Thousands of feet trudge along an icy path more than 15,000 feet (4,700 meters) above sea level. Frosty clouds puff in front of the faces of indigenous women wearing brightly colored cloaks and decorative hats. They carry bundles of provisions wrapped in striped blankets expertly hooked over their shoulders, and lean forward with the effort.
This isn’t a forced march, it is a celebration. It is Qoyllur Riti.
Qoyllur Riti is a massive indigenous pilgrimage that takes place in June roughly 105 miles from Cusco. A 4-hour bus ride gets you to the isolated Andean town of Mahuayani, where the real journey begins. From here, participants begin their 5 mile trek to the Sinankara Valley and then to the glacier at the foot of Mountain Ausangate. Freezing temperature and punishing altitudes make the trip all the more difficult.
Origins of Qoyllur Riti
Qoyllur Riti originated as an indigenous pilgrimage to honor mountain spirits, known locally as apus. Dating back to pre-Colombian times, the veneration of apus has long been an important part of Andean life. Regional belief attributes factors such as storms and rock slides to angry apus, while good weather and nourishing mountain streams are seen as gifts from happy apus. Mountains are also believed to be the home of the Gods, and the birthplace of mankind.
Peru is famous for its stepped terraced agriculture—agronomic experiments specifically designed to create multiple microclimates. This ingenuity allowed pre-Colombian cultures to produce enough food to grow into permanent and powerful civilizations. These crops were able to thrive thanks to irrigation systems supported by glacier runoff from Peru’s 18 mountain glaciers. Today, this is still primarily how Peruvians irrigate their fields, and correspondingly, locals continue to thank the mountains for nourishing the land.
However, like most Peruvian traditions, Qoyllur Riti is now a mix of indigenous and Catholic heritage. In the 1780s, the local church supported the notion that Christ appeared to a local shepherd boy. This encounter left an imprint of Christ on a stone, which is now apparently stored in the mountain sanctuary. Since then, the festival has carried a strong, perhaps primary, Catholic influence, with decorated crosses paraded up the mountain accompanied by priests.
Modern Day Qoyllur Riti
Unlike many traditional Peruvian celebrations, Qoyllur Riti has maintained a sense of authenticity, largely due the event’s isolated location. Though tourists are becoming more common, Qoyllur Riti retains its spiritual emphasis. For example, alcohol is banned from the event and vendors are discouraged.
During this high altitude excursion, tens of thousands of people set up temporary camp on the mountainside and spend hours waiting in line to enter the small church to submit their offerings. There is also traditional dancing and performances by ukukus, men dressed in bear costumes who play an important role in Qoyllur Riti celebrations. Another activity is the use of fake money to buy fake property and goods—this symbolizes prosperity for the upcoming year.
In addition to entering the church, the goal of many seekers is to touch the sacred snow (or, holy water). Traditionally, selected locals would hack off a piece of the glacier and carry it back to their respective villages, to symbolize the gift of abundant water for the upcoming years. All pilgrims would touch the foot of the glacier, believed to have magical and healing powers.
Future of Qoyllur Riti
Sadly, global warming is forcing changes to the festival. The trek to the foot of the glacier gets longer each year because the mass of ice keeps receding, and taking ice from the glacier is now discouraged. According to the Peruvian Environmental Ministry, Peru has lost 22% of its glaciers in the past 35 years. Currently, Peru is home to 70% of the world’s tropical glaciers.
It is possible that in the coming decades, Qoyllur Riti will be lost not due to cultural shifts, but simply because the sacred glacier, the focal point of the celebration, is gone.