Into Thin Air, True Believers
By PAULA SADOK
Published: May 11, 2012
I STOPPED, again, to catch my breath in the thin Andean air, struggling to ease the dizziness as I inhaled from a portable oxygen tank. I must have been a curious sight to the Peruvians passing by. My friends, Andray and Louise, stood beside me, concerned. Realizing we were blocking pedestrian traffic, I pressed myself into the side of the mountain to let the other pilgrims pass.
At about 15,000 feet above sea level, we still had farther to climb to our destination, the Sinakara valley in southern Peru’s Ocongate province. We had come to participate in Qoyllur Rit’i — the Snow Star Festival, the annual midyear Andean pilgrimage, which attracts tens of thousands of Peruvians who travel from all over the country, the largest festival of its kind. They divide themselves into nations — groups with distinct traditions — and are invited by the Brotherhood of the Lord of Qoyllur Rit’i, a volunteer body that organizes the event. During our trip last June, our guides, whom we hired from the tour office at the Casa de la Gringahotel in Cuzco, told us that as many as 500 nations had sent delegations.
Each year, whole families journey together, from old men to young mothers carrying babies tied in bundles on their backs, their horses laden with blankets, costumes, cooking utensils and the occasional weary passenger. Some, like my travel companions and me, arrive by bus in the nearby town of Mahuayani, east of Cuzco, where the five-mile ascent begins. Others, including indigenous Q’ero Indians, walk for days from their villages in the mountains.
Our guides, two brothers, Juan and Luis Quispe, are Q’eros who have lived at this altitude all their lives. They ran up the mountain as easily as I might walk along a city sidewalk. As I struggled, they smiled sympathetically and offered me the horse we had hired for this possibility.
Qoyllur Rit’i (pronounced KOL-yer REE-chee) is ostensibly a Catholic festival. Most sources agree that the celebration began in 1780 after an image of Jesus appeared on a boulder after the death of a young shepherd boy. As we made our way to the valley, we passed numerous cross stations decorated with pictures of saints and icons. The celebration is also scheduled according to the Catholic calendar, taking place during the full moon before Corpus Christi, the Christian feast commemorating the Holy Eucharist. This year’s festival will be held June 2 to 5.
And yet Andean people worshiped the earth and the mountains in this spot long before they were converted by their Christian conquerors. So the festival offers a uniquely Andean trinity, combining worship of the Apus (mountain gods), Pachamama (the earth mother) and Jesus with no apparent sense of contradiction.
When I asked Juan whether this was a Catholic celebration or a celebration of the mountains, he replied that they are celebrated together. But why this spot? Luis mentioned the miracle, but first he offered that “there is a sacred energy here,” pointing to the peaks around him.
Not many tourists attend Qoyllur Rit’i in part because of the high altitude and freezing temperatures. But of the few that do, some, like Andray, from Australia, come to experience the sacred energy. Others, like Louise, a New Zealand native currently living in Peru, “just came for the party.” I was there because I had been told the festival has the power to restore order to chaos, both in the outside world and within.
After climbing for another hour, we arrived at the Sinakara valley, a plain of grassy land the size of several football fields, crisscrossed with streams of glacial water and presided over by the glistening peaks of snowcapped mountains. The festival’s main attractions take place in and around an enormous white-walled, orange-roofed church that seems to jut out from the side of a mountain. By the time we arrived, a long line had formed outside the church with those waiting to light candles inside and pray for the coming year; later, several people told me they had waited in line for five hours or more.
In the smooth rock surface on the mountain above, the words “Viva Cristo-Rey” (“Long Live Christ the King”) were carved in letters large enough to be seen anywhere in the camp. Below, makeshift dwellings assembled from blue tarp and wooden sticks stood alongside shiny modern tents. It was a hastily constructed city that might have resembled a refugee camp were it not for the festive atmosphere.
Juan and Luis picked a spot of flat ground to set up our tents. Moments later, an elderly woman arrived, selling sheets of the ubiquitous blue tarp. Like many of the women here, she was dressed traditionally, wearing a fedora-like hat, with her hair in two long braids down her back; an embroidered jacket; ruffled skirts; and heavy stockings made of hand-woven wool. Some of these women walked through camp selling knit sweaters, scarves and gloves. Others set up ersatz shops, spreading their wares — toilet paper, flashlights, shaving cream — on woven cloths.
The main commercial center is closer to the church, and Juan led us down for a better look. Rows of restaurants constructed with tin roofs and tarps competed for customers, advertising their dishes on handwritten placards. Inside, large, heavy pots boiled on wood-burning fires. Some offered fried trout, others lamb stew. All seemed to have lomo saltado, a plate of fried strips of steak with generous helpings of rice and fried potatoes.
Farther down was the Albacitas market, a place where worshipers could symbolically buy their dreams. On sale were piles of miniature houses, tiny cars and tableaux depicting marriage and children — all representations of the pilgrims’ desires. Juan, who speaks Spanish and Quechua, explained through a translator that “if you come to this place and make the wishes, like how they have these things for sale” — he gestured to the trinkets — “they will come true because you believe.” He told us of a ceremony in which pilgrims bury these objects on the mountain and pray over them, hoping they turn into reality in the coming year.
But the most remarkable aspect of the festival was the dancing. Each of the nations had its own ritual costume and dance routine. Some had sequined butterflies embroidered on boards on their backs; others donned masks with large noses and wide smiles. One nation’s dancers wore full-body condor costumes, while others sported elaborate headdresses topped with crowns of feathers two feet high. To the sounds of their own music played on drums, flutes and the occasional accordion, dancers moved to routines they’ve known since childhood. The dancing continued throughout the night.
Each nation also appointed men to be ukukus, mythical half-man, half-bear creatures. Dressed in black masks and black costumes covered in fringes, they carried whips and acted as intermediaries between the people and the gods. At 3 a.m. before the principal day of the festival, they alone scaled the peak of the mountain in the light of the full moon, dancing on glaciers, hoping to bring blessings to their villages for the coming year. Luis, our guide, was one of them.
On the final cold, clear morning, as we stood in front of the church, we watched the ukukus wind their way down the mountain, returning from their dance with the Apus, undulating like a colorful snake on the path. Processions of brightly costumed dancers joined them, nations taking turns performing in the plaza in front of the church. They danced in whatever space was available; there was no apparent organization, no timeline, no set schedule. Hundreds of people performed simultaneously, and what should have been chaos was instead a harmonious celebration.
I looked over the tent city that would soon be dismantled. Thousands of people would pack up their families and walk down the path to the town, or back up to their villages. Everything would return to its rightful place, flowing as smoothly as water melting from a mountaintop glacier, finding its way to the river below.