We’ve all heard the expression about being in the “right place at the right time”. It was the first of June 2012. I had just arrived back at my hostel in Cusco the night before after visiting Machu Picchu. Actually, I had been gone for 5 days total experiencing the amazing and spiritual Salkantay trek that ended with a visit to Machu Picchu. The trek was incredible! It was difficult at times, due simply to the nature of the trek but was always rewarded with spiritual enlightenment and visual stimuli. But now I was back in Cusco, and I wasn’t ready to leave. I couldn’t leave. I had just had a pivotal moment in spiritual growth and not to mention checked something off my bucket list, I was not about to jump on a bus for 15 hours to Lima just yet. I decided to at least stay one more day and take it all in. Plus, my new friends I had just made while on the trek were all going out for a pint to celebrate!
Back at the hostel, I had plenty of emails to check. A friend had sent me a copy of an article they had read in the NY Times about a month before. It was about the Snow Star Festival, Qoyllur Rit’i, a once a year pilgrimage that happens here in Peru. I read the article again and researched it. The pilgrimage happens near Cusco and the first day was tomorrow! It was a sign. I had to go!!
The long walk up…
Finally made it… so tired!!
I ran to the visitor’s center to gather all the info I needed and ask all my questions. I always have questions! I left that night, well that morning at 3am on a cab to take the local bus that headed towards Mawallani. That was where the walking began. I was very nervous on the bus ride over. Everyone I told, that I was attending Qoyllur Rit’i, would immediately be excited but always mention “ten Fe!” To have faith! Everyone. Every single person said the exact same thing. I would soon know what they meant.
We got to Mawallani and I was now nervous about something else. “Why was I doing this by myself, with no guide?” I didn’t know where to go. It was still dark out, 4:30am. And it was very cold. There was a lot going on. People moving in all directions carrying lots of things. Young people, old people, families. Mules. Horses. People carrying pots and pans. Others carrying beautiful embroidered signs. And then there were the people dressed up, but I will get to them later! There were people selling hats, gloves, scarves and other essentials. I bought an extra scarf, because I was told it was only going to get colder. Then there were people selling food. Candy, chocolate, and cooked meals. I saw a group of people huddled around a lady with a big boiling pot of what I thought was maté, but looked more like coffee. I had to get some (I’m still not sure what is was), and it was great, interesting. It definitely warmed me up, gave me a bit of energy, and helped to settle my stomach.
From here I saw where everyone was walking, so I followed. And I continued walking for hours. It quickly became obvious to me why everyone told me to have faith. It was super cold. And to be honest a bit boring in a lonely way. The walk was difficult because there were patches of ice on the ground that you couldn’t see until you were already slipping on it. Everyone slipped, but that was the first sign of community for me. If someone fell, everyone quickly came to their rescue. It was beautiful to see the “hermandad”, brotherhood that was present. It was only a 8-10km hike up the mountain through the valley, but it seemed to go on forever. There were many times that I wanted to turn back. I would stop and just look around with a confused, worried look. As soon as I internally made up my mind to go back down someone would stop, come up to me, and tell me we are almost there. And they would signal for me to walk with them. When I made it to the site of the festival, it all became worth it.
There were hundreds of people here. People setting up tents to sleep in. People setting up tents to sell things. People setting up tents as food stalls. It was such an incredible site. I walked around watching everyone. And everyone was watching me as well. I was one of only a handful of foreigners there. They loved it. Inviting me into their tents for food. Asking me tons of questions and telling me what to expect in the next days. The excitement was boiling over.
By the second day, the number grew from hundreds to thousands. And now the people who were in costumes had made it up. These were the dancers and performers. Groups of young people dressed in very colorful, excentric native dress. Some with fringe. Some with masks. It was so beautiful. And the dances were full on performances. Most told a story. They all performed in front of the chapel, where the Señor de Qoyllur Rit’i gave his sermons.
On the third day, I walked around some more. Looked at the shops where the sold tiny toy cars, tiny models of houses, fake money, and candles. People would buy these items and walk up the mountain a bit to bury the car or house and pray. They would pray to the Lord of Qoyllur Rit’i to receive that car or new house in the upcoming years. They would buy the fake money and the candles go to the crosses that were along the path and burn the candle over the fake money and pray for fortune in the upcoming year. And they would stay by their candle until it burned completely through. Faith was everywhere.
I didn’t stay for the last day. The nights had been pretty brutal. With tons of freezing wind blowing from every direction. I couldn’t last another night. I was afraid I would get sick. Plus everyone on the last day just waits in line for hours to enter the chapel and view the rock with the image of Christ painted on it, or so I heard!
On the way down, I couldn’t help but smile the whole time. I felt so happy to be a part of this pilgrimage. I really felt like I was part of something with the locals. I learned a different side to everyone. I also smiled that I happened to be there at the “right place at the right time!”
Things to know before you go:
-Find out when it is, because it only happens once a year.
-If you don’t want to camp overnight, it is definitely possible to visit just for the day!
-Dress very warm and in layers. It gets very cold.
-Bring food/snacks with you.
-Definitely go, if you can.
-Email me, message, or post a comment for more Things to know before you go!!!