Peru festival features condors, bulls, drinking
A condor lashed to a bull and faced by a bullfighter in a ring: It’s a tradition watched by thousands of indigenous people high in the Andean mountains, and the bull and condor will live to fight, or fly, another day.
The New York Times
COYLLURQUI, Peru — It is not easy to tie a wild condor with a 7-foot wingspan and a sharp beak to the back of an enraged 1,000-pound bull.
“The bull and the condor are not animals that have, let’s say, good relations,” said Luis Bocangel, who helped oversee the temporary joining of the two species recently at the annual celebration of what is known here as Yawar Fiesta, or Blood Festival.
“The bull is terrified of the condor,” said Bocangel, a brother of the town’s mayor. “The condor is trying to peck at the bull’s eyes.”
Once the two are lashed together, they are released into a bullring to do battle against each other and a group of bullfighters, while thousands of people watch. It is the high point of this uniquely Andean festival, held here each July 29, the day after Peru’s Independence Day, in this small town and a few others high in the mountains.
“The apu is the sacred bird of the Andes,” said the mayor, Walter Bocangel, using a word that means god in Quechua, the indigenous language spoken here.
Many here in this remote, impoverished town on a steep hillside around 10,300 feet elevation, where the bright sky seems especially close, believe that the condor, one of the world’s largest birds, has divine status.
“The juxtaposition of the condor and the bull represents the duality of the Andean world, between the celestial world and the earthly world,” said Juan Ossio, a professor of anthropology at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, in Lima.
Ossio, a former culture minister, says the bullfight corresponds to an Andean vision of the duality of the world that dates to pre-Columbian times. Joining the two, the condor and the bull — heaven and earth — he says, is a ritual that recreates the wholeness of the community.
Popular wisdom has it that the festival dates from the colonial period and was created as a way for the local indigenous people to express their anger at the Spanish conquerors.
Then came the parade of the condors. This year, Coyllurqui caught two birds, using dead horses as bait.
One was a large female; the other was a young male.
The handlers, two men per bird, held them by their strong wings, spreading them wide. They led them through the streets, the birds waddling on their stubby legs, past the poor homes of unpainted adobe with orange tile roofs, the rustic brick church and the bouncy castles set up for the children in the town square.
Behind the birds, celebrators danced and sang, including women in traditional knee-length skirts, felt hats and colorful blankets called mantas that serve as backpacks. A ragtag band of drums, fifes and bugles played. The mayor, wearing a red cape, rode a horse and waved.
The birds, caught a month earlier and fed on entrails, seemed by now used to their human surroundings.
The town had already been celebrating for several days in a yearly rite of food, dance and drinking. Custom called for the drinks to flow freely, including chicha, a slightly sour, fermented corn concoction; sweet-smelling aguardiente; and beer.
Arriving at the bullring, the condors were paraded around the arena, which was packed with thousands of people.
Many people went down into the ring to take cellphone pictures or videos or have their photographs snapped alongside the birds. The mayor and other dignitaries, also wearing colorful capes, did a tripping circle dance in the tamped-down yellow grass in the ring, dotted with cow pies. Some fell down from alcohol or giddiness, or both.
The birds were ushered out and a series of bullfights followed (the bulls are not killed here). In most years, the townspeople act as toreadors, sometimes with gory or even fatal results. Yawar means blood in Quechua, and many people say that the name of the festival comes from the blood spilled by the often-drunken amateur bullfighters.
Then came the main event.
The female condor was brought out again, and her legs were bandaged and lashed to the back of a black bull. The bull set off bucking across the ring, the startled condor flapping her wings and pecking at the bull’s back. The bull, racing helter-skelter under beating wings, looked as if it were flying.
The second condor’s turn came next. He had a feistier disposition and pecked repeatedly at the bull’s ear (Luis Bocangel said he was reaching for the eyes), but if he drew blood it was not visible from the grandstand.
In all, it was a largely bloodless Yawar Fiesta.
Some conservationists have called for a law that would ban the use of condors in the Yawar Fiesta. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, an environmental group, lists the Andean condor as “near threatened,” saying that its total population throughout South America is probably greater than 10,000 but is declining.
But the mayor said that the town would hold to its tradition, adding that without the condor the economic lift it gets from the festival would disappear.
“If people come, it’s to see the condor,” he said. “If there’s no condor, there’s no fiesta.”
There is more than economics riding on the fiesta. If the birds are hurt or killed it is a bad omen. A good festival augurs a good year.
On the final day of the festival the condors were set free. The birds drank from cups of chicha, were paraded through the streets again and then were taken to a steep hillside, where hundreds of people gathered.
After prayers and offerings, the ropes tied to the birds’ legs were removed.
“Let them go! Let them go!” people shouted.
The birds stumbled down the slope, flapped their long wings, took off. Earthbound, they had seemed dusty, captive, sad creatures. In flight, they were majestic. Everyone watched as they became dots in the distance.