Cusco June 2009,

Got off the worst bus ride of my life! I’d lived in India, where I regularly took over cramped buses that lasted 18 to 20 hours, but nothing compared to this Lima-Cusco ride although I had a big soft seat all to myself right on the first row of the nicest bus. First row, that might have been the origin of my misery. Paulo, my host in Lima, insisted booking it for me so that I could have the best view. The view was too much as the bus climbed up the mountains, turning sharply every 30 seconds. I ended up getting the worst motion sickness and kept throwing up. Or tried to. There was actually nothing for me to throw up because I was so sick I couldn’t eat. It sounded like I was puking my gut out through my mouth. 22 hours and 3600m later, the ordeal ended.

As sick and disoriented as I was, I hurriedly left to look for Sara, another Peruvian CSer that I had contacted through the site’s message board when I learned that she was going to an indigenous festival that sounded really cool. We only had a couple of days in Cusco before the main festival started. Sara and I quickly warmed up to each other. She’s a well-traveled environmental scientist and conservationist and I stayed under her wing for the following week. I was clueless and didn’t know a word of Spanish. I simply followed Sara around as she brought me to meetings where she learned about which route to take and who to ask for, all the while making sure that I was diligently chewing coca leaves when I wasn’t drinking mate (coca fusion tea) to fight altitude sickness and bring back my appetite.

We spent a day getting gears – mostly for me, as I didn’t have a sleeping bag nor warm clothes – and more coca leaves for the trail and as gift for the group we’d be staying with, before boarding the bus that took us to the last village where the trail begins. Normally a small settlement of a couple of dozen roofs, Mahuayani had ballooned up with a bustling tent market to accommodate travelers providing basic shelters, simple eateries, and some foosball tables for entertainment. Sarah managed to negotiate with the guard at the primary school there to let us sleep in one of the classrooms for 5 soles so we’d have more warmth and less noise than camping outside.

Qoyllur Rit'i, Peru, festival

our “camp site”


Qoyllur Rit'i, Peru, Mahuayani, market

Mahuayani market


The next morning we started out to walk the last 9kms to the festival site at the valley of Sinakara. It was only then that I realized our trail isn’t the only one. There are hundreds of paths crisscrossing over the mountains, bringing communities from far-away pueblitos that take on this pilgrimage every year, sometimes walking 10, 15 days instead of a mere 9kms like us. And in fact, there are communities that come all the way from northern Peru, Bolivia, and even Ecuador. I had no idea that it would be this big. The children shouted and ran around us. There was drumming and singing to lift our spirits and our feet.

Qoyllur Rit'i, Peru, Mahuayani, festival, walking, hiking

looking down Mahuayani


Qoyllur Rit'i, Peru, festival goers, indigenous people, hiking

Qoyllur Rit'i, Peru, trails to Sinakara valley, festival, Mahuayani

Despite all the signs, nothing prepared me for the sight of the valley when I first laid eyes on it. It was completely filled with tarps and tents and thousands next to thousands of people. We went around looking for the delegation we were to join and inadvertently crossed into a forbidden territory. Normally soft-spoken indigenous women got up immediately to chase us out. Turned out that each community has their slots that they have always come back to for hundreds of years, divided by lines of small black stones. And if you’re a stranger, you’re not welcome to their homes. We finally found our group, a community from outside Cusco but couldn’t actually camp with them. They let us hang out in their area and eat with them from time to time but we would have to pitch our tent in the outskirts, together with other “homeless” tourists, which we had no problem with.

Qoyllur Rit'i, Peru, Sinakara valley, campers, tents

Sinakara valley


Qoyllur Rit'i, Peru, Sinakara valley, campers, tents

Unlike the majority of festivals in Peru where drinking is rampant and indispensable, booze is prohibited at Qoyllur Rit’i. If anyone is caught drunk here, the ukukus – security enforcers in bear costumes – will whip out their lashes to teach a lesson. That said, I brought a bottle of cañazo at the advice of Sara’s friend in Cusco – bootleg country liquor made from sugarcane – to help me fall asleep in case it got too cold at night. Indeed I couldn’t sleep, not because of the cold, but the noise. Dancing and drumming and singing continued through the night. Seems like the villages had their dancers in rotation so that their worshiping never stop. The earth trembled under my body and vibrated my eardrums from all the feet trampling. I finally took a few sips of cañazo and passed out shortly after, only to woke up in the middle of the night, still to the incessant celebration outside, to find that my throat was dry from the alcohol. I reached for my bottle of water, but it was frozen solid. Defeated, I closed my eyes and drifted in and out of sleep till the next morning.