Published on March 15th, 2011 | by Mark Chesnut

In Peru, Lima’s Carnaval Shows Underdog Pluck

Carnival in Lima, Perú, is a rowdy, pirate-filled experience. Photos by Matthew Barker.


The general rule of thumb for festivals in this part of the world is that the earlier the liquor store opens, the more explosive the party will be.

So when my local store ran out of beer at 10:30am, I should have realized what was coming.

Every year, Rio hogs the Carnival limelight with footage of the “greatest party on earth’” beamed to the world’s less flamboyant corners, giving barely a look at the other Latin American towns and cities that also mark the occasion.

The Barranco district of Lima is one such unfairly marginalized place, and although a fraction of the size of Rio’s weeklong extravaganza, what this Carnival lacks in size, it more than makes up for in spirit and color.

By 11am a normally tranquil street in this pleasant and leafy seaside neighborhood was under siege. Dozens of marauding pirates were hurling dismembered fish heads at a posse of bright blue Smurfs, who replied with a volley of balloons, loaded full with blue paint. Behind them all, a battalion of Lord Of The Rings-inspired warlocks brandished their axes, threatening to join the melee at any moment.

For while Rio Carnival is considered the showpiece parade ground for the cream of the city’s Samba Schools, Barranco Carnival retains no such pretensions. This is just a chance for folks to dress up and get messy — and everyone knows it.

These (relatively) good-natured skirmishes continued for around an hour or so, way past the planned departure time and typically so — we are in Peru, after all. Finally, once everyone was well and truly coated with water, paint and fish guts, and with each group assembled around their own marching percussion band, the long procession began its slow march through the barrios.

Carnival in Barranco is no spectator sport and woe-betide anyone who plans to stand on the sidelines and watch the flying bombs of paint from afar. Eventually everyone is pulled into the anarchy and no considerations are made for fancy clothes or expensive cameras. With luck I was well prepared, already dressed and painted head-to-toe by my fellow pirates — a gang who took their adopted identities seriously, putting on a performance that could have impressed Johnny Depp.

The procession made its slow way forward, snaking the streets and congregating in the occasional squares and plazas. From time to time, residents (from the safety of their barred windows) would point a hose into the crowd, just to keep them on their toes. Youngsters on rooftops emptied buckets of water onto the passing heads below. But despite the almost complete destruction of their otherwise pleasant tranquility, the neighbors didn’t seem to mind – in fact, most of them were probably in the ruckus somewhere, paint bucket in hand.

This train of barely organized chaos continued long into the afternoon until finally disgorging the paint-caked crowd into Barranco’s main plaza, where the party would continue into the firework-punctured night.

This time last year, the event took place without a permit, and ended with riot police armed with tear gas and batons breaking up the crowds and causing a local scandal. With a new Mayor and all the correct paperwork in place, this year’s event passed without a hitch, despite the best efforts of the (by now thoroughly inebriated) crowd to mob each passing bus and taxi. In the face of this organized riot, the lines of well armed police seemed surprisingly passive, content to let the masses enjoy their day of lawless but light-hearted fun.

In a neighborhood where parties can be expected to last well into the daylight hours, it was surprising to see the crowds thinning out by 11pm. But in fairness it had been a long day of marching. Plus it was a Sunday, and the beer had run out hours ago.

Two weeks later peace has returned to the streets, but the odd remaining patch of paint reminds us all of the day that Barranco went wild.

Matthew Barker is a writer and “wannabe photographer” who left the grey Midlands of England seeking sunnier, more exotic climes and eventually found himself in Lima, a city draped in heavy fog for most of the year. Three years later he is still going strong, is happiest when exploring the more remote corners of Peru and then finding various excuses for not writing enough about them all.
This report was sponsored by SA Luxury Expeditions, specialists in South America luxury travel and South America tour packages.

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About the Author

The founder and editor of, Mark has more than 15 years of experience as a writer, editor and manager. He's worked with some of the biggest consumer, in-flight and travel trade publishers that cover Latin America.

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