Commentary, Customs, Travel

Climbing to the Starry Snow

A Mountain Apu--Lord Rising into the Sky (Eric Rayner)

The pilgrimage of Quyllurit’i is a yearly event based on the lunar calendar, usually taking place in the month of June. Quyllurit’i (“star snow”) is a small glacier draped around a sharp peak (Sinakara) and is the focal point of the pilgrimage. The glacier and the peak are Apu (mountain Lord) staring down a narrow “V” shaped canyon facing the great Apu Ausangate, a patron of the Cusco region. The site is located several hours south of Cusco. When I first heard of the pilgrimage years ago I was intrigued and now had my opportunity. Thousands come from all across the Cusco region to participate and fulfill their burden/responsibility (cargo).

People believed that once you participate in a pilgrimage, you are committed to participate in a total of three consecutive pilgrimages to complete your cargo. Cargos are important in the Quechua-speaking world not only as means to improve one’s status but also as necessary obligations in this society of reciprocation. Every year the mountain takes payment (pagos a la tierra) in human lives. Moreover, with the recent addition of motorized travel, injuries and deaths associated with the pilgrimage have greatly increased.

A 3-4 hour bus ride from Cusco, takes you down a river valley and over a high mountain pass and near the base of the great mountain Lord, Ausangate. The bus arrives at the normally sleepy town of Mahuayani where the trail begins. This tiny settlement consists of a now crowded bus terminal, a collection of businesses, and houses divided by a two-lane highway. The highway is lined with temporary tents of blue tarp occupied by peasant women and their children cooking meals for weary pilgrims before the final leg of their journey. I put another wad of Coca leaves into my cheek to give me energy and to facilitate breathing. Coca is controversial and often discredited by modern science as not having much physiological benefit on humans, but I have always felt its effects and have relied on it to enhance my physical performance and to prevent altitude sickness.

I wear my poncho and ch’ullo (traditional woven Andean cap). My backpack is full; I carry a tent, sleeping pad, heavy clothing and high-energy food in preparation of the sub zero temperatures. As I begin the steep uphill trek to the sanctuary, my heart pounds and I struggle for air. The sanctuary is located 8 kilometers up the valley, approximately 5,000 meters in altitude. After hiking for a half hour the sun sets. I am approached by mamita Alexandrina, a short, squat Quechua-speaking woman in her early seventies. Her meticulously braided hair is still jet-black. She is lugging a huge bundle of food and cooking implements on her back wrapped in a shawl but walks confidently with her staff. “I saw you on the bus from Cusco, lets keep each other company” she says, and we proceed up the trail. People of all ages make the trek, often alone, but you never are truly alone. All go with the same purpose–to sacrifice and to plead their heart’s desires to the great mountain Lord.

People Gathering at High Altitude Before the Mountain Lord (Eric Rayner)
People Gathering at High Altitude Before the Mountain Lord (Eric Rayner)

It is soon dark and the Milky Way is arching tightly like a glittery rainbow over the canyon walls and frames the great Ausangate. Traffic on the trail is heavy in both directions and partially lit by people carrying lanterns and headlamps helping us navigate. We expected a full moon to illuminate our way it but only showed in the morning. The darkness and passing horse trains frighten mamita, so I take her hand as we make our way to the sanctuary. There is water running across the trail which Mamita thinks is ice. Mamita tells me that the first time she made the pilgrimage she was nineteen years of age and there was much more ice. “Everything was ice,” she tells me “all the hills were covered with ice, as was the trail in many places, but no more” she says. More reverent than I, mamita stops at every station of the cross to genuflect and pray. She asks me if I am Catholic, I respond ‘not very.’ She tells me that she is a devout catholic and one must come here with great faith to make this trek so one’s desires can be fulfilled. “When I was younger,” she says, “I wanted my own house and because of my faith in Quyllurit’i my desires were fulfilled. You must have great faith.”

Mamita begins to slow and at the halfway point we unburden ourselves and take a rest. “Would you like a cafecito?” she asks, and I reply, ‘no thank you’ — there is a sharp chill in the air. Mamita tells me that I must have an orange with her to revive ourselves. She opens her huge shawl and takes out two oranges. We then pick up our burdens and continue. The trail is lined with large, makeshift tents made out of blue tarps illuminated by a single florescent eco-bulb. There is a power line treaded along the trail from Mahuayani to light the main encampment and shops along the way. The shops are filled with packaged snacks and trinkets; people prepare food and drinks. “It’s not about this,” protests Mamita, “this is about faith and will, they should not be selling!”

Approaching the main encampment of the sanctuary is a surreal sight. The steep valley walls are illuminated by exploding fireworks revealing the valley walls and the thousands of pilgrims who have made their temporary home in the wet pampas and in the rocky scree above. It snowed here for days delaying my trip. As we approach the entrance of the sanctuary, troupes of dancers crowd around the final station of the cross, dancing, playing their instruments, kneeling and genuflecting, praying, thereby further fulfilling their cargos. Camp fires and pyrotechnics fill the valley with a smoky haze — I wonder where I will camp.

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