Why did we try to catch up with a Q’ollor Ritty pilgrimage? What is it we were chasing? We were not religious, we were no pilgrims. We don’t believe in a Virgin or Señor. We have no devotion to the Catholic saints – or any other, for that matter.
It meant driving after the sun has set – which as a principle we don’t do. Yet, as soon as we learned about the pilgrimage up the Q’oyllor Ritty Glacier at 4,700 meters we were set on becoming part of it, or at least seeing it. It reminded me of our pilgrimage to the Amarnath Cave, a sacred place for the Hindus, in the Kashmir Mountains of Northern India.
There is something incredibly energetic about witnessing the spiritual fervor of worship to God. The Q’ollor Ritty is one of many the religious festivals in Peru, and we had heard amazing stories about it.
Q’ollor Ritty is a religious festival during which devotees worship to God, to nature, to the Apus, the lord of Q’yllor Ritty, the Christ of the Snow.
To really become part of this Q’ollor Ritty festival, we were too late. The pilgrims had left 24 hours earlier from Huaro. The festivities would last until after Mass the following morning and we hoped to catch the last bit of it. Q’oyllor Ritty wasn’t too far away from where we were, so I finished up the dishes from our late afternoon lunch as quickly as possible, tidied the Land Cruiser and were on our way.
Driving to the Head of the Trail
We took a left turn at the village of Muñapata and checked directions with a traffic police officer. “All paved,” he responded, “This is the Inter Oceanic Highway.” (which runs between the Atlantic Ocean in northeast Brazil to the Pacific Ocean in Peru).
This didn’t confirm with the info we obtained in Huaro where they said had we’d have to walk the last 8 kilometers. But never mind, first we had to find Mahuayani. Both sources agreed that until there, the road was paved.
The winding road climbed steeply and the Land Cruiser did well in second gear. It was five p.m. and we had less than an hour of daylight left. Fortunately, we had filled up on diesel the day before so we were okay on that. We crossed the highest pass, the Abra Cuyuni at 4185 meters. Views were mind-blowing (but already too dark for good photos).
In the distance rose a line of snow-capped mountains I figured we wee looking at mountains with beautiful names like Q’ampa (5,500 meters), Q’omercocha (4,580 meters) and the big brother of Peru, the Ausangate at 6,384 meters.
Two hours later we passed the uninspiring town of Ocangate at 3,500 meters.
Clearly marked with reflectors on the line in the middle as well as along the sides, plus reflectors in all curves, the asphalt was in splendid condition. So how did we end up with a flat tire? Only weeks earlier we had one just before Cusco, on asphalt just as smooth. It didn’t make sense (it became a recurring issue we never got really solved until we bought new tires).
In the pitch-black night Coen changed the tire in a trice and we continued once more.
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We ascended to 4,100 meters and arrived in Mahuayani. There were guarded parking lots and we prepared for a freezing night. When we got up at five a.m. the windows were frozen, as was a water tap outside. We put on all clothes we had, for me that came down to seven layers, including thermal underwear (bless that invention!).
A Motorcycle Ride to the Q’ollor Ritty Glacier
Coen checked if there were motor taxis waiting to take pilgrims to the religious festival higher up in the mountains.
There were. Bless them.
We had expected to having to hike up the 8 kilometers to 4,700 meters. At 5 a.m., when it’s still dark, I don’t think that’s a whole lot of fun. And so, after we discovered there were motorcycles plying up and down, that decision was easily made.
I climbed on the back of one, Coen on another. The pleasure lasted shortly. Outside town the slope was too steep, we had to walk up. My lungs hurt from the cold. Slow down, I told myself and like an old lady put one foot in front of the other, carefully, calculating my breath in the rarified air, and slowly moved up. Coen, on the other hand, steadily walked up as if he was at sea level.
The motorcyclists didn’t seem to mind the altitude.
Off we were. I had a skillful driver and I was grateful. The path was smooth enough and not too narrow – on most parts a car would pass, I reckon – but missing a curve or hitting a stone could mean a long and painful plunge down. I was quite comfortable behind his broad back but the cold stung my eyes and forehead. It was hard to see anything. Half an hour later we were at the entrance of the sanctuary.
For 25 soles I felt we had a splendid service.
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Arriving at the Q’ollor Ritty Celebrations
It was getting light now and we walked into the food area. It never ceases to amaze me how in Peru people are always up and about making money. You always see vendors walking with their wares, not just touristy crap but basic needs of ordinary life: buckets with potatoes, pans with wholesome soups, plastic containers with rice, heaps of meat. The containers are covered in the bright-colored blankets typical of Peru to keep the food lukewarm.
Here, vendors brought up the wares and set up a stall. Wood fires were burning all over the place with blackened kettles and pans. How did these women manage cooking without gloves? They work wash chuños (fried-dried potatoes) in freezing water or move the kettle with boiling water from one spot to the other without protecting. Their hands must be of leather.
Skin on my hands (and heels) start bursting as soon as the air is dry. Cold worsens it. It’s very painful. When I asked how they manage that while pointing out my two thumbs with severe cracks the woman gave me the solution:
“Just cover them in ear wax, and the problem won’t return.”
I did understand her correctly, no misunderstanding of language here as she accompanied her words with gestures. All I needed was ear wax…
At one of the stalls we warmed up with a big cup of hot coffee. It seemed we were the only foreigners here. I refrained from eating something. It was too cold and too high; I felt a bit nauseous.
The Religious Festival of Q’ollor Ritty
People were celebrating the birthday of Señor de Q’oyllor Ritty. What surprised us, being a bit familiar with big religious celebrations in Bolivia, was that we saw no drunk people or large barrels with chicha. Only later I read that during pilgrimages to Q’oyllor Ritty, alcohol is forbidden.
Of course, the Q’ollor Ritty comes with a legend:
We were attending a small Q’ollor Ritty Festival. The main Q’Ollor Ritty Festival is in June, attracting thousands of devotees.
The Dancing Troups for Q’ollor Ritty
Inside the church a group was dancing in front of the altar. Other troupes were waiting for their turn. The dancers come from all provinces of Cusco, Puno and Apurimac and in the church they greet the Taytacha Qoyllor Ritty (Little Father of the Shiny Snow), dancing and singing. This was a quiet pilgrimage, with a mere 15 troupes.
But it had an advantage, a woman told me, because this meant they could all dance in front of the altar, which was a privilege. (During Qoyllor Ritty’s main festival, during Corpus Christi, there were 130 troups and they could dance only outside, on the square).
Before it was their turn, they took off their coats, shawls until their dancing costumes were visible in full glory. Many wore masques but everything was new to me and I didn’t know their signification yet.
Truth be said, I didn’t feel fit enough to go and ask around either. I just stood, watched and took in the color, the life music, the fervor.
In the back of the church people were burning candles.
Outside, Wishing for a Prosperous Future
We went outside and followed the crowd up the mountain. There was another shrine uphill and again they waited for their turn to dance and pay their obeisance. A man told me that the last time he was here, 20 years earlier, the glacier came down to the sanctuary, now it was only the tops that was covered in ice and snow.
“It’s not a good sign,” he said. “The snow and ice should be all the way down here.”
Devotees were rummaging around with pebbles. They were constructing houses, or properties.
“You take a stone and imagine it’s a wall, or roof, or door, and this way you build your house. You can build a wall around the property and I imagined a stone was my car, another my tractor. By believing this is so, your wish will become reality,” a woman explained. It reminded me of Alasitas Festival, in Bolivia, where they have miniatures to represent their dreams.
Another man commented. “Before we had only stones. Now we can buy decorations like confetti alasitas (miniatures) to emphasize our wishes.”
However, the valley wasn’t one big mess at all, as you might expect. Women were walking around with garbage bags cleaning the place up.
More Religious Performances
We followed the troupes down to the square, in front of the church. We bought a cup of tea. The sun was hitting the valley and we were warming up quickly. The dancers performed once more and one group had a ritual of two persons challenging each other by hitting each other with a whip around the ankles. It’s a practice whereby the Pablitos deter the faithful´s bad conduct with azotes (whip slashes) to those who disobey that rule.
During the duel, a third person was present, dressed up as a woman with different socks and a smile-invoking mask. This person was the judge on who won the duel. She made jokes, jumped around like a joker and made the crowd laugh. This spectacle against the backdrop of bare mountains with patches of snow, a blue sky and rays of the early morning sun made for a stunning setting.
Of course you could buy stuff here other than food. Clothes, blankets, leather stuff, but also alasitas (miniatures). The alasitas comes with a blessing from the vendor. She asks you to rub your hands together after she sprinkled some eau de cologne on it, while mumbling prayers. She sprinkles flower petals over the alasitas for abundance, as well as an weird kind of magnetic stuff (no idea what it is) so your dreams will come true and stay with you.
Meanwhile there were preparations going on for an outdoor mass. A table was put in place, with the necessarily decorations such as large vases with flowers. Through the microphone people were asked to come to the square.
From a cheerful, happy crowd, the place transcended into one of quietness and respect. What a transformation. Everybody took off his hat, no matter the sun rays that were now beating on our heads. Because I am not religious I find it hard to comprehend this devotion. To really walk all those miles, and dance all those dances in honor of a God. I always felt that this was just an occasion to celebrate. It wasn’t. It isn’t like that at the Urkupiña Festival in Bolivia, nor is it here. This was serious devotion.
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Hiking Down the Mountain
Just before the mass ended we left to stay ahead of the crowds going down. Motorcyclists were waiting at the beginning of the path but we now greeted them and walked on. It was a lovely and easy walk down. Just before we left, we ate a big bowl of soup which had strengthened me again. Along the way were crosses beautifully dressed, like we had seen in southern Peru so often.
Maybe the last couple of kilometers up were part of the Stations of the Cross? We weren’t sure.
Along the way, herds of alpacas and a couple of farms that seem abandoned (maybe just inhabited for the time when alpacas are being sheared?). Bare mountains, blue sky with still a chilly wind. Slowly I delayered and put the clothes in my backpack. By the time we reached the Land Cruiser I was bloody hot and ready for a cup of coca leaf tea to ease the headache.
What other surprises did Peru have in story for us?
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