Every year in Cusco´s Sinakara Valley there is an event like no other- Qoyllur Rit’i, the greatest indigenous pilgrimage in this hemisphere. More than 10,000 pilgrims hike the icy Ausangate, an ancient site of pilgrimage since pre-Columbian times and sacred site linked with the fertility of the land. The snowy Apu (Andean mountain deity), was thought to appear to peasants as a boy with white skin. The pilgrimage always happens around the time of the solstice, probably due to the pan-Andean fascination with the Pleiades constellation.
Christianity arrived to the sacred rock in the 1780s, when religious authorities ordered the painting of an image of a crucified Christ on the rock to give the site a Christian veil. This image became known as Lord of Qoyllur Rit’i (Lord of the Snow Shine). Legend now says that in 1780 a strange mestizo boy befriended an Indian boy on the Ausangate snow fields. The boy appeared emanating an intense white light. When Church officials tried to apprehend him, the boy transformed into a bush with the body of an agonizing Christ hanging from it. His Indian friend fell dead from grief and was buried under the stone where Christ had last appeared.
This year´s pilgrimage begins on June 12th with a hike to the Sanctuary Shrine, passing 14 crosses over sheets of snow. Delegatio ns from Quechua and Aymara communities arrive carrying religious images to the Sanct uary. Individual pilgrims participate as well as large troupes of dancers and musicians. Pilgr ims pass the night inside the temple, warming themselves in the heat from thousands of candles offered by the devout in order to offset the glacial cold outside. Locals believe that those who attempt the Qoyllur Rit’i pilgrimage without faith will meet their deaths.
The numerous dance performances, processions, and Catholic masses are punctuated by some unique activities:
- There´s the Alabacitas market, where miniature goods are bought and sold with Qoyllur Rit´i currency according to real-life wishes.
- In the Burning of the Castles wooden constructions built with fireworks are set alight.
- In the “Game of Little Houses”, pilgrims construct miniature building a few inches in height in order to ask the Lord of Qoyllur Rit’i for real-life property. Some merely draw their wishes: a home, a child.
- You´ll see lots of costumed characters from Quechua mythology throughout the event. One of these, the ukukus, have the task of retrieving crosses and block of glacial ice for use as for use as holy water in the year to come and for symbolic irrigation of their land.
After the Blessing Mass there´s a “24-hour” procession passing Calvario Machacruz, the Kumukasa lagoons and Alqamarina sectors en route to Yanacocha (approx. a 6 hour hike). After a 3-4 hour nap the Night Hike to Tayancani begins, with the Sun Greeting Ceremony en route. At Tayancani there will be a blessing to the Sanctuary and village.
Tips for Travelers
- Soroche (Altitude Sickness) can cause fainting- if you´re concerned about the altitude buy one of the mini-oxygen tanks available in Cusco´s pharmacies. (Don´t worry, they´re bottle-sized.)
- Surusppi, irritation of the eyes by the reflection of the sun on the snow, is also a problem. Bring some good sunglasses to be on the safe side.
- Prepare for COLD- good jackets, thermal underwear, and a below-20 sleeping bag
- The main ceremony is held at the foot of Mount Ausangate, at 4,700m, where temperatures often plunge below freezing.