Around June every year there is a big traditional festival in the mountains close to Cusco, called Señor de Ccollority (also written as Qoyllorit’i or Qoyllur Rit’i, meaning “snow star”). The communities of the surrounding highlands send delegations of dancers to the base of the glacier of the Ausangate mountain to pay tribute to the apus (mountain gods). Allthough there are a lot of Christian symbols involved and a church has been built, the festival itself is much older than the arrival of Christianity and dates back to pre-Inca times. Now it is an interesting fusion of both, and it has a strange, pagan touch to it which reminds me of the Austrian custom of Kramperl und Berchten. People called Ukukus dress up wild dresses and strange masks and some dancers carry dead baby-llamas around their waist and whip each other with whips. Other groups are dressed in beautiful, colorful clothes and hats to show their dances.
About 15.000 people gather at an altitude of nearly 5000m and the atmosphere is very peaceful – which might have to do with the fact that alcohol is prohibited and that the Ukukus also act as a sort of guards and policemen on the event. Even though temperatures reach below zero at night at this altitude, people camp out on the frozen ground with nothing more than sandals and a plastic tarp. Many people dance and sing for two days and nights straight and then the Ukukus make a procession carrying big wooden crosses on to the glacier. They also used to haul big blocks of ice down from the glacier, as a kind of sacred water to fertilize their fields, but this custom has been forbidden for the first time this year in order to protect the melting glacier.
I was invited to come to the festival with a family from the Q’ero nation, which traditionally live in the mountains at high altitudes and are said to be the last descendants of the Incas. The papa is called Taita and he is a shaman who also does coca-leave ceremonies with the “Casa Ayni” in Cusco, which is how I met him. By the way anyone calls anyone “Papa” and “Mama” around here, even I was addressed as “Papa”. We stayed in the new house of the family for two days, made a San Pedro (Wachuma) ceremony at the hot springs nearby and then made the 8km trek up to Ccollority where we stayed for two freezing cold nights.
We always made plenty of breaks to pick coca leaves, which is an important part of the local culture. It works like this: You always pick three coca leaves, put them together like flowers and then hand them over as a little present to someone else, with the Qechua words “alpei ku sunchis“. The other one replies with “urpi yay, sonko yay“, which means something like “my heart is flying” and then puts the leaves in his mouth. They also blow on the leave as a kind of blessing or prayer. The coca leaves really helped a lot to fight altitude sickness and to give power to keep on walking.