Sunday, June 29, 2014

Qoyllur Rit'i

As the sun set on an ordinary Saturday night, we prepared to take off for a hike to a 16,000 foot glacier. This was not just any night trek, this was an annual pilgrimage for Qoyllur Riti ("snow star" in Quechua) festival. The festival lasts for a few days around the full moon in June and consists of dancing, costumes, traditional food, rituals for blessing things you have and things you want, and trying to keep warm at the base of the Sinakara glacier.

There are two versions of the origins of the festival one from pre-columbian times, and the other is the Catholic Church's version. The first entails a celebration of the stars and a constellation that temporarily disappears and reappears every year around the time of the festival representing the disappearance and reappearance of chaos and order and time and space. The second version involves two young boys one who is the son of a sheep herder and befriends another with mysteriously fancy clothes who turns into a bush with the body of christ on it. Origin myths aside, the locals regard the ice from the glacier to be holy and lug chunks of it down with them each year to bless their lives.

Needless to say this all sounded way to intriguing to pass up. So, we left Cusco around 10pm to get on a bus to the base of the trek. We arrived a few hours later to a camp filled with food tents, and people selling flashlights, toilet paper, sweaters and gloves. From there we started walking, bundled up in several layers and unsure what to expect. We set out along side thousands of locals embarking on this religious experience that I didn't quite understand but was eager to partake in. Along the way we passed several stations with crosses and candles where people stopped to pay their respects and pray.

As we hiked beside a river glistening in the moonlight under infinite stars slightly covered by clouds, I tried to take in the experience and how amazing it was to be a part of something so unique. We approached the top just in time to witness the sun peak out over the tips of the snow covered peaks and capture a truly epic sunrise.

The next few hours we spent walking around watching the dancers in their traditional costumes representing characters from mythical stories. I had a parrot choose my fortune, and I bought a few good luck charms containing symbols representing love, health, and other good fortunes, which are meant to be blessed and burnt at the base of the mountain to ensure their power.

The effects of lack of sleep and hiking all night began to overwhelm me on the hike back down the following morning. But the excitement of passing musical processions complete with various instruments and animals, combined with the view of the Andes, somehow kept my legs moving. After making it to the bottom and seeing the whole path in the daylight I felt accomplished and glad I had partaken in this epic endeavor.

I have witnessed my fair share of spectacles in Peru, including countless colorful parades and festivals such as Carnaval, Corpus Christi and Inti Raymi; but Qoyllur Rit'i definitely takes the cake. It's hard to explain what it feels like to walk amongst thousands of Quechua people who keep this tradition alive each year by hiking up to the glacier to celebrate and ensure their lives are blessed. It's also hard to capture with words what it looks like at the top, when you are surrounded by intricate costumes twirling about perfectly synced to traditional music, with glacial mountains freckled with tents in the background. But unbelievable, incredible, astounding, and generally epic are words that might give you a snapshot of the experience.

As I embarked on the journey back to Cusco, I realized that for me the whole event was just a once in a lifetime adventure, but for them, the time-old tradition has deep seeded significance. As hard as I try not to be the "gringo" outsider marveling at all the traditions in Peru, I fear I may always be. However, it's occurred to me that may not be the worst thing. In fact, it may be a blessing that I can and probably always will travel the world marveling at and appreciating the uniqueness of every culture and all the traditions that make up each one. I hope to never lose my curiosity for different cultures and respect for the sanctity of tradition.

Pictures of the festival:

trying to warm up with some tea at the top

the final cross on the way to the SeƱor Quyllur Rit'i's shrine 

getting my fortune told by a parrot

at the beginning of the hike

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