Guest author Fraser Nicol presents the Quyllur Rit’i Pilgrimage Part 1:
Before I get started, many thanks to Chris and Sarah for giving me the opportunity to bring down the quality of this superb travel blog!
It was with a heavy heart that I set out on this Andean religious pilgrimage. I didn’t want to leave my friends, but I’d have only been in the way and they were determined that I should enjoy what they could not (and bring back lots of pictures and videos of course!).
A few others had dropped out of the trek due to illness, but there were still ten of us in the group, accompanied by two guides (Yosip and Briner). Our bus picked us up from Cusco at 7am and set off through the Sacred Valley. Our first stop was at a traditional Sunday market in the village of Urcos. We were instructed to purchase coca leaves (which could be exchanged with people we met on our trip) and sweets. The sweets were to provide extra sugar in our blood to combat the altitude. Yosip was particularly enthusiastically about this and kept saying, “more candies, more candies!!”. We passed a number of other Sunday markets on our way (a tradition in the region) along with open top lorries filled with locals on their way to the festival. All this was accompanied by an Andean pan pipe album which strangely included Highland Cathedral and the theme music to Last of the Mohicans.
We reached what was described as Base Camp, a sprawling mass of tents and parked vehicles (and horses), which served as the launch pad for the climb up to the main camp up in the mountains. Here we met our support team of six locals with a mule train and a horse, which would accompany us in case someone got sick or couldn’t handle the climb. The horse was affectionately known as “Taxi”. Because it was now lashing it down, we decided to have lunch before the climb to the main camp to give time for the rain to stop. This introduced us to our cook, Mauro. I cannot possibly overstate just how good he was. He produced a variety of dishes over the course of the four days which were worthy of any gourmet chef and all he had to use was a camp stove! I gave serious thought to kidnapping him at the end of the trek and bringing him back to the UK to open a restaurant. Once we had eaten, we started the climb at a slow, steady pace with frequent rest stops to help us cope with the higher altitude.
It was Trinity Sunday, the day upon which most people traditionally arrive at the main camp. But not everyone was arriving. More than ten thousand people attend the festival at some point or other and many of them couldn’t get time off work for these most important four days. So as we slowly ascended up the mountain path, we were passed by a steady stream of people descending back into the valley. It turned out that the festival had been going for two weeks already!
The route up to the camp is marked by fourteen decorated crosses, the last of which is situated on the Qullqip’unqu glacier, above the main camp site. Merchants also camp out beside the route, trying to sell their wares, most notably fruit juice sellers, who squeeze the juice from the fruit in presses.
We reached the huge main camp, at around 4,400 metres, just before dark. Thankfully, our support team had comfortably beaten us up there and had pitched our tents. We gratefully piled into the mess tent for ‘happy hour’. This consisted of sitting around and drinking tea and eating popcorn! After dinner we went out to do some night-time exploration of the camp site.
The Quyllur Rit’i Festival is a strange mixture of Catholic and indigenous rituals (the latter of which the Catholic Church turns a blind eye to avoid upsetting a significant portion of their South American congregation). Quyllur Rit’i translates as “star snow” and involves worship of the stars, the Christian God and, later on, the sun. It always takes place at the full moon. The form of worship is mostly music and dance. The musicians and dancers come from all over the region and the dancers wear a variety of exotic costumes to show where they are from. Competition to be chosen as a dancer is fierce and being chosen is considered a great honour. Even after sundown we were able to see plenty of the dancers as the music and dancing continues 24/7. As some groups take a break, others leap into action. Some of the dancing takes place near the dancers own tents, but there are also several large staging areas (most importantly in and around the church) where the dancing groups take turns to perform. The music involves bass and snare drums with brass and woodwind instruments carrying the tune. The night time dancing is accompanied by displays of fireworks. This means that the campsite is never quiet and sleep is fitful at best, but the atmosphere is incredible so it’s more than worth it.
The second day of our adventure began with ‘tent service’, the festival equivalent of room service. This meant being brought a hot mug of coca tea by the guides while still in our sleeping bags. Yosip was alarmed by the fact that I hadn’t used the sleeping bag liner provided. He assumed that I didn’t know what it was for. After I’d reassured him that I was Scottish and so didn’t consider -10 Celsius to be cold enough to justify using a liner, he re-Christened me “chico calientes” (hot guy) and persistently referred to me this way for the rest of the trip.
After breakfast we attempted the climb up Qullqip’unqu to the glacier, several hundred metres above the campsite. The scenery was glorious and more and more of the glacier was exposed to view as we climbed. We could see plenty of small figures up on the snow. Some of these were dancers who are charged to collect ice from the glacier for the festival. Others were ambitious climbers like us. Unfortunately our ascent was foiled at the foot of the glacier. Some officious bureaucrats had just arrived and were preventing anyone else from ascending it. We settled for wistfully taking pictures of the lucky ones who had got up there in time. The saddest thing of all is that, with the rise in global temperatures, the glacier is melting and, according to experts, has only five years left. We will be one of the last festival groups to see it.
Mauro surprised us with a magnificent pasta cake for dinner. It even sliced like a proper cake. I'd never even thought to try something that audacious. After dinner we watched the fireworks once more. Some of the locals had gone up the mountainside with torches to spell out "Lucre", the name of their region in Peru. Great way to advertise!
Doing a roaring trade in Coca leaves at Urcos Sunday market
Base camp even has table football
Base camp car park
Asea of blue tarpaulin at base camp
The ascent begins - many are already on their way down
The first of 14 decorated crosses which mark the route
Freshly squeezed juice for the weary traveller
The main camp at 4400m
Shall we dance? Multiple teams of colourful dancers perform all day and all night. In the background a group in green are dancing on the far hillside!
Many groups carry a model of a baby lama - this represents fertility and new life
The Qullqip’unqu glacier is the objective for Day 2
You can see hundreds of people up on its snows dancing in the sunshine
Unfortunately this is as far as we got, to the ice tongue and its meltwater lake
Looking back towards the main camp in the valley below
More and more dancers appear
Pasta cake for tea!