I’ve been meaning to describe to everyone what each major town is like here in the Sacred Valley. I figure I should start with Urubamba, the town that we live in.
As I’ve stated before, our house is on a large property that we share with 4 apartments near the center of town. We are in a fantastic location, just 5 blocks from the Plaza and about 8 blocks from the main market. Even more importantly, we are only 3 blocks from the gas station. The gas station? You ask. Yes, the gas station is the premiere store in town and carries everything from high-priced fancy chocolates, to large, $20 jars of Nutella, to tortillas, it even has marshmallows. If we are ever feeling homesick or need a taste of processed goodness, we can head to the gas station to get our fix.
Urubamba is a town with a population of around 3000 that sits at about 3000 m above sea level. We are about an hour away from Cusco by car. Urubamba’s claim to fame is its market. The market in Urubamba is the largest and the most famous in the valley, and vendors come from near and far to sell their wares. There is an amazing variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, potatoes galore, grains, traditional herbal remedies, spices, and so much more. While the market stays open 7 days a week, Wednesdays and Sundays are the biggest days; with vendors spilling out into the streets surrounding the indoor market’s building.
The people in this area are mainly humble farmers. Many are Quechua speakers, and some speak very little Spanish. They work small plots of land scattered throughout the valley. Many have a pig or two, a bull, and some sheep. When we first arrived here I wondered why the people wore so many layers of clothes, but after living here for awhile I understand. The temperature fluctuates a great deal from morning to evening. When the sun comes out it is extremely intense due to the altitude, so intense that all school children are required to wear a hat when outside. The temperatures can get up into the 70s (F) when the sun shines, but after the sun sets the weather quickly turns cold, dropping to close to freezing.
Cusco and The Sacred Valley are some of the most touristy places in Peru with millions of visitors from all over the world passing through on their way to Machu Picchu. Urubamba however, gets much less tourism than the nearby towns of Ollantaytambo and Pisac. We love the fact that there are enough tourists that people don’t look at us funny, yet the town is relatively quiet.
At least the town is normally quiet, this past weekend we had an epic 48-hour dance festival. The people here are Catholic, but as with most places in Latin America, each place has their own traditions and celebrations. The town of Urubamba worships El Señor Torrechayoc as the patron saint. You would think there would be some fantastic story behind this guy with the funny name, but the history behind it is kind of boring. There was a road from Lares to Urubamba that became impassable due to landslides after an earthquake, so everyone started using a new road. Many people who used the new road started having visions of this guy, who looks to me, like a demonic Jesus, then a cross appeared on the road, and everyone started traveling to worship to the cross. Finally, someone got the bright idea to move the cross to the church in town so they wouldn’t have to travel so far out in the cold and snow to worship him. Nowadays the Torrechayoc cross is at the altar of the church that is named for him and adorned with jewels and decorated appropriately for his station.
Anyways, this past weekend was the festival of Señor Torrechayoc which was a festival of dance, music, colorful costumes, and of course, drinking. The festival began on Saturday morning, at 4 am with fireworks and marching bands. I was excited to see the festivities, yet not so much so that I felt the need to get out of bed at that time. We ate our breakfast and then followed a parade to the town’s soccer stadium where it seemed that every person in the valley was in attendance to hear mass. The stands were filled to the brim with spectators and the brightly dressed participants filled the field as they listened to the priest and choir that were arranged on a stage.
After we realized it was a mass, we went outside, then watched the dance troupes dance their way down the main avenue of town. The marching bands seemed to have 2 main tunes, one of which reminded me of Cajun music. The costumes were spectacular, our neighbor told us that each year the participants try to outdo themselves and the costumes become more and more elaborate. The dancing goes on the whole day and festivities continue all night long. The whole thing reminded me of a mini Mardi Gras.
Sunday is the big day. The cross of Torrechayoc was paraded around on a litter. The huge line of processions headed down the main highway, blocking traffic in both directions, then they turned on the main avenue in town and continued on past the plaza. After passing the plaza the processions broke off and seemed to go every which direction with no real plan. We heard the bands and saw random troupes dancing their way down the street until well past dark. By the end of the day, the dancers’ costumes were askew, the music was a bit off beat and many were visibly inebriated. The entire town smelled like a urinal and the always-busy street cleaners had a hard time keeping up with the copious amounts of trash. To their credit, the next day the streets were picture perfect once again.
Even though the history behind the event is a bit bland, the festivities are what every traveler dreams of seeing for that authentic cultural experience. It was fascinating to see these normally very reserved people, completely living it up. I have no idea how the dancers lasted so long, they literally danced all day for two straight days. The marching bands’ rhythms were hypnotic and are still in our minds, days later. We felt quite privileged to get to experience this festival in such an up close and personal way.
We feel so lucky that we have been able to live in this quaint town in the Valley for an extended period. The people have been quite welcoming and many recognize us and greet us each day as we pass by. We feel like we have gotten to experience the real Peru by getting to stay here for such a long time rather than just taking a short trip and seeing the regular touristy places.
If you’d like to hear more about our trip, or why we choose to live this way, or if you just miss me and want to hear my voice again, please check out my interview with my friend Sheryl Sitts on her podcast, Exploring Possibilities.