Home » Lederhosen in the Amazon: an Austro-german Enclave in Peru Keeps Traditions Alive
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Lederhosen in the Amazon: an Austro-german Enclave in Peru Keeps Traditions Alive

Squint a little and you could be in a town in the Tirolean Alps at the height of the European summer: red gabled roofs top elegant, wood-fronted houses, set against green mountains.

But open your eyes fully and the palm trees and passing parrots betray the fact the scene is more than 10,000km (6,213 miles) away from Austria, in a valley in Peru where the Andes meets the Amazon basin.

Every year, the descendants of those Austrian and German emigrants, now four or five generations on from the first arrivals, celebrate their unique history at Pozuzofest, an extravaganza of traditional dances and music, German craft beer, sausages and schnitzel. The women wear dirndls and flowers in their hair and the men sport lederhosen, and engage in energetic leg-slapping.

“It’s all about entertainment, joy and fun, that’s the idea of Pozuzofest … and a lot of beer!” said Berenice Alas Richle, 36, the event’s organiser.

The event attracts hundreds of tourists who brave the 12-hour drive from Peru’s capital, Lima. Others come from further afield, thanks to exchange programmes with municipalities in Austrian Tirol and southern Germany.

Joining in a log-sawing competition, Josua Leibhammer, 20, a German rainforest volunteer, said: “It’s really strange to see the beautiful landscape of the Amazon rainforest combined with traditions from home.”

After the Covid-19 pandemic which hit Peru particularly hard, tourism is once again booming and Pozuzo’s customs – which once seemed curiously anachronistic and out of step with modern Peru – have become a major draw, boosting the largely agricultural economy of this Austro-German village.

“Before [Covid] we would only receive tourists on special holidays, now we have tourists every day,” said Mariana Schmidt, who works at her family-run restaurant in the neighbouring village of Prusia.

Schmidt dances traditional polkas for diners as her brother pumps out a tune on the accordion. She then plays a table full of cowbells, an increasingly rare Tirolean tradition known as Kuhglocken.

“Tourism gives us a lot of opportunities, it gives work to many young people who want to have startups and have formed companies; breweries, charcuterie products, honey, ice-cream. Thanks to tourism, we’re still here,” she said.

Pozuzo boasts of being the “only Austro-German colony in the world”: unlike other Teutonic outposts, it is a place where Austrians from Tirol and Germans from Bavaria settled together.

Fleeing severe economic hardship in Europe, peasants and craftspeople left for the promise of a new life in Peru at the invitation of the then president Ramón Castilla. Castilla valued their agricultural practices and negotiated with the German baron Damian Schütz von Holzhausen to create a European colony in the Peruvian jungle.

The first 304 emigrants arrived on Peru’s Pacific coast in 1857. Led by a priest, Josef Egg, and boosted by a second wave of immigrants in 1868, they founded Pozuzo and the nextdoor village Prusia in the remote valley, after a two-year odyssey across Peru’s Andes.

street with slightly german looking architecture against green jungly mountain

Helped by the Yanesha Indigenous people, the early settlers carved out a life in the remote valley logging and raising cattle for beef and dairy products. They survived yellow fever epidemics and other diseases, and in 1891, a group set out in search of new land, settling 80km to the south in a valley called Oxapampa. Other settlers founded Villa Rica, today known for its brand of coffee.

“Pozuzo was isolated for more than 100 years from any kind of support,” said Hans Köhel, 52, a fourth-generation Pozuzo resident who runs a guest house and traces his ancestors back to the Austrian towns of Zams and Pfunds. He remembers when his village became connected to the outside world by a partly paved road in 1975. Before then, the nearest medium-sized town, Huánuco, was a three-day trek on a muleteer’s trail.

By then, the town had started to forget its European traditions.

“It was losing its dances and traditional clothing, people started to lose interest as they no longer made sense,” Köhel said. “But when Pozuzo started to make new connections with its places of origin, it started to revalue its customs.

“Tourism went hand in hand with recovering the dances. If we lose them we would cease to exist,” he added.

His younger sister Cecilia runs a family museum filled with black-and-white family photos, items of old clothing, antique harmonicas and accordions and rudimentary tools.

woman in a dirndl outside a wooden building

“Four generations born in Peru have passed through our house in addition to those who came from Austria,” she said. “For me to talk about history is to move into the past and feel all of what my forefathers had to go through. Leaving their towns and saying farewell to their families forever,” she reflected.

Over the years, some traditions have adapted to Amazon realities. With no apples available, the first settlers tweaked the traditional dessert to banana strudel.

But other customs have survived long after they disappeared in Europe, said Mariana Schmidt. “We use some words that in Austria, except for maybe what’s said by the grandparents, no longer exist.

“We are proud, not because we have an Austro-German culture … but rather because Pozuzo represents a very, very great effort. What you see now is a prosperous, beautiful, clean and orderly town. It has cost a lot of work,” she said.

Source : The Guardian