Two years ago, when I was living in Cusco from end of May to end of August, I was lucky enough to experience the full force of Cusco’s most festive months. June and July are filled with celebrations of Andean and Spanish origin; most of which are a unique and fascinating hybrid of both. I was in the throes of Corpus Cristi festivities when a local musician friend told me he was heading to Qoyllurit’i that next morning, and asked if I wanted to join him. I had never heard of it, and as he began to tell me more about this spiritual pilgrimage, I grew more and more curious.

However, I soon learned about the extreme altitude and freezing cold temperatures involved, and decided it was probably not the safest thing to do given my lack of preparation and equipment. So, I left with the lingering desire to take part in this unique experience, and have been curious about it ever since… Fast forward 2 years. I began feeling the calling back to Peru in a big way a few months ago as a new project with Beyond Volunteering, and also a critical time with Casa De Milagros began to unfold. My friend and partner with the Beyond Volunteering project, Carsten Korch, sent out an article and announcement about Qoyllurit’i. In it, he shared that 22 years ago he met his wife there, and that it is a sacred and special experience. He was organizing a group trek for this year’s event through his travel agency, Peru Experience. Something told me to open that email, and to watch the video. As I did, I knew that I just had to go. The timing was almost perfect in every way, so I called Carsten, and soon I was officially on board…

The Story of Qoyllurit’i

Each year the people of the district of Ocongate (Quispicanchis) perform a ritual that is based on Catholic religion, but whose roots lie in the ancient Incan principal of bringing man closer to nature. The ritual, associated with the fertility of the land and the worship of Apus, the spirits of the mountains, forms part of the greatest festival of native Indian nations in the hemisphere: Qoyllur Rit’i. In Quechuan, Qoyllorit’i means “Snow Star” or “Shining Snow”. The pilgrimage is one of the most important religious festivities of Andean Peruvians, and millions of devotees participate in the event from various areas of the country. This is situated of the beginning of the mountain Sinakara in the village of Mawayani, at 4700 meters above sea level. Every year, days before the celebration of Corpus Christi, every small village or clan send a delegation with colorful dancers and “pauluchas” to the Capilla (Chapel) del Señor Qoylloriti. The main ceremony is held at the foot of Mount Ausangate, at 4,700 meters, where temperatures often plunge below freezing. The ritual brings thousands of pilgrims, including shepherds, traders and the merely curious who gather at the shrine at Sinakara. Popular belief has it that the infant Christ, dressed as a shepherd, appeared to a young highland Indian boy, Marianito Mayta, and they quickly became friends. When Mayta’s parents found them dressed in rich tunics, they informed the local parish priest, Pedro de Landa, who attempted in vain to capture the infant Christ who had disappeared and left behind only a stone. Marianito died immediately, and the image of the Lord of Qoyllur Rit’i appeared on the stone. Today, the festival starts off with the day of the Holy Trinity, when more than 50,000 pilgrims climb to the snowline, accompanied by all sorts of dancers in full costume (chauchos, qollas, pabluchas or ukukus) portraying various mythical characters. The Ukukus, or bears, are the guardians of the Lord and the Apu mountain spirits and apachetas, stone cairns built along the way by pilgrims to atone for their sins. The ukukus maintain order during religious ceremonies. “Los Pabluchas” represented alpacas and are intermediaries between the Sir Qoyllorit’i and his men. They climb at 4 o’clock in the morning to the iced mountain of Sinikara while asking for more animals and general prosperity. During the party the people who participated in the procession praise our Lady of Fatima to have good luck in business, life and their future. A group of hefty Queros, members of what is probably Peru’s purest Quechua community, dress up as pabluchas and set out for the mountaintop, at 6,362 meters in search of the Snow Star which is reputedly buried within the mountain. On their way back down to their communities, they haul massive blocks of ice on their backs for the symbolic irrigation of their lands with holy water from the Ausangate. The end of the procession takes place at the ancient Inca capital of Cusco the celebrations of Corpus Christi; when all of the city’s streets and plazas fill with vibrant processions and music.

Our Trip

Having grown up mostly in California, I fully admit to being very inexperienced with extreme weather. However, nothing could have prepared me for the intensity of the cold and altitude at Qoyllurit’i. The weeks leading up to my trip had been extremely full and a bit stressful – what with packing up my life to move to Peru, wrapping up client projects, managing Casa De Milagros and Beyond Volunteering, spending time with family, and then of course the week of travel to Lima, and Cusco. The day before the trip, I was feeling a bit ungrounded to say the least. I had this deep feeling, though, that part of the grounding and healing process would come with this trip. I met our group for the first time at our pre-trek briefing meeting on Sunday afternoon. I felt relieved to see Carsten, meet the great people I would be sharing this experience with, and that our guide seemed very relaxed and knowledgeable. Since there really is no way to prepare for the altitude other than spend a few days acclimatizing (as I had), my only main concern at that point was the cold. I had purchased the most expensive sleeping bag I could afford before leaving the states – a Marmot synthetic bag that is suitable for up to 4 degrees celsius. When he told me it would get to minus zero, I opted to rent an extra bag from him at $6 per night (The best $12 I ever spent!) I also decided to get some stronger sunblock (SPF 60), a warm pair of wool gloves, and a “chullo” (Andean wool cap) to cover my ears. The morning of the trek, I was incredibly anxious. The internet had been abysmal the night before, and I didn’t have time to take care of the last minute emails and random odds and ends I had to do before I left. A panic attack set in as I got in the van and realized I would have zero contact with the outside world for the next three days. The downfall of my line of work, is that it can feel essential to be “connected” at all times. The first hour of the trip was spent making lists in my head of all of the things I hadn’t done, and what could possibly go wrong. From deep inside, this voice came through telling me to “let it go”…I knew that this was part of the experience in and of itself, and that I needed to have faith, surrender, and be as present as possible. So I began the challenging process of “unplugging” and “letting go”… I soon began to focus on the amazing beauty of the Andean scenery as we got further outside of Cusco. When we left, the city was buzzing with Pre-Corpus Cristi festivities, and it was a maze of people and cars all trying to make their way around this ancient city that was never built to sustain even a fraction of what it has to today. It felt wonderful to get out into the open air – and explore a part of Cusco I had not yet traveled to. About 45 minutes outside of the city, we passed a town that is famous for it’s bread – Oropesa. Our guide, Erick, got out and got us a big wheel of the famous Pan de Oropesa and we all enjoyed this fresh treat. A little later on, we passed several places I have heard of and wish to return to, such as Andahuaylillas. Soon we arrived at a Mirador (Vista Point) that had an amazing view of our destination: Mt. Ausangate. We drove a total of 3 hours to a little village called Mawayani, the base of Qoyllurit’i at 4,100 meters above sea level. Here we were to have lunch, pack up our horses, and head off on the trekking portion of the trip. Mawayani was bustling with activity; people coming and going from the magical Qoyllurit’i. There are many who had gone up the day before or earlier that morning, paid their respects, and were now heading back. However, we were planning to be there for the main event which was that night and the following day. While the guides packed up our stuff and prepared lunch, the group walked around the town, checked out the sights, and bought any last minute supplies. I bought a small flashlight for about 10 soles/$3.50 and took some great pictures of some gorgeous little girls and local merchants.

At the advice of our guide, I also picked up some candies, since sugar is good for boosting energy in high altitude. Another option is to do as the locals do, and buy huge chunks of sugar cane to gnaw on…you could buy a yard long piece for about 3 soles / $1.00, and I was in awe at the amount of it all around us. We then headed back and had a delicious lunch of Fajitas and pineapple “refresco” (a light juice). By the way, the food that was provided and prepared by our guides on this trip was absolutely phenomenal – muchas gracias chicos! Once we were nourished and fully packed up, we headed up the hill and began our pilgrimage… The first hill is probably the most difficult. It’s steep, narrow, and there are tons of people, horses, llamas, and donkeys fighting for the path. There’s also the realization once you make it huffing and puffing up to the top, that the journey has only begun. I think all of us were feeling a general anxiety around the unknown, and thinking, “what have I gotten myself into??” The hike from Mawayani to Qoyllurit’i is about 8.5 kilometers/5.25 miles and took us about 4 hours. Of course, there’s the added element of the altitude, which goes from 4,100 meters at Mawayani to 4,700 meters at the top of Qoyllurit’i. Along the path, there are a series of “estaciones” or crosses; 13 in total. They became the only thing that kept me going…my competitive nature set in and I just focused on checking each one off one by one… When we finally made it to the top – fear, cold and fatigue gave way to awe and wonderment. I was completely enthralled by the intensity of people and celebrations, and of the organized chaos that is Qoyllurit’i. I couldn’t help thinking this is what the a wild west town must have been like – a temporary city full of horses, dust, and hastily assembled stalls selling everything a pilgrim might want for the journey up the holy mountain. There were tents and booths selling everything from offerings for the mountain gods, hot chocolate and teas, and every kind of food imaginable. There was even a psychic monkey and his two friend parrots who picked your fortune out of a box…it was intoxicating! We followed our guide, Erick, who somehow amazingly led 14 of us to our 8 tents amidst thousands. When we arrived to our camp, we got paired up and assigned to our tents, and our guides treated us to a snack of coca tea/”mate”, coffee, hot chocolate and crackers. While we attempted to rest and warm up, he briefed us on the plan for the rest of the evening, our camp rules, and where to find our “potty tent”. As the sun dropped, we began to feel what real cold at high altitude feels like. I had on 5 top layers, 2 bottom, 2 socks, gloves, and 2 caps…but the cold comes up from the mountain below and through your feet, and there is almost no way to avoid keeping your toes from freezing. Amidst all of that, many of us decided to venture out into the masses to experience the festivities. We wound our way through the crowds and up to a small temple where we were greeted by some friendly “pabluchas”. Amidst the dancing, drumming, whistle blowing and fireworks, I began to forget about the cold and my aching muscles, and joined the party. We approached a group of very merry dancers, and both Ximena and I were the first to get dragged in to join the celebrations. My partner was very excited, and I was able to follow his lead pretty successfully. Within seconds I went from freezing to sweating, and my heart began to beat out of my chest. Altitude is no joke.

After about an hour, we left the celebrations and made our way back to the tents, for what was to be the most restless night of my life… I spent the first part of the night experiencing intense shivering attacks in the tent for what felt like forever, but was probably about an hour and a half. I couldn’t believe how cold it was, despite having TWO good quality sleeping bags, and being bundled in layers of clothes. The air is thin enough to make me hyperventilate while trying to keep warm in the sleeping bag. I vacillate between covering myself up completely, and then gasping for air at the hole in my bag. Every movement took my breath away. I begin to remember all of the people I had seen on our journey through the camp who were sleeping with nothing on them but plastic sheets or ponchos. I saw women, men and children huddled behind our tent with no shoes on, lying on the ground completely without protection. What are these people made of? Their fortitude both amazes and humbles me. Our group are 14 of a very small number of non-Quechua speaking participants in this ancient festival of the snow and the star, and now I know why. Somehow, amidst the shivering and racing thoughts, I fell asleep…a restless night to say the least, but when I awoke, the exhaustion fell away, and the energy and magic of what was waiting outside of my tent took hold…

Our guide prepared us for the day and let us know that each of us would be allowed to have our own time, to experience Qoyllurit’i in whatever way we wished. We had each been called to this mountain for unique and special reasons, and so we should take the opportunity to fulfill our purpose. Along our journey up the mountain, I had taken time to say a little prayer and set an intention at each of the crosses. On this day, I decided to let go of self-imposed intentions and let myself be guided. We made our way to the temple, and realized that they were opening it up for the first mass of the day.

We somehow wiggled our way into the massive crowd fighting for a spot, and next thing I knew I was in a mob of people all grabbing and fighting to be as close to the altar as possible, so that they and their wishes could be “blessed”. Although I was raised Catholic, I don’t consider myself a religious person. However, I couldn’t help but be carried away into the emotion of the moment. I too wanted desperately to be blessed! I started feeling the crowd grow denser and the shoving get more intense, so for a moment I panicked realizing one misstep could mean major problems. But before I could finish that thought, I looked up to realize I had been placed just a few yards from the priest, and in that moment he looked right at me and literally showered me in holy water. As I wiped my face, the crowd guided me out to the left side door, and next thing I knew I was outside of the church, in a bit of shock. I said a few prayers outside the church, and couldn’t help but smile, thinking of how truly blessed I was…and realizing I always have been…

We continued to follow the processions and check out the many wonders all around us. Soon I found myself at the top of the mountain where people were buying and “selling” land, houses and businesses. I glanced over and saw a mass of people gathered around what appeared to be a priest, and realized this was what Carsten and Virginia had told me about – that there would be the opportunity to ask the gods for marriage – for yourself or for someone else. The ritual involved having a “priest” marry you, or the person for whom the wish was intended. I suddenly knew that I had to do this.

For a bit of context: I am a 32 year old, happy, successful, single woman, and have until recently not really even known if marriage was for me. In this past year, however, I began to realize that something inside of me did want to get married…and this felt like the perfect place to make that proclamation out loud. So I asked what I needed to do, and was instructed to purchase my wedding bands, marriage certificate, and set off to find my husband. I ran into Carsten and his wife Virginia, who upon learning that I planned to get married, became very excited, and offered themselves up as godparents. We soon came across a young man named Pico, who had traveled all the way from the neighboring state of Apurimac to take part in this ritual, in the hopes of summoning land, a wife, and prosperity. He was very humble, very sweet, and very excited to get married, so off to the altar we went! There were many people waiting to get married, so this was no easy task. Being taller than almost everyone there helped, and soon enough, Pico and I were called next. The ceremony was lovely, and hilarious. The priest was a character to say the least, and everyone in attendance had a great time…

Before I knew it, the priest was declaring us husband and wife, the ceremony was over, and I was officially wed. The ritual was not over however, as I was told I now needed to get my certificate notarized, so I did. Pico then informed me that the wedding party had to do a formal cheers/ “brindis” to the happy occasion. He passed around water for us all, and covered the two of us in confetti and ribbon. After a few happy photos and lots of hugs, we bid farewell to Pico, and continued on our path…a short but sweet reception and honeymoon. :-)

The whole experience got me thinking about the concept of “desires”. These people all around me knew exactly what would make them happy: a house, a business, a family. Yet I realized with a bit of sadness that I honestly didn’t have a clear picture of what my heart truly desired…of course I wanted all of those things, but I suddenly realized that a clear vision had thus far eluded me. Perhaps I had been caught up like so many of us as we “grow up” and are forced to give up our fantastical dreams for the practically attainable?? So I thought hard about what it was that would make me truly happy, and what my dream life looked like… I suddenly got a very clear vision of a spanish-style hacienda, overlooking a gorgeous valley, with a beautiful home surrounding a brightly lit courtyard, horses and animals, and enough space to host a big, loving family and many friends. I turned around and saw a beautiful young girl selling property titles, so I bought my land, and began building my dream hacienda. When I was done, she gave me some confetti and firecrackers, and we inaugurated my dream home. As we descended the mountain back to our camp, I was on a total high. I couldn’t believe the amount of energy I had felt and that I suddenly realized was welling up inside of me. I had just experienced something truly special, shared amongst the tens of thousands of faithful pilgrims that had also come to set their intentions for a happy and prosperous life on the Mountain of Ausangate. It is said that the power of Qoyllurit’i doesn’t come from the mountain or the gods, but from the power of combined human energy and intention. Regardless of what that power is, or where it comes from, I know that I felt it in that moment. As I stood there overlooking the processions, I suddenly welled up with tears. It was a combination of the intensity of the energy, the passion, faith, and devotion that I had witnessed, and the depth of history and culture…in that moment it all just kind of took my breath away… When we got back to camp, we were welcomed by some indigenous women who had set up shop in the middle of our camp. They were dressed in their brightest and finest, and were selling some of the most gorgeous tapestries and weavings I had ever seen. One of them came up to me and asked me if I wanted some old coins. When I took a look at what she was holding, I realized they were real silver coins from 1782 and 1789 during the time of Spanish colonialism. I was very tempted to buy them, but at 300 soles each (around $85), I was going to have to pass… That night was a lot more calm than the first, as many began their descent down the mountain that day. The cold however, remained intense, if not more so, and so we all huddled together in our dining tent reflecting upon our magical day. The processions also remained; a steady, rhythmic and constant backdrop of the entire experience. That night the stars were spectacular. Erick joined Gemma and I out under the dark sky to try to make out some constellations. It felt like they were all there, where they had always been, and where they belonged: amidst the magic and purity of these places most of us no longer go…We waited, patiently, for the moon to rise, and when it did, it was the most glorious thing I had ever seen. I went to bed completely inspired and at peace. The second night was still freezing, but once I was able to fall asleep, I slept through most of the night, and awoke rested and happy. The next morning we woke up bright and early to pack up our camp and head down the mountain. After a light breakfast, we headed out, and bid farewell to this magical mountain. The trek down flew by and we made it back to Mawayani in an hour and 45 minutes. We all chose to skip lunch in lieu of getting back to Cusco and resting, so we packed up the vans and headed back to the city. The drive was peaceful and quiet; most of us exhausted, and reflecting upon all that we had just experienced. As we approached Cusco, we could feel the energy and hear the familiar rhythm of the processions in celebration of Corpus Christi. The music, the dancing and the energy had followed us from the mountain into the center of Cusco, and we were again in the midst of one of Peru’s most intriguing cultural and religious traditions. That night, we decided to have a farewell dinner at a great restaurant called Incanto, right off of the Plaza De Armas. It was amazing to see everyone clean and warm! It was a lovely end to an amazing adventure – each of us feeling a special bond from having participated in something that not many people will ever have the chance to know. We were each coming back from the lord of the snow infinitely grateful, and forever changed…a few of us even married… :-)

I put together a quick, silly little “preview” of the adventure, and a video of some of the footage I took: Qoyllurit’i 2012 – Trailer from Claudia Miro on Vimeo.

Thank you so much to Carsten Korch and Morten Bruun of Peru Experience for putting together such an amazing journey; our guides Erick Farfan, Jose Abel Pancorbo and their fabulous crew; and of course all of my fellow pilgrims: Virginia Korch, Elisa Guzman, Ximena Guzman-Velasco, Gemma Chipulina Yoshida, Ana Perla, Marco Elias, Kim Allen Jones, Luis Eduard Romero, Tania Meave, Javier de Sousa Ferreira, Carla Gambirazio, Aurelio Gambirazio & Gladys Alvarado. Lo hicimos! ;-)

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