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 Ausangate Mountain. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.