In Quechoa, Qoyllur Rit’i means snow star and the festival is said to originally celebrate the turning of seasons. Today the story often told about Qoyllur Rit’i is that of the miracle of Christ, a perfect example of syncretism not only in Latin America but around the world where Catholicism has so successfully appropriated local traditions and beliefs and turned them Christian. The story goes: an indigenous herder boy, lonely in the mountains where he works, once meets a mestizo (mixed) boy of his age and they quickly become good friends. The herder boy is grateful for company, and also happy because his flock keeps growing. His dad, satisfied, decides to let him to go Cusco and buy new clothes. The boy also wants buy new ones for his mestizo friend, who has been wearing the same outfit day after day. So he takes a sample from his friend’s clothes and goes around Cusco asking to buy more. None of the stores has any, and one finally informs him that it is used exclusively for the bishop. The boy’s quest gets to the ears of the bishop, who concludes that someone must have stolen the fabric from his stock. He sends out troops to the mountain to capture the mestizo boy. The troops find the boy, but the moment they charge forward, he radiates intensely to blind them and disappears. The herder boy, thinking that his friend has been harmed, becomes so stricken that he dies and is buried under a rock on that spot.

Qoyllur Rit'i, Peru, Sinakara valley, festival, camping, indigenous, church

Qoyllur Rit'i, Peru, Sinakara valley, festival, camping,

Viva Cristo-Rey rock

 

Qoyllur Rit'i, Peru, Sinakara valley, festival, camping,

lighting candles along church wall

 

A church was built to house the burial rock upon which was etched miraculously the image of Christ (not very credible to my faithless eyes). Pilgrims line up to pay homage, and the ground in front of the church is also the main stage that all dance groups rotate through. The procession is never ending. I am simply amazed at the strength that faith gives people to carry out such feats: whether it is to dance non-stop for days, or to carve temples out from rock mountains.

There are quite a few different groups in very unique attires performing different types of dances. Stand out the most are the Ukuku in bear costumes using their whips to keep the crowd in order. They dance with their whips too, engaged in lashing battles. My understanding is that sometimes it’s a young guy getting lashed to the point of bleeding as a form of initiation into this group of powerful mythical half-man half-bear. In front of God’s eyes, he proves his strength and worth. Other groups that have very distinctive and colorful costumes include the Ch’unchu wearing feather headdresses which embody their indigenous ancestry, and the Qhapag qolla carrying intricately embroidered boards and llama skins on their back, representing the mestizo merchants.

Qoyllur Rit'i, Peru, Sinakara valley, festival, dance, indigenous, whip dance

Qoyllur Rit'i, Peru, Sinakara valley, festival, dance, indigenous, whip dance

 

Qoyllur Rit'i, Peru, Sinakara valley, festival, Ukuku, dance, indigenous, whip dance

Ukuku whip dance

 

Qoyllur Rit'i, Peru, Sinakara valley, festival, Qhapaq qulla, dance, indigenous, whip dance

Qhapaq Qolla

 

Qoyllur Rit'i, Peru, Sinakara valley, festival, dance, indigenous, whip dance   Qoyllur Rit'i, Peru, Sinakara valley, festival, dance, indigenous, whip dance

I was having the best and worst time of my life. On the one hand, I’d never been to a grander festival, out in the middle of the mountains to boost. There was always more dances to watch, more stories to listen to. On the other hand, I had the most severe pain on my back; it felt like my lungs had collapsed and I could hardly breath. I couldn’t walk much, and only very slowly. Sometimes I’d wake up in the middle of the night with a pounding headache and a sore body, and wondered if I’d make it to the next morning. Inexperienced, I thought it was because of the cold and the noise and didn’t realize much later that they were all classic signs of altitude sickness. I didn’t know we were at 4700m. Luckily, it didn’t turn much worse. It’s hard to believe but the majority of the pilgrims don’t sleep in tents but outside under tarps and plastic sheets in below freezing temperature; many of them don’t wear shoes.

On the last night, the Ukuku leaders from each community climb Apu Sinakara – one of the sacred mountains worshipped as gods – in darkness to reach the summit at first light, where they chop off a block of ice to bring back to their people. Its pure water dispels all troubles and sickness, preparing the community for a new cycle of life. However, some groups now summit without carrying any ice back. Climate change and the ever growing numbers of pilgrims mean that the ice is not as abundant now as it once was.

Here it is believed that if you walk and pay homage to the Lord of Qoyllur Rit’i three times, preferably in a row, your wish will be granted. I made a wish then, and still have two more times to complete.

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