Peru: Qoyllur Rit’i, festival of the “Snow Star”

Each year at the end of May, thousands of Peruvians gather near Apu Ausangate to celebrate Qoyllur Rit’i, the festival of the “Snow Star."

Legend has it that resting on the towering peak of Ausangate Mountain is the “snow star,” Qoyllur Rit’i, where an image of Christ is painted over a boulder. Today, every year at the end of May thousands of Peruvians gather on the north side of Ausangate to feast and celebrate Qoyllur Rit’i festival with a religious fervor that overcomes below zero temperatures in the stunning landscape of the Cordillera Vilcanota range of the Peruvian Andes.

A climb up a sacred mountain

The sacred mountain known as Apu Ausangate stands taller than its neighbors and is one of the highest mountains in Peru, at an impressive 20,940ft (6,372m). Normally a place of natural calm and serenity, during Qoyllur Rit’i this mountain pass literally comes to life as more than 10,000 pilgrims gather in a meadow below surrounding summits, in full view of the impressive “Star of the Snow.” Here they worship the sun, Christian icons and the Andean divinities by dancing in colorful traditional dress day and night. The grounds are riddled with tents housing local Quechua families, men, women and children, brimming with excitement of the celebrations.

How to participate in the festivities

It’s possible to participate in the Qoyllur Rit’i festival.

From Cusco, you’ll need three days to experience this amazing cultural opportunity. Heading from Cusco you’ll arrive to a small Andean pueblo, Mahuayani before beginning a three hour trek to the Señor de Qoyllur Rit’i sanctuary to join the massive array of tents and people. Setting up camp here, you can spend the rest of the day and evening enjoying the regional dance performances and festivities long into the night.

There will be more celebrations and activities in the morning and you will also be able to visit the “Alacitas” market, a curious exhibition of miniatures such as cars, houses, and herds, all of which are blessed by the festival divinity. After lunch at the campsite, you can trek the rest of the afternoon to the small Andean village of Yanacancha, where pilgrims rest before continuing on a spectacular night-trek to Tayankani. Upon arrival you’ll catch the awe-inspiring sun-rise ceremony, designed to honor the sun with ancient Inca rituals. Afterwards you’ll descend towards Tayankani for the local chapel service to receive the blessing of El Senor de Qoyllur Rit’i. After lunch, you’ll descend to Ocongate for the journey back to Cusco.

This year, the Qoyllur Rit’i event on May 31. Due to the high-altitudes and long treks, it is only recommended to people who are in good physical condition.

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Comments (1):

  1. Matthew Barker

    April 20, 2010 at 5:46 pm

    Hi Catherine,

    Actually, they weren’t baby llamas, they were actually dehydrated llama foetuses(!) They are used in a variety of ceremonies and have been presented as offerings to Pachamama (Mother Earth) for centuries, sometimes buried and sometimes burned.

    This might appear strange or even off putting to us Westerners, but for Andean civilizations, this is a deeply spiritual offering that is made in thanks and worship for the life and support that Pachamama provides.

    Using the llama foetus in this way isn’t so common any more but it’s still possible to see them being sold in markets throughout the Andes. The first time I saw one I assumed it was for eating – the ladys at the stall thought it was a hillarious mistake!

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