March 29, 2016.
By Erin Hancock
Easter is celebrated around the world – from perfume-tossing in Hungary to egg rolling on the White House lawn in the USA, but the small mountain towns of Tarma and Acobamba in central Peru stand apart. Most distinctively, the area is known for magnificent flower carpets crafted out of millions of flower petals, buds and outlined in coffee grinds. Teams of people from children to seniors gather to adorn the streets in designs depicting the region, its animals and vegetation, and its pride of tradition.
The process begins in the morning where teams gather to outline their design in chalk. A lengthy and calculated process of applying wet coffee grinds along the chalk blueprint follows. Then flower petals from the hills surrounding Tarma, in dozens of colours, are applied to bring the designs to life.
Teams work diligently all day to accomplish art that would be challenging in most mediums. The neighboring town of Acobamba also engages in this tradition. See below a design from coffee grinds to finish (a nod to all of the Canadian readers of course).
In 1999, Tarma set a world record of the longest string of flower carpets at 3, 200m long. These days Tarma boasts a full main square of colorful arrangements with some teams spilling onto surrounding streets. In 1999, most adjacent streets as far as the eye can see would have been coated in order to set the record.
During Easter mainly tourists from other regions in Peru pay homage in this Andean town, but the odd international tourist can be spotted in the crowd as well (above: myself from Canada, Eliys from Estonia and Marius from Norway). As people ogle over the amazing configurations, a procession starts where huge structures resembling caskets are carried around the town square (“Vigil for the Lord”). As the solemn ceremony begins, newbies to the celebration suddenly realize that all of the hard work was being ceremoniously trampled after just a mere few hours of enjoying the designs. The next morning, other than the archways, no sign of the previous day’s achievements remain. This ceremony happens on Friday and then during the night on Saturday new teams create their art in the same space followed by a 6am procession on Easter Sunday.
In Acobamba, a nearby town mainly comprised of indigenous people of Peru who speak Quechua (not unlike Tarma and other Andean towns), the big celebration is Saturday night. People come prepared with their own hot alcoholic drinks put into old wine bottles and carried openly in the streets – a calientito made from boiling figs, raisins, cloves and cinnamon with added rum and honey. In some cases, rum is traded for rubbing alcohol so be careful. This sweet drink can warm you up and light your spirit on fire on a chilly night of dancing in the street (Thanks Julyana, Victor and family for the authentic experience!).
If traditional drink does not fulfill your need to consume the local culture, then turn to food. Peru is known for anticucho – roasted pig heart on a skewer available on street corners around the whole country – including Acobamba. However, this region is even better known for its cuy (guinea pig). If you’re used to these little furry creatures as pets, it might be a stretch but is available on most restaurant menus if you get the gumption (it is chewy and does not taste like chicken for the record).
After fueling up one way or another, the streets will beckon you to move your hips and make new friends. Several bands set up in the town square among the crowds so music is constant and coming from every direction.
The firework show goes above and beyond. The structures sitting among the crowds are lit on fire (with seemingly little planning or care for safety) and the resulting spectacle is awe-inspiring. Somehow no one gets hurt, even though many people do get hit by flying debris!
The night is one to remember without a doubt. The sights, sounds and tastes are unique and perfectly overdone.
Easter Sunday not only means visiting a church for most in the region but Acobamba has a tradition of a community meal. Each year a different family takes on the role of feeding 1000 people at the community center. They cook with traditional methods of wood fire and hot stones in a pit in the ground, serving up a delectable meal of pork, salad, broad beans, potatoes and a semi-sweet lump of cornmeal and raisins with condensed milk wrapped into a corn husk.
No Peruvian celebration is complete without dancing, no matter the time of day. The six foreigners quickly stood out and became targets for all sorts of dancing….and possibly made it on the local television station.
Although not traditional to Easter, there is a lot of natural beauty to explore in the valley and surrounding mountains. Heading just outside of Tarma to Tarmatambo means a refreshing walk and great views.
If you’re lucky, some of the local children will find you and offer a history and culture lesson for just a few coins.
If you want a totally unique Easter experience, Tarma and Acobamba will deliver.
Stay tuned for more adventures around Peru and Colombia.