Burning the Old in Arequipa

  • 5 min read

Boom, boom, boom!

I awake with a jolt and see that it’s still dark outside.

Boom, boom, boom.

Again, the artillery, or bombs, or whatever they are pierce the air. The noise is bellicose deafening! 

Trying to get back to sleep, I curl up under my wool blanket, bracing against the high altitude chill.

The boom returns, once, twice, three times.

Despite my head feeling like cotton, I realize what’s going on. It must be the church. Dang, they really want to be sure we don’t sleep past the 5am Easter morning mass.  It’s not like there won’t be 8 more masses today. There are churches basically on every corner of the city.

I pull on my clothes and jog-walk six blocks down the hill to Yanahuara square where a mestizo baroque style church stands before Spanish arches that offer a majestic view of snow-capped volcanos ringing the city. I’m eager to catch the burn of the Judas puppet – part of a traditional Easter holiday ritual. The practice sounds terrifying and cool at the same time. I don’t want to miss the big show!

It’s still dark when I arrive at the ancient square – made of white volcanic stone Arequipa is famous for. The only light is from the glow of the full moon and amber streetlights.

At first I see only a few people milling around and think: dang, I woke up for nothing! 

But as I approach the mestizo baroque style church I notice that it’s lit up inside — glowing against the pre-dawn inky sky. Peering inside I see the pews are packed, but here’s still room to stand in the doorway.

The mass is familiar from my Catholic upbringing, so I comfortably take my place in the crowd, and stand to listen to the priest, until he says something that makes me angry, so I walk out into the rosy light of dawn.

Finding a spot on a riser next to the puppet of Judas hanging from the arches I stand next to two slim dark-haired young women. They ask if mass is over. I tell them not yet, but I had to leave because the priest said that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute.

“No really? He did? That’s terrible.” They exclaim. Many of the gals here in Arequipa are up to date with the rise of the feminine, and I appreciate that.

“Isn’t this a bit barbaric?” I ask the young woman. “Aren’t we supposed to forgive Judas.”

“It’s an ancient custom” One of them explains. Just burning the old and bringing in the new.

Hearing this I think “okay I can get behind that!”

Within a few minutes the morning light is bright, revealing the clear blue high desert From our riser we can see miles into the distance with a view of the city spreading out to the base of the majestic volcano Misti.

The crowd flows out of the church and joins a procession led by the priest and strong men carrying a stunningly beautiful icon of the virgin and child around the square.

At the same time a few stocky, dark guys pull out what looks like a cannon and set off another round of fireworks.

My ears are ringing, and I guess others are too, because another wave of people join the crowd, streaming in from the nearby streets. They must have slept through the first round of fireworks an hour ago.

By now I’m thinking “okay, it’s Dawn now.” Isn’t it time to burn Judas?

Nope. Not yet, a master of ceremonies picks up the mic and tells jokes for about 40 minutes.

By now it’s well after 7am. I’m getting impatient. The guy is still cracking political jokes and folks are laughing. Clearly there’s something I don’t understand.

Suddenly -and without warning- a man saunters up to the Judas puppet and lights a match.

Just before the flames ignite the large crowd sitting on the steps below disperses — moving as quickly as fire themselves. Obviously, they aren’t new to this ritual.

Within minutes Judas is on fire. First, sparks fly out of his eyes. Next I’m stunned to see his penis is lit up.

This spectacle has me transfixed, until It’s my turn to catch a spark on my shirt. Startled I push back into the rest of the crowd to shield myself. Fortunately the folks I’ve jammed into aren’t bothered at all. We are all cracking up.

As soon as the Judas puppet explodes into a charred, hanging, crisp, the crowd disperses, in search of hot fresh tamales and chocolate Easter eggs sold by vendors in the palm tree lined plaza and surrounding cafes.


Still before 8am, and it’s already been an incredible morning!

Out with the old, and in with the new. It’s Easter morning and a new day is dawning.

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