For 235 years, pilgrims across Peru have traveled to the Sinakara Valley to take part in one of the biggest pilgrimages in South America. Qoyllur Rit’i – or Snow Star Festival – is a 16-kilometer trek that leads devoted pilgrims to the 4,700-meter high “Sanctuary”, one of the most sacred locations in the Andes. This May, I joined over 100,000 people on the biggest climb of the year. What I was about to find out, however, was that Qoyllur Rit’i 2018 would – sadly – be the first of its kind.
“Estas bien?” (are you ok), Enrique, my Qoyllur Rit’i guide, asks me as he stuffs another wad of coca leaves into his right cheek.
“Si, si estoy bien, gracias” (Yes, yes I’m ok, thank you), I wheezed between deep, painful breaths.
Despite his 70th birthday coming up, Enrique – an Andean local who, having lived in the Sinakara Valley his whole life, had taken part in over 30 Qoyllur Rit’i pilgrimages – was effortlessly trotting up the steep gravel path ahead of me. I considered myself to be relatively fit, but, at 4,000 meters, each agonizing step felt like someone had laced my shoes with led, tightened a cord around my chest, and spiked my water bottle with vodka for good measure (the light-headedness I felt at this altitude was akin to the feeling you get after your 5th or 6th tequila shot).
I looked around for some moral support, but altitude sickness, apparently, wasn’t affecting my fellow pilgrims. As I lent on my make-shift walking pole to catch my breath, Qoyllur Rit’i regulars skipped past me carrying supplies on their hunched backs: blankets, tents, corn, candles. Carrying half their weight and wearing nothing but sandals and cloth trousers, there was no doubt about it: these guys were putting me to shame.
“How much further until we reach the Sanctuary, Enrique?” I asked, without trying to sound too desperate.
Flashing a coca leaf-stained smile, he shouts “just three more hours!”.
A fusion of ancient religions
Qoyllur Rit’i is a complex celebration that combines Catholic, Incan, and pre-Incan beliefs. Paradoxically intertwined, during the 16-kilometer journey we saw crosses being carried up to sacred Apus (mountain gods in Quechua), coca leaves scattered around candle-lit Christian shrines, and masked machulas (the mythical first inhabitants of the Andes) with their hands in prayer.
Perhaps seeing my confused expression, Enrique stops and says:
“The indigenous people first made this journey not hundreds, but thousands of years ago. By making offerings to the Pleiades star constellation, the idea was to appease Pachamama (the Earth Mother), or to rekindle our connection with her, so that she will grant good fortune for the year to come. However, when the Spanish arrived they changed our indigenous celebration to a Catholic pilgrimage. Today, we are left with what you see now. A blend of cultures and beliefs.”
After spending three hours trudging uphill past snow-capped mountains, deep valley gorges, and llama-scattered plateaus, we finally arrived at what I could only assume was the Sanctuary. The steep but relatively calm gravel path that we had been following all morning suddenly opened up into a sprawling tented village. What any other time of year would be a calm, silent green valley hidden high up in the Andes, today had become a sea of blues and reds shaking to the sounds of drums, whistles, and the chanting of 100,000 excited pilgrims.
Whilst the valley itself – surrounded by moss-covered volcanic rock and jagged glaciers – was beautifully serene, the scene on the ground was chaos. Without any warning, thousands of masked, sequined and feathered dancers pushed past us, who were shortly followed by a 30-piece brass band and thousands of supporters carrying life-sized Saints and giant wooden crosses. Nervous, excited and completely in awe, I fumbled for my camera and hit the shutter a thousand times- all whilst being pushed and pulled by a constantly moving crowd.
Enrique and I spent the next couple of hours clambering over boulders and squeezing through excited crowds to catch the constant outbreak of dances taking place across the Sanctuary. Each “Nation”, invited by the Brotherhood of the Lord of Qoyllur Rit’i, brings their own flair to the festival with their unique outfits and style of dance, transforming the Sanctuary into a Pandora’s box of traditions. The dances, Enrique tells me, mark the beginning of three long days of festivities here, where the groups will battle it out in a kind of cultural “dance off” between Nations.
A change in climate, a change in centuries-old customs
As I watched a traditional whip fight (a dance that represents elders imposing the strict behavioral rules of the festival), I could suddenly feel myself being pushed by yet another human wave. This time, however, the whole place was on the move. They were, it seemed, all heading towards the glacier.
“It’s time for the Ukuku ceremony!”, Enrique shouts over to me excitedly.
Since the very first Snow Star Festival, every pilgrim anticipated the time when Ukukus – people dressed as mythical half-man-half-bear characters – climbed to the glacier’s summit to collect huge blocks of ice. The melted water from these ice blocks, Enrique tells me, is believed to have magical healing properties, and so is collected once a year for the local people to drink from and perform rituals. By the time we reach the Ukuku’s, however, Enrique looks up at the glacier and frowns. “I remember when I was young”, he says, “the ice would reach right to where we are standing now.”
I look down, but there is nothing but gravel at our feet. The ice line lays hundreds of meters away.
The Ukukus, who have also been making the pilgrimage since they were boys, note that the ice has receded considerably in recent years. To Enrique’s disappointment, we soon find out that this year, due to critically low levels of ice, the Ukuku ceremony has been banned in an attempt to protect the shrinking glacier. At Qoyllur Rit’i’s 236th celebration, ceremonies which have been performed on the ice since the time of the Incas will today take place on the rocky cliffs, with the festival’s most important ceremony (the collection of the ice) not taking place at all.
“I am worried,” Enrique says. “Every year, the ice melts a little more. This year we can not perform our rituals the way we have always done. I fear our sacred Apu will be gone before my grandchildren get to see it.”
Enrique’s fears aren’t unwarranted. In 1997, the Peruvian government found that their country’s glaciers had shrunk by more than 20 percent over a 30-year period. The National Commission on Climate Change now predicts that Peru could lose all of its glaciers within 40 years.
I came back from trekking Peru’s largest pilgrimage with conflicting emotions: happiness and sadness Happiness, because it was an experience that I’ll never forget – it was, without doubt, one of the most beautiful, most colorful festivals I’d ever seen. But sadness, because, like so many others, I had once again underestimated climate change: it not only threatens our planet’s delicate ecosystem, but it also has the potential to wipe out thousands of years of culture and tradition all over the world.