An Unexpected Pilgrimage // Peru > click the photo below for full story <
The colors of Peru have been bold and bright. Each day a burst of culture & a splash of beauty; there is a joy that radiates from the people that cannot be fabricated.
High in the altiplano near Maras, overlooking the Sacred Valley, is a breathtaking area that we returned to joyously, feeling the magnetism of the unparalleled vistas, the smell of Autumns last harvest of sweet wheat, and the shocking display of stars at night. Since our van was loaded to the brim with amazing finds from our 24HourBazaar, we decided to have a little photo shoot.
Harteau family portrait, Valle Sagrado de los Incas, 2013.
Ollantaytambo is a charming town at the west end of the Valle Sagrado de los Incas and is also where we caught the train to Machu Picchu. At the railway station is a fantastic little restaurant El Albergue where we celebrated our 4th wedding anniversary (and our 13th year together!). The food is made using orgainc produce from their garden and was delicious. The best part was Ishmael- the son of the founder, who carried Colette around the whole restaurant, greeting customers, checking on the kitchen, exploring the gardens- and leaving us a meal to ourselves! He & his wife are expecting a baby soon- so he was happy to ‘practice.’
In the morning we returned to watch people board the train for Machu Picchu, sipping our organic coffee with a European view…
We also came to take a tour of the spacious grounds and pick a bounty of delicious food from the organic gardens for the week. The Sacred Valley has a vibration that is like no other. It is a place where a sense of grounded tranquility binds you to the land, where staring at a lush mountainside or the clouds drift by is enough. Time is slowed here, the type of place we dreamed of- and here we are! YES!
Ollantaytambo sits nestled in a narrow valley- the Incan ruins climb perilously high on the cliffs, hosting granaries, houses and the skeleton of a city from a time past. Below, the (slightly more) modern world has set up a patchworked city in adobe and river rock.
It’s a bird, it’s a plane… no- what IS that on the side of the cliff? Seriously- we have no idea- but these pods looked pretty awesome!
Ummm, yes- this is THE cutest thing we have ever seen. Colette & her “big girl amigas” in Pisac. All these kiddos in the van might have busted the shocks if it weren’t for our Fox set up from GoWesty! We camped at the edge of town, overlooking the fields of corn & drying amaranth, which were tinged with pink.
All of the sudden, the silence was shattered by the sound of a marching band that came blasting around the corner! We were surprised and scrambled to find the camera.
Imagine our glee as the procession continued! Each troupe of dancers and musicians had their own unique costumes, trying to outshine the others. They came draped in feathers and heavily fringed robes, in cowhides and masks, in bedazzled capes and brandishing whips. “WHAT is going on?!” we thought. “Who cares- this is amazing”.
The night came and the processions continued. Stomping, shouting, whistling, drumming… the ing’s were a-plenty!
In the small nave, after mass was said, the priest dipped a lily in holy-water and splashed the crowd- who met him like a rock star. His loyal fans- reaching out for a drop, calling “padre” to get his attention, holding their children up to receive a mighty drop blessing.
We noticed there was a small film crew capturing the events, and upon inquiry found out this gentleman below in glasses has a show on the Discovery Channel. He had joined a group who would make the pilgrimage from Pisac for the Qoylloriti festival. “What is Qoylloriti?” we asked. WOW- we were about to really find out.
Joining a troupe is a bit like getting jumped into a gang… you must swear your loyalty, then you get a beat down (in this case with leather whips, not baseball bats).
Maybe it is the coca leaves or maybe it is joy, but the dancers, musicians and local celebrants had a seemingly endless reserve of energy. The music and dancing continued late into the night, weaving through the streets of Pisac and back to the church.
The Discovery Channel crew told us the pilgrimage led to a sacred glacier in the mountains. A 5 hours drive away, we debated only momentarily before deciding to depart on the quest to join thousands of pilgrims high in the strata. We split Pisac in the morning, not knowing what lay ahead of us, but the promise of costumed dancers on a glacier had us giddy with anticipation. On the way out on a high pass, we came across this group of women cooking potatoes in a earthen oven in the ground for lunch.
After the long drive we made it to the small town of Mawayani. We found a secure parking lot, and rushed to gather our warmest clothes and backpacking gear for 8km hike up to the glacier. A local Quechua woman approached us, asking if we would like to hire horses for the ride up. As it was already past mid-day, we acknowledged it would be best, and after negotiating a price, happily agreed to hire 3 horses for the ascent- one for Emily & Colette, one for Adam and the third for our gear. We threw granola bars and pasta into the back packs, sleeping bags & our sleeping pads; layered on our boots, jackets, scarves, gloves, and hats… the van was a wreck, but the sun was sinking, so we set off to follow our guide to the horses.
The father and daughter led us in a pack train up the steep terrain, leaving the town below. Twenty minutes in, father asked if Adam knew how to ride a horse- yes, he replied. So the daughter left and Adam led the caravan.
After 5 minutes or so, on a tiny goat-trail on the side of a cliff that dropped several hundred feet to the bottom of the ravine- his horse bolted- and I mean BOLTED! Adam, grasping the reigns, shouted “alto, stop, ALTO!” his octave increasing with the horses speed. As the horse continued to gallop down the narrow and pebbled trail, Emily, with Colette in front of her, still being led started to shout “Ayuda, help, ayuda!”
Down the trail another 100 meters, was a 3 horse train that had stopped, blocking the trail… Adam’s mind raced at his possible options- down the ravine, up the 75 degree steep hill or straight into the horses. Luckily the horse chose to stop behind the other group, and there they waited for us to catch up. WHEW!
Our guia quickly found a helper to lead Adam’s wild stallion up the trail. Dotting both sides of the traill were make-shift restaurants, restrooms & convenience stores.
The cold set into our bones as we rode, and when we arrived in the dark we shook out our legs from the ride. All around us, a plastic city had set up in the narrow sliver of glacial valley. Tents with glowing candles sold chicken soup and hot tea, hanging lights illuminated the blue tarps protecting the many imported Chinese good luck charms hoping to invoke a prosperous future- plastic toy cars, trucks and suv’s sat piled up like a fog induced traffic jam, piles of counterfeit Peruvian soles and US dollars flicked thru the weathered fingers of the saleswomen, and the purchase of dollhouse like replications of hospitals and housess in candy cane colors were sure to guarantee a home of your own.
Arriving in the dark, at 16,000 feet to a valley full of candles, music and dancing is a pretty mind-blowing experience. Now try & find a good spot to camp…. oh, wait- every good spot is taken. Ok, just find a spot- yep- that means right next to the main thoroughfare. It’s not like at this elevation you we would get much sleep anyhow!
After the inaugural pitching of our Poler tent, Adam set out to explore the massive party rolling 4,000+ people deep. A party like this in the States would be bedlam- drinking, drugs, fighting… but somehow, the raucous energy was all good. Drinking is forbidden (although we saw a few empty bottles) and most celebrants are just running on the endorphins from dancing all night!
Qoylloriti is known to the indigenous population as a festival of the stars- in Quechua, it translates to “Snow Star.” The marvelous star cluster of the Pleiades disappear from the Cusco regions view in April and reappear in June. This festival marks the upcoming harvest, the transition from old to new, and celebrates the upcoming New Year, which coincides with the Winter Solstice. The Inca prophecy declares this time a “great change in the political order.” According to the Catholic Church, who has a long history of assimilating local celebrations into their own tradition, the festival celebrates a local boy who turned into a burning bush. It is a festival of old and new, celebrating the stars and those on earth, transition and the present moment.
Morning gradually came into the valley, oozing over the jagged peaks like molasses in January (or in South Americas case- June). Heat rose from the frozen earth like steam in a hot pan, blowing this way and that in the biting gusts. Dancers, pilgrims and musicians still filled the dusty trails. As we had set up camp in the dark, the mornings stunning view was a revelation! WOW!
I mean WOW!!! …we could not have set a more dramatic opening scene to the new day than these opulent gents did. Louis the XIV would have busted an artery at the decadence. (That’s our orange tent there behind the scene).
Machismo meets showmanship in the center ring. Men face off, whipping each other in a man-to-man dancing display similar to a bull fight. It is all in good fun though, the dueling dudes laughing between bouts.
In feathered headdresses and bearing a wooden staff, the Ch’ubnchu dancers represent those from the Amazonas region. Wearing llamas and knitted masks, Qulla dancers represent the Aymara inhabitants of the altiplano to the south of this holy place.
Emily & Colette were debilitated by the extreme altitude and relegated to the tent. Adam set out for a solo climb towards the glacier.
On the trail up to the glacier, Adam crossed paths with these Ukukus, who have the role of tricksters, but their main role is to climb to the glacier and retrieve chunks of ice- the sacred water from the glacier is said to have healing properties.
Draped like a brides veil, the glacier cascades down the mountains in a marvelous white thrust of frozen time. The trail of pilgrims snaked up the steep slopes like a row of hungry ants at a picnic. Here you can start to get a grasp of the scale of it all!
Adam, out of breath but exhilarated, reached the glaciers base. A fellow traveler, from Chile, happily posed for a smile on the icy precipice.
In the mystic highlands, these two guardians denied Adam passage any further. As they were blowing whistles and bearing whips, Adam agreed to observe their proclamations, bypassing the ascent to summit the sacred glacier. No gringos on the sacred glacier, man!
The glacier is shrinking… the natives believe it is a bad omen and that the Gods are displeased.
Llama fetus’ are considered the ultimate sacrifice to Pacha Mamma. Llamas are bearers of wool, transporters of goods and also used for meat. Much like yaks in Mongolia or cows in India, these are sacred mammals to the native population. Far different from most of the world, Peru has a vibrant native culture which was not totally decimated by the conquistadors. I mean- look at this festival! Although the Catholic Church has appropriated this tradition, Qoylloriti is really a pagan celebration of mother earth. The dichotomy of life and death, native and Catholic, new and ancient are all meeting in this narrow valley, the confetti exploding in a colorful display of life. Have you ever seen anything so marvelous and insane? At the main church, thousands of pilgrims packed like sardines watch as dance troupes each take their turn on the main stage.
As outsiders, we felt very welcome and were so blessed to be guests at this sacred festival. It was not a party scene of drugs & booze, but a time of celebrating life! In our 3 days on the mountain, we saw 3 “gringos”… and 1 was a mestiso from Chile! Colette loved the dancers- she would excitedly shout “They are coming! The clowns are coming!”as she would hear another procession nearing our camp.
Carrying crosses up and then down from the glacier gives them good luck for the year. The layered look is not just form, it is function. At 16,000+ feet is is freakin’ COLD! Late in the afternoon of our 2nd day, the crowds began to thin out. We watched the mountainside turn from blue and neon tents to slate and olive colors. Like a slow etch-a-sketch draining, the previous incarnation were left with only a shadow of its former self. What if we had delayed 1 day and not come directly to the festival? How were we so lucky to have this celebration cross our paths? Like a bar mitzvah, quinceanera or other coming of age ceremony, Qoylloriti is also a time to celebrate the transition from one stage top the next. Fathers teach sons, village teaches village.
Definitely the prettiest pile of burning trash we have yet to see- and we have seen a lot of burning trash!
In this narrow alley behind the church, wax drawings of houses and cars adorned the walls as prayers to accumulate these possessions. This transitionary time is a rebirth, and with that many prayers are made here.
Our second night there was relative quiet for at least an hour or two! What a difference from the day before- the hillside we could scarcely find a space to pitch our tent was almost solitary.
Perhaps I need a better thesaurus, but there is simply not enough words to express the beauty and majesty of the costumes we have seen.
Ukukus are not only the pranksters of the festivals, they are also the peacekeepers- apparently humor is highly valued. They speak in high-pitched voices, giggling often, and are happy to pose for a picture!
Colette, all arian blue eyes and blonde hair, is also a popular photo attraction “la gringita.”
Mid-afternoon we gathered our bags and set off to hike down the “hill.” The sun blazed down brazenly, warming us as the cold winds sought to chill us. Colette quickly passed out, lulled by the rhythmic bopping of her Papa’s steps down the dusty trail.
Just as Emily crested a breathtaking peak, a band of horses and their wranglers peaked over the other side. Sometimes things go much better than anticipated.
Our hearts were full (our knees a bit wobbly) and our brains were exploding in happy over-stimulai. We crumbled into the seats of our van for the long drive out of the mountains. Unable to turn down a smoothly paved road, Adam grabbed his skateboard, and set off to bomb the hill.
We will try not to keep you hangin’ for too long until our next post. Until next time amigos!