Along the Pan American Highway that moves south away from Lima, there are few attractions until you reach Ica or Paracas. Most of the towns along the way all seem to blend together, undistinguishable from the next. From the outside the town of Carmen might appear just like the others, a blur along the road to Ica – but that’d be a premature judgment. Carmen is the stronghold of Afro-Peruvian culture in Peru, where song and dance can be seen on street corners and enjoyed over drinks in a bar. This is the little town of Carmen, the cultural jewel that lies between Ica and Lima, a town that often times gets overlooked, but shouldn’t.
You won’t find it written about in many travel books, and if it is, it’ll only be a small blurb. Most books and travel guides dedicate time to the places every tourist is trying to see: Cusco, the Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu, Puno and Arequipa. This is the classic Gringo trail that takes you from Lima and moving south before it swings up into the Andes. Most travelers have time constraints and can’t stop at every town in Peru – but if there’s a little town to make time for, it’s Carmen, the town that you didn’t know you really wanted to see.
El Carmen dates back to the 17th century when Jesuits began settling in the area. The town and the district of Chincha soon became the plantation capital of Peru, producing sugar and cotton. It was an area in Peru that was dependent upon slavery for labor. After the abolition of slavery, families stayed in the area and continued to stay in the area of Chincha and the town of Carmen, making it the largest collection of Afro-Peruvians in Peru, where tradition and culture run deep.
As areas throughout Peru have lost their Afro-Peruvian identity, Carmen is a reminder of those great traditions and culture. It is a place to experience a different side of Peru, one that lives in its music and food forever, reminding tourists and Peruvians that the country is more than the Incas and their ruins.
If you happen to arrive for the Verano Negro Festival at the end of February or in November for the Festival de las Danzas Negras, you’re in for a treat. They’re up there with best holidays in Peru, with live bands everywhere, people dancing in the streets and plenty of Pisco. Regardless of what day you arrive, Carmen always has a party, some music and good food – what they call peñas.
Peñas are an Afro-Peruvian tradition that Carmen keeps alive, every-night of the week. In Lima you can find peñas at places like DonPorfirio, but in Lima, where they are few and far between, they’re only open a couple days a week, if at that. In Carmen you’ll find a peña every night you go out.
Another big draw to the area are its old colonial plantations turned luxury hotels, none better than Hacienda San Jose. A night at San Jose is not only luxurious, but it’ll give you everything the town has to offer. You’ll learn Afro-Peruvian dances as you listen to classic Afro-Peruvian music while eating crollo food (Afro-Peruvian food). The grounds are a living, breathing museum, where underneath the hotel you’ll find slave tunnels that would run from the plantation to the nearby port, where they’d smuggle in slaves. El Carmen is the hidden gem you just can’t miss.