“Would you like to go to the cemetery this afternoon?”
The question, posed by Pavel, my Peruvian tour guide whom I’ve only just met outside the gates of Cusco’s Alejandro Velasco Astete Airport, jars me from my jetlagged state.
I hesitate, brain scrambling to piece together why visiting a cemetery would be the lead item on what’s to be an eight-day hiking tour of Cusco’s Sacred Valley. It takes me a minute, more like two, but finally those scattered puzzle parts come together.
Today isn’t just any day in early November. It is Nov. 2, known in the West as All Souls’ Day, and in Peru and much of Latin America as El Día de los Difuntos. The Day of the Dead. Tradition holds that on this day the souls of the ancestors return to Earth to visit with their loved ones. The eve of Nov. 1 through sunset on Nov. 2 finds families flocking to cemeteries throughout Peru to honor their departed loved ones with music and dancing, picnics and toasts.
My head spins, with sleep deprivation and altitude sensitivity, to be sure, but also with… possibility.
I take a sensible sip of bottled water before answering, “That’d be great. Is there… uh, anything I should bring?”
Pavel’s expression relaxes into a smile. “Just bring a little bit of money, enough for a chicha.”
“A chicha?” I ask.
His smile broadens, a grin wreathing his pleasant, early-30s face. “A corn beer. For toasting. At the tomb.”
• • • •
Set on the southern outskirts of the city (Huayra Calle 310), Cementerio de Almudena is Cusco’s largest and oldest ossuary. Built in 1845 from the rubble of the St. Augustine church and convent destroyed during the Peruvian War of Independence from Spain, the cemetery covers approximately seven acres and holds the remains of more than 23,000 people. Among its more celebrated denizens are artist and activist Mariano Fuentes Lira (1904-1986) and writer Clorinda Matto de Turner (1852-1909), both Cusco-born.
By the time we arrive at Calle Almudena, the drop-off point for the cemetery, we’ve picked up two other members of our hiking group, the others electing to stay back at the hotel and rest. All together, we quickly climb out of our travel van amid honking car horns. Lining the sidewalk, food and chicha sellers do a brisk business from their folding tables, carts and makeshift stalls, the air thick with the pungent aroma of grilling meats, some pork but mostly cuy — guinea pig — Peruvians’ mainstay meat for more than 5,000 years. Cuy is both a street food staple and a delicacy featured on most restaurant menus, served whole, often with a cherry tomato or other garnish wedged within the agape mouth. (Cusco’s “Last Supper,” painted in 1753 by Quechua artist Marcos Zapata and on display in the Cathedral at Plaza de Armas, depicts Christ and his disciples tucking into a feast of cuy and chicha).
Pleasantly replete from a late lunch of ceviche — a dish of fresh raw fish cured in citrus juices — and quinoa soup, I give the food sellers a pass and instead focus on the gorgeous arrays of flowers, Christian religious statues and icons on offer. The icons fascinate me, everything from miniaturized replicas of Coca-Cola and beer bottles and pisco sours to cars, trains, tools and home furnishings fit for a dollhouse, all sold as gifts for the deceased. (Going to the gravesite empty-handed is unheard of, on par with showing up to a dinner party without the requisite bottle of wine). Though my impulse is to tarry and take it all in, Pavel ushers us along with strict instructions to keep wallets out of sight and a tight grip on backpacks and handbags.
We climb the uphill path to the stonework entrance archway and step in line. Skulls festoon the green painted wrought-iron gate. By the time we pass through the portal to the inside it’s pushing 5 p.m. Graveside picnics are winding down, though plenty of blankets and lawn chairs still cover the craggy patchwork of grass and exposed rockface. Music comes courtesy of the errant instrument or portable boom box. Groups of kids play soccer and tag, but most adults are in a mellower mood, sipping from bottles of cerveza (beer) and Coke. Unleashed dogs circulate, scrounging for scraps.
As we move through, our way guided by stone-sculpted angels and painted Christian saints, Pavel explains a bit about Peruvian burial customs. A four-hour funeral is typical, with the Catholic religious service segueing into boisterous feasting and drinking. All food and beverages are consumed before leaving the cemetery; to bring anything home is considered unlucky. Additional commemorative services are held one month and one year after the funeral. After that, a weekly graveside visit continues for the duration of the interment, the duty rotated among close relatives.
Tomb-tending is a family affair. Signs of neglect such as dead flowers almost always prompt a flurry of phone calls from relatives. In more recent years, the trend toward smaller families has made carrying out the weekly obligation more of a challenge, especially as most families have more than one grave to keep up.
We sidle on for several more minutes, following sloping, mud-packed footpaths toward the cemetery center. Gradually the ground levels off and we reach a cluster of mausolea: white-washed, storied constructions capped with terra cotta tile roofs and niched with hollow, boxed compartments — the tombs. An individual tomb looks like a shadow box filled with treasured keepsakes and enclosed by a clear glass door to which the family holds the key. Flowers, trinkets, statuary and icons commemorating who the deceased was in life fill the hollow compartment. Often a framed photograph of the departed takes pride of place among the artifacts.
To reach the upper tombs, family members must scale the steep library-like ladders, a task taken on by the young and fit. Almost all the glass fronts are spotless, polished with a special solution of lime juice, I learn. Young children, mostly boys, circulate the grounds, offering to do the job for tips.
Moving along the aisles, I peer into one hollow after another, my writer’s imagination stitching together possible stories based upon their contents. Stories of lives well-lived as well as those tragically cut short.
Particularly poignant is the section set aside for children, the tombs specially sized. Sighting a miniature SpongeBob SquarePants grinning out at me, I feel my heart give a lurch.
We pass through aisle after aisle of tombs, with Pavel pausing to slap one cousin on the back and to ask another cousin how his kid is doing in school. Everyone seems to know everyone, the atmosphere far more festive than funerary. Finally, we stop.
“My tío, tía and abuelo and papá all are resting here,” Pavel explains, gesturing to a cluster of adjacent tombs.
A large bottle of Cusqueña cerveza materializes from his pack along with a sleeve of plastic cups. Though bringing food or drink into the ossuary area is officially forbidden, on this day at least no one seems to notice or mind. The beer is divided among the eight of us, which now includes Pavel’s uncle and aunt, grandfather and father, whom he thanks for being with us on this very special day. We salute each in turn and drink until our cups are drained. It is a beautifully solemn set of moments. When a sudden gust of laughter from nearby causes me to start, I can almost believe it is one of Pavel’s kin toasting us back from the Great Beyond.
With the daylight waning, and ourselves pleasantly buzzed, we retrace our steps to the main gate. As we pass families folding picnic blankets and carrying small children spent from the holiday, I consider that though I’ve come to Cusco for the hiking, in just these first few hours I’ve been invited inside a treasured tradition.