In Peru’s Valley of the Gods, pilgrims dressed as wild bears whip the air in a ritual dating back to the Incas. Explorer Wade Davis sets out with writer Andrew Gregg to bear witness to this lively and intriguing festival.

The dust along the road settles like flour over the children’s faces. These kids—farmers’ children overwhelmed by the sudden stream of traffic rumbling through their usually quiet Peruvian village—stretch out their hands, asking for money. But with so many vehicles moving steadily up the road, they have no place to direct their pleas.

A convoy of trucks and busses passes them without hesitation, stopping for nothing on a pilgrimage to the indigenous mountain gods, the apus. Our destination: The foot of Mount Ausangate, the highest and most powerful peak in this part of the Andes.

Once there, thousands of Quechuen from Peru and the surrounding nations will revel in the Qoyllur Rit’i, one of the greatest indigenous festivals in the Americas. For me, along with two National Geographic explorers-in-residence, Wade Davis and Johan Reinhard, the Qoyllur Rit’i will be the high point in a story of two seemingly opposite religions—the Catholic and the Incan—unified at 4,700 metres.

“The Catholic and the Inca religions are very mixed up,” says our guide, Nilda Callanaupa. “And you don’t separate them because they are so nicely mixed.” Callanaupa is a master weaver and a community leader from Chinchero, an old town near Cusco, in Peru’s Sacred Valley. With deep eyes, dark skin and high cheekbones, her face is classic Quechuen, which makes her an easily identifiable ancestor of the Incans.

She is helping me and Wade Davis, a renowned writer and ethnobotanist, make a documentary film on sacred geography.

Davis has known Callanaupa since he travelled to her village in the 1970s to study coca, a plant the locals call divine and the rest of the world either reveres or reviles as the source of cocaine. This time Davis is here to study the Quechuen culture, trying to understand how the Church of Rome can be syncretized, or combined into something new, with something as pagan as mountain worship.

Davis and Gregg trekking to the valley where the festival takes place.

“For us, religion is a single impulse,” says Callanaupa. “Once you start dividing it, it just becomes a headache.” To try and separate the intertwined strands of religion risks not just one’s identity, but also one’s place in the community. Believers are uninterested in contemplating the separation of such a successful syncretism. To the faithful, such a question was completely strange. Indeed, to them most of our questions—or at least mine—were strange.

The colourful traditional dress and masks of the Qoyllur Rit’i , or Snow Star, festival.

“Why is the mountain important?” I ask as the convoy pauses in Mawayani, a dusty town in a treeless mountain valley. My rather innocuous query provokes a discussion between Davis and Johan Reinhard, who has joined us in Peru for our study of sacred geography.

“Maybe the Incas were actually climbing the peaks, not to get closer to the sun, which is what everybody thought before, but because the mountains themselves were so important,” says Reinhard. “And since they believed that the mountain gods controlled the weather, what happened when there was a bad hailstorm? I mean, they must have wondered ‘What did we do to provoke the mountain gods? Or what did somebody else do?’”

“That’s what I find interesting,” says Davis. “And if you’re raised to believe that a mountain is an Apu spirit that will direct your destiny, it’s going to make you a very different human being than if you’re raised to believe that it’s simply an inert body of ore ready to be mined. That therefore creates a very different human being, and therefore, inevitably, a different culture.”

The “fearsome theatre” of the pilgrims/dancers.

All around us porters are strapping the camp and camera gear onto the backs of horses. Beyond them hawkers in makeshift stalls are selling everything from Inca Cola to lacquered armadillos. One man has a parrot that tells your fortune.

Already there is a long line of pilgrims, stretching from the concession stands past the parked trucks and idling buses, through town and into a huge cut between the mountains. They are walking slowly towards more than three days of virtually sleepless festivities. Accompanying them are marching bands—at least one from every village—each led by a drum major carrying a gaudy sequined banner that honours Senor Qoyllur Rit’i.

Every band is playing the Wayri, a song that to my ears is an endless mess of notes. Not one of the bands’ many battered horns is in tune, and neither are the shabby bass drums, which reverberate with a loose, tinny shudder every time they are struck. The resulting cacophony announces the pilgrims with every step.

As soon as we are ready, the explorers, film crew and I join the throng marching out of Mawayani. The air thins almost immediately, even though the trail follows a gradual rise. The long valley stretches forward like the Scottish highlands. The trails snake around stone farmsteads where curious children venture out looking for candy. A creek splits the valley in two and the pilgrims move along both sides—25,000 people hauling blankets, stoves, children, cookies, soup and roast guinea pig.

At one point the crowd parts around a desperate legless man dragging himself forward on his bloody hands, his bundled belongings tethered behind him with a rope. Marking each kilometre of the nine-kilometre walk is a ceremonial altar, like the Christian Stations of the Cross. At each of these sacred cairns the wheezing bands stop, kneeling in quiet prayer before once more striking up their dented tubas and coronets and heading on towards the summit.

It isn’t long before I realize that the Qoyllur Rit’i legend is tough to pin down. The most widely-told version is that a shepherd boy named Marianito Mayta met another boy: he had white skin, blue eyes and blond hair. Marianito and the strange boy became friends, dancing to the Wayri and playing games.

When Marianito returned home wearing robes similar to the strange boy, a priest quickly recognized them as holy. He rushed up the mountain and tried to capture Marianito’s new friend, but the boy fled like an apparition into solid rock, leaving only his image behind, emblazoned on the side of the rock. The priest declared the strange boy was the Christ child, and so it is that around this same rock the Catholic pilgrims weep in exultation today.

Reinhard, though, thinks there is more to the story. He has found similar Inca sites around the nearby valleys. As well, the timing of the festival, every year in late May, coincides with the appearance of the Pleiades, the constellation known as the Seven Sisters, in the night sky. Its appearance is associated with the mythical trek of the Incan pilgrim-hero Viracocha.

When you take that and add the sacred rock’s proximity to Mt. Ausangate, the most sacred Apu in this part of Peru, suddenly the Qoyllur Rit’i ritual seems to be pre-Columbian. Reinhard speculates that early Catholic priests followed Incan pilgrims to the Sinikara Valley, watched their festival and co-opted the ancient ritual as their own.

When we arrive at the valley where the fearsome theatre of Qoyllur Rit’i will be enacted, it’s a vision of joy or a picture of hell, depending on your orientation.

Blue smoke rises everywhere as the late-day sun dips behind the surrounding mountain peaks. Women are cooking, babies are crying. Teenagers are setting off fireworks and blasting caps, explosions which echo with terrifying kabooms off the sides of the valley.

Community groups use their elbows to carve out a dance floor amid crowds of celebrants, priests, porters and merchants, all jammed cheek to jowl. The marching bands, which eventually found their way here, are playing a bastard symphony in the natural amphitheatre of the Sinikara.

Ahead is a long, low, whitewashed church—the place I have planned to visit. Inside is the famous stone Christ child. Already a lineup a thousand strong has formed, and more people keep arriving, jostling the celebrants and campers.

The wait will be hours, so we go looking for a campsite instead. It’s also getting cold now, dipping below freezing after a day of pleasant sunshine. As the cook prepares stuffed hot peppers and pots of tea for our dinner, several marching bands parade straight past our tents.

The Pablitos arrive, looking like grown men at Halloween. Carrying whips for discipline, these men are the police here, shadowy enforcers of the Qoyllur Rit’i rules, which ban, among other things, alcohol and dispute. Each Pablito is dressed like a bear—an Ukuku—with fur-covered chaps and shoulders. Not only that but each one wears a balaclava adorned with a Snidely-Whiplash-style moustache and a bell dangling from the tip of his nose. They emit falsetto chirps that imitate the cries of baby alpaca. They are visiting each campsite, asking the pilgrims for money as a fee for the shrine’s maintenance.

Nilda Callanaupa is wearing a satisfied smile, oblivious to the noise and the squalor. She’s made this trek many times before, because (as she says), this festival is a way to re-align her life.

“It’s a moment to think about your life and how you are behaving with people. What bad things are you doing? What would you like in the future for you, your family, your community, and your children?” But, she adds, this festival is not just a time to focus on one’s life, it’s also a chance to celebrate community and the richness of Quechuen culture.

When tomorrow arrives, the line-up to enter the church has turned into a parade of villages, each one carrying effigies of Christ, various saints and the Virgin festooned with community banners, and led by those infernal marching bands.

It’s not the church, however, but the entire valley that is the real temple. It is dominated at one end by three prongs of the overhanging Qollqepunku Glacier. The Pablitos have somehow hauled huge crosses 600 steep metres up the mountain. Those crosses will stay there until the dawn of the last day. Then, the first rays of the day’s sun will re-energize their power—a fusion of the Christian faith and Nature.

Now, the Pablitos are staging mock battles with warriors dressed like Chuchus—the jungle tribes—and Incas. Later the Pablitos will break off into their own performances, where pairs will lock into intense bouts of whipping each other until a third Pablito lunges in and breaks them up.

Wade Davis looks around the valley at the celebrating pilgrims, and notes, “What we see, having emerged from 500 years of European influence, is a world that is neither Incaic nor Spanish, but uniquely itself.” It is a syncretism of the two traditions.

Before dawn on the final day of festivities, we hike the trail up to the glacier. It is treacherous at 3:30 in the morning, but at least the moon is full and our guides are patient. We want to be up there for sunrise, to see the sun hit the crosses and witness the Pablitos taking them back down to the pilgrims, to complete the cycle of worship and the symbolic act of sacrifice and rebirth.

Davis explains to me the symbolism of the crosses in the ice, as well as the nearby mountains, for the pilgrims.

“Ice is both water’s most concentrated and sacred form, and a symbol of fertility. But it is the mountain that oversees your immediate destiny. Its historical and spiritual resonance has only come into being because of the infusion of belief, through the multiple generations that have lived in its shadow.”

He continues his lesson, telling me about the pilgrims’ relationship to the Apus, or mountain spirits: “An Apu is an ancestor that will direct your destiny. You must make offerings to that Apu, which must, in turn, give you what you need—fertility or rain. As you propitiate the spirit in the classic Andean reciprocal way, the spirit will come home to benefit you.”

At the end of the trail, the Pablitos step onto the glacier in a solemn line, then move around the bases of their crosses and kneel, waiting for the first shards of light to break across the ice surface. Over their shoulders the snowcap of Ausangate—the most powerful Apu—is shining like a Stoic who already knows the warmth of illumination.

When the sun arrives on the scene, the Pablitos silently uproot their crosses and leave, carrying a symbol charged by ice, sun, the mountain and God.

This will be a long day today. It won’t stop until the cross-bearing processionals have gone down into the valley, out through the pass, back into the trucks in Mawayani and home to their village squares. The church bells will ring out and the Quechuen will be recharged by the spirit of everything that counts as holy around here.

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