In the north-west of the province of Jujuy, where the altitude marks the rhythm of the narrow streets and houses made of clay bricks mixed with straw, ancestral traditions and the culture of the land come together to create a unique festival: the Carnival of Quebrada de Humahuaca
Due to its scenic beauty and natural wonders, the Quebrada de Humahuaca was declared a World Cultural and Natural Heritage Site in 2003. There, in the Andes of Jujuy, at an altitude of 3500 metres, one of the most colourful and ancestral corners of Argentina is preserved. And it is here that one of the country’s most evocative festivals takes place: the Quebrada Carnival.
This collective celebration originated with the summer rituals of the Omaguacas, the original inhabitants of the region, to thank Pachamama, the earth, for the harvest and to ask her for fertility for the new sowing. The Spaniards associated these rituals with carnival and the ceremony merged with the Christian tradition and calendar, which is why it is celebrated at the beginning of Lent. For centuries, the Quebrada has kept this thousand-year-old festival alive, attracting visitors from all over the world.
With Tilcara as the epicentre of the carnival, the comparsas burst into the Andean silence with their noisy costumes, music and dances to celebrate fertility and togetherness for nine days. From the Saturday before Ash Wednesday, the different groups go around the villages with their carnavalitos and coplas while a faint aroma of basil invades the Quebrada.
Carnival begins with the comparsas going into the hills in search of the Pujllay, the little devil, which was buried the previous year and which they have to dig up.
There are two events that mark the prelude to the festival: the Thursday of the compadres (two Thursdays before the unearthing) and the Thursday of the comadres (Thursday before the unearthing). On Compadres Thursday, only men go out to celebrate and are invited to different places or houses to drink the typical chicha, which is made from corn. Comadres Thursday is the day when women go out into the streets to sing coplas to the beat of the drums. They often go around sharing vidalas, the popular songs, and invite all the local women.
All the carnival activities start early and go on until the early hours of the morning, with festivities and parties organised by the locals to keep alive the joy of meeting and celebrating Pacha, the land.
The unearthing of Pujllay
Burial Saturday is the most important day of Carnival. This ritual kicks off the celebration. Each extra has its own mound, a place hidden in the hills where the Pujllay is buried.
While they wait for the unearthing to take place, the followers of the comparsas, neighbours and tourists wait at the foot of the hills with music, food and drink and make their offerings to Mother Earth: cigars, coca leaves and drinks. Around 6pm, explosions are heard, and with the third explosion, Carnival is officially inaugurated. From that moment, as members of the comparsas descend the hill dressed as little devils, the Quebrada becomes a festival of dance and music with indigenous instruments such as erkenchos, anatas, charangos and bombos. Bunches of basil, festoons, carved paper, flour and talcum powder for face painting and make-up, coca and incense are scattered around the Quebrada until Temptation Sunday. On that day, the Pujllay is buried again in the hole that symbolises the mouth of Pachamama. In this ceremony, fertility is asked for the new cycle.