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Witnessing Peru’s Enduring, if Altered, Snow Star Festival

At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic with worldwide travel restrictions, we started a new series – The world through a lens – in which photojournalists virtually transport you to some of the most beautiful and fascinating places on our planet. This week Danielle Villasana shares a collection of pictures from southeastern Peru.

Stubbornly unimpressed by warnings of “Soroche” or altitude sickness, I swung my legs onto a donkey and climbed the steep paths. After hiking with hundreds of others for a few dizzying hours, I approached a glacier basin. The scene began to unfold before us: a vast valley flooded with so many pilgrims that it appeared to be covered in confetti, with every tiny speck representing a collection of tents and people.

Altitude sickness began to overtake every inch of my body. Even my eyeballs hurt. But undeterred, I slowly navigated through the crowd trying to absorb every sight and every sound.

Every year in late May or early June, thousands of pilgrims wander for hours on foot and on horseback through the Peruvian Andean highlands – and slowly meander through the mountainous terrain – to the religious celebrations of Qoyllur Rit’i, which takes place about 80 km east of Cusco, once the capital of the Inca Empire.

The celebrations, practiced annually for hundreds of years, mark the start of the harvest season when the Pleiades, a prominent cluster of stars, return to the night skies of the southern hemisphere. The syncretistic festival, which is on UNESCO’s list of representatives for the intangible cultural heritage of humanity, interweaves indigenous and Inca customs with Catholic traditions introduced by Spanish colonial rulers who wanted to undermine the Andean cosmology.

The celebrations have been suspended this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, and the way down to the valley was completely closed. But when I was there in 2013, the crowd was remarkably dense.

The festival takes place in the Sinakara Valley, a glacial basin located approximately 16,000 feet above sea level. Celebrities swarm in multicolored flocks with costumes, huge flags, instruments and provisions in tow.

The celebrations begin with the arrival of a statue of the Lord of Qoyllur Rit’i being transported from the nearby town of Mahuayani to the valley’s small chapel. For three days, from morning to evening, the air is filled with clouds of dust raised by whirling dancers amid the uninterrupted sounds of drums, flutes, pipes, accordions, cymbals and electric keyboards. It settles on sequins, neon scarves, ribbons, tassels, and feathers that adorn traditional costumes and people’s clothing.

The pilgrims are divided into “nations” that correspond to their place of origin. Most belong to the Quechua-speaking agricultural regions in the northwest or to the Aymara-speaking regions in the southeast. The delegation from Paucartambo has made a pilgrimage longer than any other.

“It’s important to keep this tradition alive because we have a lot of faith,” said a young Paucartambo pilgrim disguised as a Ukuku, a mythical creature who is half-human and half-bear. The ukukus dressed in red, white and black alpaca robes are responsible for the safety of pilgrims. They act as mediators between the Lord of Qoyllur Rit’i and the people.

Other participants are the Ch’unchus, who wear headdresses and represent indigenous communities from the Amazon; the Qhapaq Qollas, who wear knitted masks and represent residents of the southern Altiplano region; and the machulas, who wear long cloaks over fake humps and represent the mythological people who first populated the Andes.

Hundreds of ceremonies take place during the three-day festival. The long-awaited main event, however, is carried out by the ukukus in the early hours of the last day. With towering crosses and candles, ukukus from every nation climb up Qullqipunku Mountain to a nearby glacier believed to be alive and sentient. (The snow-capped mountains that encircle the valley are also believed to be mountain gods, or apus, who provide protection.)

According to oral tradition, after climbing the icy slopes, the ukukus once took part in ritual battles that were eventually banned by the Catholic Church.

Another tradition has also recently been put to rest, this time by Mother Nature.

Until a few years ago, Ukukus carved ice sheets from the glacier, the melted water of which is revered as a healing agent. Pilgrims would wait eagerly for the ukukus, their backs bent from the weight of the ice, and place the blocks along the path to the temple to be used as holy water. Sometimes the ice was even transported to the main square of Cusco, where at the end of Qoyllur Rit’i the Corpus Christi celebrations begin with comparable religious fervor.

Many believed that wearing the ice was a penance for sins and that fulfilling this ritual meant that the Apus would offer blessings.

However, since much of the glacier has melted and its size decreased significantly, the tradition of carrying sacred chunks of ice down the mountain has been banned.

Climate researchers say that glaciers in the tropical Andes have been reduced by almost a quarter in the past 40 years. Some scientists predict that such glaciers could completely disappear by 2070.

These changes not only affected agricultural practices in the Andes, but also, as the pilgrims of Qoyllur Rit’i testify, cultural ones.

Even though the ukukus are only carrying wooden crosses down the mountain, they are still met with great cheers – evidence of human resilience in the face of the destruction caused by climate change.

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