Originally we had hoped to do the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu as one of the highlights of our trip. However, we didn’t book far enough ahead to secure two of the precious 500 spots they have each day to hike the Inca Trail. (We tried to book a mere 6 months in advance). When we heard about an alternative trek joining 80,000 Peruvian Catholics celebrating in the foothills of a sacred glacier we couldn’t resist. It was a truly unique immersive experience into a cultural tradition unlike anything we’ve ever seen. If you happen to be in Peru at the right time (because they only celebrate it once per year), this may be a once in a lifetime experience you want to try.
Before we begin, here are the faces of Qoyllur Rit’i
A lil’ bit o’ History
Qoyllur Rit’I is a festival that combines Catholic, Incan and ancient Andean traditions. The church says the celebration dates back to the 1780s to a story about a boy who was escaping capture in the hills when he turned into a bush with an image of Jesus Christ. A boulder nearby was painted with the image of Christ and became known as “The Lord of Qoyllur Rit’I”. The church then built a church around the site and encouraged Peruvians to make the pilgrimage there to pray each year during the full moon before Corpus Christi. The reality is the celebration dates back hundreds of years more (and possibly more to pre-Incan times) to an Incan celebration to climb to the mountain and worship the two “apus” (mountain gods) and the sacred glacier that rests between them. It would appear that the church dropped a church in the valley in their effort to try and convert the local population by turning a pagan tradition into a catholic one.
These days, it doesn’t seem to matter as it has turned into an incredible merger of traditions into a magnificent brightly colored festival of faith filled with dancing and praying with customs that remind me of parts of Asia at times. Catholic dogma clearly states its disapproval of worshipping other gods, idols or visages, but that doesn’t stop the locals from following the Andean traditions of worshipping the mountain and the sun each year. And from my discussions with our guide, it doesn’t seem to make them feel any less Catholic for doing it either. For me it was 4 days of fascination as I saw two very different, often considered opposing, religions come together in mosaic of partying and worship that had enough grandeur and energy to put many music festivals to shame.
The Short Hike
The pilgrimage up the mountain is an 8km hike up a winding valley path where you must carry all your belongings that you’ll need the next few days. Foreigners are allowed to use mules, but any local who does without a very good reason could face a lashing at the top of the mountain. You’ll start to notice lashings are pretty common, don’t worry they are gentler then you think. We passed grandmothers with 50 lbs of supplies on their back and nothing more to hold it than a colorful blanket. We passed children, the elderly, people with canes to walk and some who needed to be carried, but the only horses we saw carrying supplies were ours.
Next to the trail were 14 Stations of the Cross for people to pray at on their way up the mountain. For those of you unfamiliar with this Catholic tradition, it is a series of images or “stations” depicting the different parts of the day of Jesus’ crucifixion. I have memories of doing them during Lent every year, but that was in a short circle around our church. Seeing the stations while hiking for the first time above 4,000 meters (13,000 feet) really gave new meaning to the entire experience.
The hike went from 4,200 to 4,600 meters and ended in what can only be described as a makeshift festival market. Families and vendors had set up shop in the valley below the church in a procession of blue plastic tarps filled with everything from fruit juices, hot meals, camping supplies and religious icons. A light rain had set in on our hike and the ground had turned to a combination of mud and I-don’t-want-to-know-what while scents of burning wood, food and fireworks filled the air. We quickly found a spot for camp removed from the large crowds and looked on in awe at the church nestled below the mountains.
Let’s Get This Party Started
We arrived 3 nights before the pinnacle event, which takes place the night/morning before the full moon, but the celebrations had been in full swing for almost a week. Even though our camp site was removed from the crowds, the sounds of cheering, drums and whistles completely surrounded us. There was at least one moment of panic as we arrived when we saw just what we had committed ourselves to. A full on, 24 hour, raging Peruvian party at 4,600m with no escape. We settled in, cleaned the filth off our boots and started to ask questions so we could understand exactly what we were surrounded by.
Groups of Peruvians make this pilgrimage together in “nations”. These nations can be as small as a church congregation or as large as an entire town, but from what we understood they come from all over the countryside piled high on top of trucks to unload and make their way up the mountain. Each nation typically has a set of colors to identify them and different roles set out for different members of the group.
The young men were typically dressed in woolly colorful costumes and pulled double duty as both dancers and soldiers to set up and defend a nation’s territory (or to evict silly foreigners who are in their space). Each nation has at least one disciplinarian who typically had the ugliest/scariest costume of the group, almost like a jester. These were easily identifiable not only by their unique outfits, but by their excessive use of their whips to clear paths for the group or punish anyone in their nation who gets out of line. There were other groups of men and women that would make up the religious dancers or musicians for all the prayers that needed to be done and the elderly typically busied themselves with feeding this horde.
The dancing and music never stopped. Not once. I seem to remember a lull for about an hour at 2am, but then being woken up at 3am because the ground was shaking to rhythmic beat that was pounding through my earplugs. The dancing was not just a form of celebration, but reverent prayer. Each nation had a practiced routine among their dancers. This could be an elaborate dance, hilarious spasms or more of a story charade without words. They would line up for their turn to dance in front of the church (up to a 5 hour wait) and then make their way and dance/pray at each of the sacred sites. First at the church, then to a small chapel, then to the mountain and the glacier and the peak. Each place they would perform their dance one more time in prayer to Jesus, Mary, Qoylloriti, Apus (God of the mountain) or the Sun God. For us, it was exhausting just hiking around the site at this altitude, the thought of dancing for a few minutes were pushing us to the point of collapse and all this on barely any sleep.
We overheard two dancers talking to each other on the last day when one asked the other “How much sleep did you get?”
The second replied with “What is sleep?”
Party on Wayne. Party on Garth.
Traditions on the Mountain
The first night we slept decently thanks to the space between us and the main crowds, however that morning we woke to a nation descending on us. One of the largest nations from Cusco had decided to set up camp next to us, and politely, but firmly asked us to move our camp to make space for them. We weren’t about to argue as we were guests at this event and foreigners have only been allowed for a few years. By the end of the eviction our tents were stacked on top of each other, there was a filth trench right out front our door and we were so close to the family behind us that they felt best using the space between the tents as a bathroom. Spoiler alert, we did not sleep the second night.
We spent that second day exploring the valley and admiring the intricate dances and the colorful costumes which amazed me in how they combined Catholic and Incan symbolism. We watched over and over again as groups of dancers would whip at each other’s feet, almost like they were fighting, until they were broken up by another to hug and make up. We even saw a dad bring his young son into one of these play fights.
Some people were making offerings of houses or cars made of paper, fake certificates and fake money, to represent things that they wish to have in their life. Some people were getting married and splashing holy water on each other. Others were celebrating new births in the family. It was truly a melting pot of celebration and tradition.
This was when we made our way up the final ascent to the sacred glacier, up towards the peak of the mountains. We were shooed out of one valley by dancer soldiers protecting a town meeting taking place, but welcomed by others curious to know where we were from and what we were doing here. The last hike up took everything out of me and unfortunately Natasha woke up sick and stayed back while the rest of us went up to 4,950 meters (16,200 feet). When we arrived at the glacier it was a sight to behold. We had heard it was melting and slowly disappearing (another 7 years and it’ll be gone they say), but to see the perfectly still waters beneath a wall of ice bordered by black peaks was truly amazing. People carried visages and crosses up the glacier to pray on the peak of the mountain, a true combination of Christian and Andean religion, almost like bringing Jesus closer to the God of the mountain.
That night the party continued and climaxed around us. We tried to enjoy it as much as we could, but sleep deprivation, the altitude and over stimulation were beginning to take their toll. The night before the final trek, we were kept awake all night by the drum inches from our tent, and fireworks going off a few feet away then falling back on our tent.
Incredibly all of this celebrating is done without a drop of alcohol, well in theory anyway. There is a strict no drinking rule in effect for all 80,000 partying Peruvians and it is enforced by the “disciplinarians” of each nation. Caught sneaking a drink? You’ll probably face a good public flogging and in the worst cases sent down the mountain to sober up.
The Final Trek to Ausangate
We woke up with the promise of leaving the festival grounds, which we were ready for, on a 14 km hike along an Andean mountain range, which we were not ready for. We climbed again up to 4,900m and left the echoing sounds of music and fireworks in the valley below us. After crossing the ridge we were surrounded by silence, for the first time in days. Beautiful silence.
[Natasha] We were at 4900m, on rolling hills that made me think of the Sound of Music with pristine white glaciers in the distance, and it was just us 12. I felt so free. I had a big smile on my face and I just wanted to scream of joy. Even though I had enjoyed seeing a whole different culture and different customs, I don’t think I can immerse myself in this level of energy and stimulation for 4 full days. Maybe a few hours at most, but then I need a sanctuary, somewhere quiet and something familiar. I only had one book, that I read for maybe an hour freezing in my tent (as it dropped to – 10˚C), that could take me away and drown the noise out a little. The long hike was absolutely refreshing and we slept great that night, but we knew we would be getting up at 4am, when the people from the valley would be catching up to us for the final day, the day to worship the Sun God.
To the Sun God
In years past dancers would wait near the glacier on the last morning of the celebration the pray to the Sun God as the sun rose over the mountain. However, there has been a slight change in tradition and now thousands of dancers will make their way, starting at about 10pm, 14 km north starting to the hills of Ausangate. We started hearing the beating of drums from the approaching dancers at about 3am. We had our morning coca tea and breakfast and made our way to wait alongside the processions of dancers under the full moon. As the sky began to lighten the dancers sang and marched their way to form a line on the hilltop facing the sun, reminiscent of a scene from a movie before armies charged down a mountainside. We waited and waited for the sun. People started napping and we tried not to complain about the cold. Every time we tried to sneak our beanies on for a bit of warmth we’d get a light whack from behind with the side of whip reminding us to keep our hats off.
Then as the sun finally made its way through the clouds the musicians began playing, the dancers started smiling and took off down the hillside in a zig zag of flags and colors. People cheered, we high-fived and the final dance was danced. We followed the thousands of Peruvians in the final prayers and made our hike back to the main road for one final meal before heading back to Cusco.
The entire experience was exhausting and exhilarating at the same time. Fascinating, but smothering. It is truly a once in a lifetime experience. It was absolutely incredible to be a part of something so unique, but we were also glad it was over and happy to return to a warm hotel room and a hot shower.
So you wanna go?
I have never been “glamping” before, but I will never knock it again, because it really was nice to have the food, tents and guiding taken care of. You can definitely do this experience on your own, but it may be a bit much if you don’t have at least a local friend to show you around. There are only a few outfitters currently offering this trip, but check them out. We used Apus-Peru, which we can definitely recommend, but explore the other options as well if you are planning to make this trip.
Want more info on the festival?
Here are the references I used for information. You’ll find a bit of different information about the history of the festival, and we seemed to get some mixed stories at the event itself, but take a look if you’re interested: