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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.


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.