Every Christmas Eve, Cusco’s Plaza de Armas becomes flooded with locals participating in an ancient tradition called the Santuranticuy Market, which translates to the selling of saints. Hundreds of vendors set up stands displaying everything a family needs to create a spectacular manger scene, as well as purchase any last minute gifts. Principally a local affair, although you can spot other tourists, the majority of browsers are Peruvian families.
Cold and damp, it felt like Christmas to me, a native northern California, used to rain and scarves in December. Except instead of the wide avenues of my hometown, I was walking on uneven, slick cobblestone, pushing my way slowly to the historic Plaza de Armas in Cusco, once the capital of the Inca Empire. I entered the plaza in front of La Compania de Jesus, one of the most famous churches in Peru, once the scandal of the Catholics who protested that its ornate façade overshadows the humbler adjacent cathedral.
Under the stone overhang, crowded with people attempting to get out of the drizzle, and spreading in to the cobblestone plaza sat families on tarps, munching on Quinoa, an Andean grain, and paneton, a Christmas cake filled with small bite-size morsels of sugared fruit candy. The children, bundled in sweat pants, tennis shoes, heavy ponchos and knit caps stayed close to their mothers and sisters wearing felt fedoras, long skirts, leather shoes, and heavy ponchos.
Interspersed with the small bodies of children foliage was piled into mountains of green, sage, brown, and gray. Every color of moss, twigs, leaves, grass, and logs lay in artful piles next to small copper bowls of burning incense. Cusquenos wandered through the tarps, eyeing the wares and purchasing the flora they use to create manger scenes. Moss becomes rolling hills, ferns morph into jungle, and twigs become stately pines in these miniature dioramas created each Christmas Eve. These nativity scenes are usually displayed near decorated Christmas trees and placed in exterior windows of Peruvian homes.
A few more rows in and hand carved statues of animals, trees, and other figurines appear as well as clothing for the wise men, Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus’. On the farthest side of the plaza, completely opposite from La Compania de Jesus, are leather purses, handmade journals and soaps, and chess sets where Incas and Spanish are fated to endless battles.
In one corner of Plaza de Armas, tables laden with the Peruvian version of King’s cake sit adjacent to tables holding liquor bottles where a sole or two buys you a small taste. In another corner of the Plaza ladies grill anticuchos (beef heart kebobs) and corn on the cob for hungry shoppers, eager to warm their hands by the grill and their stomachs with the traditional food.
If you wake up early, before 8:00am, you can watch the vendors set up their stalls and browse before the plaza becomes too crowded.