For travelers who would like to experience the cultural heritage of the Andes, beyond visiting the archaeological sites, there are numerous festivals in the Cusco region that take place during the southern hemisphere’s winter (northern hemisphere’s summer). They provide an excellent opportunity to blend with the masses and have a taste of the living cultural and religious fervor of the Andean people. One of the most important is the pilgrimage of the Lord of Qoyllur Rit’i.
Every year in the Andean mountains south of Cusco, at the foot of the Urubamba and the Ausangate mountains, tens of thousands people from the Andean region, from as far as Bolivia and Argentina, gather to celebrate and worship the Lord Qoyllur Rit’i.
The pilgrimage to the snowcapped mountains surrounding the Sinakara Valley is a resilient expression of indigenous Andean worship with Catholic undertones. To immerse yourself into such a celebration is a privilege and a unique opportunity to embark on a journey into the past. It is a glimpse into the soul of the Andean people.
The return of the Qullpa, which is the Pleiades star cluster known as the storehouse constellation, is the prelude to the celebrations of the Andean New Year and the time for harvesting. A ritual like no other in the southern hemisphere is what people witness here, together with its syncretic components from both Andean and Catholic origins.
The dualist interaction between the “Ukukus” people – dressed in costume mimicking the Andean spectacled bear (deemed by the locals as guardians of the mountains) – and the counterpart of the Christian cross – representative of Spanish influence and provider of forgiveness and mercy to the people – makes this ritual fascinating. These elements shine a light on the contradictions between the two spiritual beliefs, which are in fact two parts of the same whole, and make this ritual absolutely impressive.
In most syncretic religious celebrations of the Andean region, participants partake in corn beer and alcohol consumption, but that is not the case for Qoyllur Rit’i. Alcohol is not permitted. The energy and fervor of thousands of people dancing to the beat of the “chakiri,” a kind of tantric song of profound mysticism, is what serves as a vehicle to connect the people with the mountains and the stars.
Dates vary from late May to early June, to coincide with the full moon.
Location: Mahuayani, Ocongate
Trip details: 3 hours by car from Cusco and 4 hours hiking from Mahuayani. The hike to Qoyllur Rit’i starts at 4089 meters and ends at 4560 meters. Unlike the Inca Trail or the Salkantay Trek, the hike to Qoyllur Rit’i is a steady climb along 8 km or 5 miles.
Weather: freezing, 25 Fahrenheit/5 Celsius.
If you are planning to camp during Qoyllur Rit’i, be prepared for the high altitude and cold. Proper camping gear is required, camping tents, sleeping bags, and sleeping pads are a must. Cooking at the campsite might be necessary if you are not adventurous enough to eat the food that local vendors sell. Toilets are very basic; you need to take your own toilet paper. Take bottle water for drinking and personal use. It is possible to buy it at the sanctuary itself but at higher prices.
Cover photo: Marco Simola