rail to protect against the sheer drop into the Río Mantaro below.

Traffic often proceeds slowly enough to allow for conversation with passing drivers, and many of those to whom we spoke were heading south to Ayacucho for the Semana Santa weekend. Priced out of town, we’d left on Thursday, in time to arrive in Huancayo for the climax of the town’s own Easter celebrations. Huancayo is a less appealing city than Ayacucho, rougher and scruffier, but nonetheless draws visitors to its own Semana Santa festivities.

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The 4am mass on Saturday night/Sunday morning attracts vast crowds to the cathedral in the city’s central square, whose lack of elegance is disguised only slightly by the darkness. An hour later, the hordes thickening by the minute, a round of applause is followed by the appearance from the church first of the parishioners, and then of a giant Virgin Mary. She is followed, in short order, by an even more gigantic Jesus, emerging from what looks like a huge wedding cake and operated by a puppeteer who struggles to remain invisible above the crowds.

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At this point, the fun really begins. Walking around the square while mass was ongoing, we couldn’t help but notice seven or eight homemade pylons, fashioned from bamboo canes and standing perhaps 30 feet tall. These pylons, it turns out, are firework launchers, and the long-awaited arrival of the Son of God is the cue for their creators to set them in motion.

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With a whizz and a bang, the plaza is soon bathed in light. Most fireworks reach the heavens. Some fizzle. Several spear off into the crowd, watched with little discernible interest by policemen who would presumably much rather be in bed. And above it all, Christ and his puppeteer look down nervously from their cake, perhaps wondering if rolling away the stone was such a good idea after all.

from Tarma, 12, Peru