Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Sacrifice of Sacred Ice: Each Year at the Winter Solstice, Hundreds of Faithful Participate in a Pilgrimage in Peru Combining Christian Tradition with the Worship of Ancient Spirits of the Glacier

Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Sacrifice of Sacred Ice: Each Year at the Winter Solstice, Hundreds of Faithful Participate in a Pilgrimage in Peru Combining Christian Tradition with the Worship of Ancient Spirits of the Glacier

Article excerpt

"Do you need a donkey, friend?" That was the first thing the boy asked me as I got off the bus with my heavy, dust-covered backpack at the end of a long and winding trip up and down the mountains from Cuzco. The night falling in Mahuayani was going to be a cold one, and this was the last town before my ascent to the heights of Colquepunku, the great sacred mountain. Still reeling from the curvy roads and a little confused by the crowds of people swarming under makeshift canvas roofs at three in the morning, I stuck close to my new guide. He strapped my bags efficiently onto the back of the burro.

Slowly, we joined a large procession of people climbing the hill, people guided by their faith and the light of the moon. The night was full of distant songs and whistles, sounds of people preparing for a celebration. Andean fatigue set in, however, and before long I literally had to hold on to the donkey's tail to keep from falling over from exhaustion. The endless caravan refused to stop. For three or four hours the procession kept marching up the hill as if guided by some gigantic, invisible hand. Some of the sojourners carried the weight of a sin that needed forgiven. Others carried words of thanks that they world offer for prayers answered.

Suddenly, fireworks thundered and bursts of freecrackers echoed in the valley. Tarp-covered refreshment stands appeared along the side of the narrow road, places for weary travelers to buy a chink axed something to eat. Finally, after leaving behind the flickering lights of Mahuayani and climbing several hundred feet, we arrived at a colossal open space amid the mountains. The sound of bands, songs, whistles, crackling bonfires, and voices rose in the wind and welcomed me to Qoyllur Rit'l, Peru's great pagan-Christian festival.

Lost in the darkness and the throng of people, I tried to set up my tent, but the place was so littered with other tents and improvised sleeping spots that I had to resort to resting on a wall of rocks. Sleeping was impossible since hundreds of musicians were playing and the loudspeakers stayed noisy all night long. I made myself as comfortable as I could in my sleeping bag and hugged my backpack, listening half-dazed to the voice of an old woman who was on the speakers thinking the Lord of the Snowy Star, Qoyllur Rit'l, for saving one of her sons from a mudslide in a nearby village. Later, a man took a turn to say that, thanks to his answered prayers, he was able to make the journey up the mountain without his wheelchair. Then, a girl who said she had once been unable to speak sag out her joy to the winds of the Andes.

At the dawn of a day teeming with activity, I awoke under a thin layer of ice that covered everything. Even the blankets of the women preparing food by the relative warmth of the fire were as hard as metal.

But the panorama inspired awe. In the distance, thousands of people began to come into focus amid the smoke of the bonfires and the icy fog emanating from the Colquepunku glacier. They stood out against the bright ice with their banners, multicolored feathers, whips, drams, noisemakers, and musical instruments, to name just a few of the things I could see. This was definitely the largest festival of faith that I'd ever been to. I had never seen so many bands, musicians, and dancers, all wearing the most ingenious variety of outfits imaginable. They moved in circular motions around the great glacial depression like human waves.

As one mamacucha (as old women are affectionately called in Peru) prepared some roast cuy (a guinea pig-like animal), she told me that every royal in the region sends its own group of dancers, each with its own costumes, masks, and disguises. The travelers ca their prayers with them--petitions for good health, for a house of their oval, a professional degree, money to buy a truck ... or simply prayers for their sins to be forgiven.

Something was happening everywhere. …

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