Read this first-hand description of the Qoyllur Rit’i festival experience, authored by Barbara Coon. A veteran adventure traveler who has explored China, Pakistan and Nepal, she and her husband, Sid, returned in 2014 to Peru to make the “Snow Star” pilgrimage. This trip is strenuous and not for the faint of heart, but so very worth the effort.
“How can I sleep with no military music or rockets going off?” wondered Sid on our first night back in Cusco. We had just finished two nights of camping in the midst of non-stop dancing to drums, flutes and/or brass bands, and the rocket’s red glare randomly exploding practically over our heads.
Imagine this: 10,000 Andean highlanders mobilized on a 15,750-foot plateau around a sanctuary church containing a supposedly-miraculous image of the suffering Cristo, adorned with a luminous golden halo.
All the better to give the newly-converted Indios a reason to continue their ancient pilgrimage to the glacier nearby in worship of the life-giving properties of water in all its forms. That was apparent to us whenever someone drove a tent peg into the mossy ground, which gently undulated under our feet. Nature’s water bed! Who knows how long the custom will continue, as the glacier and snows that used to cover the campground have receded in the last 30 years, and the men bringing back pieces of glacier ice are confined to retrieving small hunks, rather than the serape-filling blocks of the past.
Our own pilgrimage began with three hours on the new Transoceanic Highway that goes from Brazil to the Peruvian coast. We traveled with our guide Juan and the cook Segundo and all necessities: two double tents, three heavy sleeping mats, two lighter ones, our large back pack, a big kitchen and dining tent, a big tank of butane, and utensils and food for five people for two full days.
Two horses sufficed for all this. The way to the Qoyllur Rit’i festival grounds was a broad ramp that began steeply but became more gentle, rising 3,000 ft. in 5 miles.
Along the way were children as young as 3 and adults selling snacks (gelatina – can you imagine what that would do to gringo guts?) as well as fake money, toy cars and trucks and model houses, tiendas, and hotels.
These were to be bought (and passed over a dish of burning incense with muttering from the seller and anointing of the buyer’s hands, accompanied by the tinkling of a small bell) and then presented in the sanctuary for yet another blessing.
The objects are known as “alacitas” and represent the pilgrim’s fondest desire. For many, this is the motivation for undertaking the pilgrimage.
The variety of “alacitas” was vast. There were pretend driver’s licenses, professional degrees and diplomas, and other impressive mock documents for sale.
Juan purchased a toy van to use for ferrying future clients, and I encouraged him to get a jungle truck as well, to cater to those tourists who want a more “authentic” experience.
The next day, after getting them blessed in church, and buying our way to the head of the line to look at the Christ on the Rock, we headed to an area of the grounds that could have come out of pre-Inca times. Carefully situated on about an acre of land were tiny one or two foot-square corrals demarcated with lines of small gray stones.
Many had “En Venta” (For Sale) signs, while others, strewn with confetti and paper streamers, were marked as “Sold.”
Juan settled on his lot, containing a 4-story house that he assembled with more small stones, and a swimming pool designated by another larger rock.
The car and jungle truck were carefully placed alongside the house after he paid for the lot with the play money he had purchased the day before. Then a woman with a rubber “notary stamp” filled out a “deed” and the fun began. We sprinkled confetti and streamers and set off small fire crackers to seal the deal. Photos all around!
Does any other culture carry out its fantasies to this extent?
All during our time at the Qoyllur Rit’i festival, we were surrounded by dance groups rehearsing in the camp area and lighting candles in front of their own gold-embroidered banners. They then danced toward the plaza in front of the sanctuary for their star turn.
The dances were rooted in centuries-old social class distinctions, when there were clear lines separating Spanish, mestizos, indigenous peasants, and African slaves, who were brought to Peru’s highlands to toil in silver and copper mines.
The dances are the result of popular culture commenting and mocking pretensions of the upper classes. Even the priests didn’t escape, as we saw when a mock mass wedding was performed by a “priest” who cracked everyone up by consecrating a cookie.
There were also representational dances by rancheros and feathered jungle folk. I was annoyed never to see the Negrito dance. I only saw the dancers as they exited the plaza, carrying chains to represent slavery and using bird-scaring clackers for the chains´sound.
A striking aspect of Qoyllur Rit’i is the total absence of alcohol. Can you imagine how great a drunk-free Mardi Gras could be? That’s what we saw. Wringing lilacs out of a dead land is nothing compared to these highlanders’ ability to gather happily and devoutly, expressing heartfelt wishes, dancing in the mud in white shoes and not missing a step.
My respect for the Andeans’ ability to transcend their rough lives is boundless, and we encountered only good will from them. Juan encouraged me to tie the ‘mestiza’ doll I’d bought on the front of my pack-strap: old ladies saw it and said ‘Dance! Dance!’ so I cut a few swaying steps. Dancers were happy to pose for pictures and were eagerly snapping each other as well.
We are so happy to feel part of something so valued by the Andinos. It reminded me that Peru is much more than archeology and handicrafts, important as they are. I will never see a person on the street in the same way, knowing that they may nurture dreams that find communal expression once a year.
Before falling asleep I think back to that time, and I am carried away on clouds of happiness.