“The Biggest Andean Festival”

 

This festival is considered as the most important catholic pilgrimage in the Andes! Every year, around May or June, about 100,000 people come up here to pray the “Lord of Qoyllur’riti”, at 4700 meters above the sea level in the region of Cusco, Peru. Thousands of dancers and musicians perform and celebrate Catholic, Incan and other religious beliefs during more than a week, but 3 or 4 days are really important and full of people. They come mostly for celebrating the stars, honoring Jesus Christ and the local glacier, which is held to be sacred.

I went to this festival twice, and this time, I had a proper camera and the will to document two days of this amazing event. But before telling you the story of it, I think it’s important to replace this event in its environment, and to tell you the full context of my stay in the region. I was not here to document properly the festival since I was guiding a french couple (Bruno & Julie) around the Ausangate mountain, so I was here working.

Before going to the Qoyllur Rit’i, we’d already spent together 4 days trekking around the most sacred mountain in the Cusco region. That’s why we had only two days to dedicate to the festival itself, located only a few kilometers away. That said, doing this trek right before has truly enriched the adventure, gave us a complete overview of the area and its people, and we had the feeling of having made a pilgrimage of 4 days to arrive at this event. It was like an ultimate reward for our efforts! So it is something that I recommend to everyone, and especially as the landscapes that you will see on the way are breathtaking.

So here’s the story of those 6 days! This trekking is a long one and everyday, you come across unbelievable landscapes. So I decided to take my favorite places around the Ausangate to show you what the region is like, along with some photos of the locals living here.

Ausangate, Rainbow Mountain, Qoyllur'rit'i, festival, andes mountains, trek in Peru, local people, indigenous people, Quechua culture

The name of this man is Hostino, and is a friend of mine. Every time I pass by the famous Rainbow Mountain in the Andes of Cusco, he is here selling some “Mate de Coca” and snacks for the hikers. In this particular day, we had a nice talk and he asked me about France and the mountains we have there. He was pleased to know that they are not as big as “his” mountains.
Well, I think that this picture is appropriate to introduce this article as you may notice the mountains that surrounds the Ausangate and in which kind of environment the Qoyllur’ Rit’i Festival takes place. Hostino is also a typical Quechua man of the region, so he best represents the people who live here…

Anyway, to get to see him, you must hike at least two days from the beginning of the classic Ausangate trek and come across these amazing colorful mountains and lagoons…

Ausangate, Rainbow Mountain, Qoyllur'rit'i, festival, andes mountains, trek in Peru, local people, indigenous people, Quechua culture

These mountains look even better when the light is painting on them… What a scenery!

Ausangate, Rainbow Mountain, Qoyllur'rit'i, festival, andes mountains, trek in Peru, local people, indigenous people, Quechua culture

This is one of the numerous lagoons you can see during this trek and it is from far one of my favorite. You’re not given to see red mountains every day, so when they’re so perfectly reflected, you just feel grateful. This lagoon is only half an hour away from the famous Rainbow Mountain that you will see now…

Ausangate, Rainbow Mountain, Qoyllur'rit'i, festival, andes mountains, trek in Peru, local people, indigenous people, Quechua culture

Julie, the woman from the couple I was guiding, was simply enjoying the sun which finally illuminated the mountain to reveal all its surreal colors! We were here at 5035 meters high exactly after 2 days of hiking and 2 passes over 5000 meters…

This mountain is so special, the colors are so vibrant… that even if there’s a bad weather, you can still enjoy the beauty of it. See below what I mean…

Rainbow Mountain, Vinicunca

But this is not all! Here’s another incredible colorful mountain, at the Palomani pass (5100m) where three small vicuñas were resting on the top. They’re not too easy to see, so it gives a pretty good idea about how big this mountain is. We came here on our third day of trek and we still had a lot to discover.

Ausangate, Rainbow Mountain, Qoyllur'rit'i, festival, andes mountains, trek in Peru, local people, indigenous people, Quechua culture

Like this amazing panorama, that we saw on the fourth day from a ridge at 4935 meters high. The landscape speaks for himself and is an ideal place for contemplation…

Ausangate, Rainbow Mountain, Qoyllur'rit'i, festival, andes mountains, trek in Peru, local people, indigenous people, Quechua culture

Or the common rural scenes that you can see the very same day in the village of Pacchanta…

Ausangate, Rainbow Mountain, Qoyllur'rit'i, festival, andes mountains, trek in Peru, local people, indigenous people, Quechua culture

Ausangate, Rainbow Mountain, Qoyllur'rit'i, festival, andes mountains, trek in Peru, local people, indigenous people, Quechua culture

Ausangate, Rainbow Mountain, Qoyllur'rit'i, festival, andes mountains, trek in Peru, local people, indigenous people, Quechua culture

However, being here in these wonderful places has a price. Indeed, you must walk at least 6 to 8 hours a day, be well acclimatized and support the constant lack of oxygen to climb the passes, but also to be able to sleep at night. Because sleeping at such altitudes is not an easy thing. First of all, it is cold and temperatures always go below 0°C after 7pm. Then your sleep is always interrupted in the night, just because of the lack of oxygen. So it is important to spend enough time high in altitude few days before attempting such a trekking.

But fortunately, even if the nights can be tough, you’re often rewarded with amazing camp sites and starry nights…

Ausangate, Rainbow Mountain, Qoyllur'rit'i, festival, andes mountains, trek in Peru, local people, indigenous people, Quechua culture  Ausangate, Rainbow Mountain, Qoyllur'rit'i, festival, andes mountains, trek in Peru, local people, indigenous people, Quechua culture

 

Anyway, we will do later an article dedicated only to the Ausangate trekking, so now, let’s move on to the Qoyllur Rit’i festival!

After 4 days in the mountains and about 80 kilometers hiked, we had to take a taxi from Tinki to Mahuayani. It is just a 20 minutes drive and a 9km hike up to reach the center of the celebration. We still had to walk in altitude, but this time surrounded by hundreds of pilgrims and horses. So the way up had been actually tougher than I expected, especially because of the crowd and all the dust that was in the air. It was impossible to breathe normally!
But there was already a special atmosphere… Lots of people were playing music, many of them were praying at the foot of the numerous crosses placed along the way, people were crossing rivers and carrying big packs on their back…etc It was already impressive and I was eager to reach to center…

Ausangate, Rainbow Mountain, Qoyllur'rit'i, festival, andes mountains, trek in Peru, local people, indigenous people, Quechua culture

Ausangate, Rainbow Mountain, Qoyllur'rit'i, festival, andes mountains, trek in Peru, local people, indigenous people, Quechua culture  Ausangate, Rainbow Mountain, Qoyllur'rit'i, festival, andes mountains, trek in Peru, local people, indigenous people, Quechua culture

Being finally at 4700 meters high with all the pilgrims was a reward. We first started to choose a site to camp and we had a good lunch and rest. We then discussed about what to do next. From the tent, we saw a glacier where people seemed to go. We had time to kill and there were still not so many people at the festival, so we thought it would be a good idea to climb up there and to come back at night when the majority of the pilgrims would have arrived.

So it took us another hour of walking until 5000 meters again, but what a surprise! Bruno and Julie enjoyed that a lot and went for some kind of exploration while I was naturally taking some pictures…

Ausangate, Rainbow Mountain, Qoyllur'rit'i, festival, andes mountains, trek in Peru, local people, indigenous people, Quechua culture  Ausangate, Rainbow Mountain, Qoyllur'rit'i, festival, andes mountains, trek in Peru, local people, indigenous people, Quechua culture

After that, we climbed on the glacier and tried to go as high as possible without crampons. It was a very nice hike but it was time already to go down, as the sun was behind the mountains, and time to enjoy the festival by night with all the dancers with their traditional costumes accompanied with groups of musicians…

Ausangate, Rainbow Mountain, Qoyllur'rit'i, festival, andes mountains, trek in Peru, local people, indigenous people, Quechua culture

This group is definitely the one which grabbed my attention first! How come is it possible to see people coming from the jungle that high in the mountain? I remind you that we are around 4800 meters high and the temperatures reached -14°C that night! Their dance was absolutely beautiful to see and sophisticated. Then at the end, they all kneed and prayed during a mass given in a very small chapel.

Ausangate, Rainbow Mountain, Qoyllur'rit'i, festival, andes mountains, trek in Peru, local people, indigenous people, Quechua culture

I happened to know that it took them 2 days in total to come from the low part of the Cusco region in the Amazon forest. That shows their devotion to the Lord of Qoyllur Rit’i and how important this pilgrimage is for them.

Then I decided to leave this chapel for the main church and I saw so many nice and funny traditional costumes. This festival is definitely all about folklore…

Ausangate, Rainbow Mountain, Qoyllur'rit'i, festival, andes mountains, trek in Peru, local people, indigenous people, Quechua culture Ausangate, Rainbow Mountain, Qoyllur'rit'i, festival, andes mountains, trek in Peru, local people, indigenous people, Quechua culture Ausangate, Rainbow Mountain, Qoyllur'rit'i, festival, andes mountains, trek in Peru, local people, indigenous people, Quechua culture

Other costumes that we saw that night at the entrance of the church.

Ausangate, Rainbow Mountain, Qoyllur'rit'i, festival, andes mountains, trek in Peru, local people, indigenous people, Quechua culture

It was time to go to sleep and to get some good rest for the next day, as I planned to wake up at 5am to shoot the early hours. At night it was cold… really cold (-14°C) !”

Ausangate, Rainbow Mountain, Qoyllur'rit'i, festival, andes mountains, trek in Peru, local people, indigenous people, Quechua culture

 

So this day was the second and our last day at the Qoyllur Rit’i festival. As soon as I woke up, I’ve been surprised by the amount of tents which were not here the night before when I went to sleep. A huge amount of people actually came up during the night! It was a very promising day and I was full of enthusiasm to get to see and shoot what was going on around!

Ausangate, Rainbow Mountain, Qoyllur'rit'i, festival, andes mountains, trek in Peru, local people, indigenous people, Quechua culture

The place was completely full of people and tents. It was also so good to see and feel the first rays of the sun after such a cold night! Fortunately for me, I had two sleeping bags. One for 0°C and the other one for -8°C. That was a good combo! However, even if I was quite warm in my tent, I couldn’t sleep very well because of the constant noise during the night. The festival never stops, and people come and leave the festival at any time. But in such events, it does not really matter if you’re tired or not. You feel the energy of the place and it gives you enough motivation to wake up early and go to shoot what’s around.

I particularly enjoyed to see the common scenes of this festival with this morning light. People were cooking and having breakfast, like this lady.

Ausangate, Rainbow Mountain, Qoyllur'rit'i, festival, andes mountains, trek in Peru, local people, indigenous people, Quechua culture

Or they were just walking around and following their daily routine. I was lucky to witness a beautiful moment that, for me, sums up the festival and its atmosphere very well. It’s a picture that I am actually proud of…

Ausangate, Rainbow Mountain, Qoyllur'rit'i, festival, andes mountains, trek in Peru, local people, indigenous people, Quechua culture

And the festival continued its festivities and ritual celebrations. People were gathering, in traditional costumes that we hadn’t seen before, and they were again dancing, playing music, and praying…

Ausangate, Rainbow Mountain, Qoyllur'rit'i, festival, andes mountains, trek in Peru, local people, indigenous people, Quechua culture

Then I decided to go up to the chapel where I went the day before, and stayed about two hours looking at the different people coming and dancing. But I also had a look at the spectators!

  Ausangate, Rainbow Mountain, Qoyllur'rit'i, festival, andes mountains, trek in Peru, local people, indigenous people, Quechua culture

As for the dancers, they were all interesting to look at and here are some of my favorite groups who had quite sophisticated dances!

Ausangate, Rainbow Mountain, Qoyllur'rit'i, festival, andes mountains, trek in Peru, local people, indigenous people, Quechua culture  Ausangate, Rainbow Mountain, Qoyllur'rit'i, festival, andes mountains, trek in Peru, local people, indigenous people, Quechua culture

Women’s turn to showcase their talent now…

Qoylluriti traditional dance, Ausangate region, sacred mountain

“Voilà!” It was soon time to come back to Cusco and leave this incredible place. We still enjoyed going down during two hours, and then we. had 3 hours and a half of bus drive from Mahuayani to Cusco.

That’s the last scene we saw in the center of the festival…

Ausangate, Rainbow Mountain, Qoyllur'rit'i, festival, andes mountains, trek in Peru, local people, indigenous people, Quechua culture

And again, horse traffic on the way down…

Ausangate, Rainbow Mountain, Qoyllur'rit'i, festival, andes mountains, trek in Peru, local people, indigenous people, Quechua culture

 

What else can I say now? Well, I wish I can come back and stay more days next time. It’s a truly unique experience, out of time. Every year, it’s like renewed and different. And for the photography lover that I am, what an event! The beauty of the people, the landscapes, the games and contrasts of light, the intensity and the multitude of colors, movements, postures, the atmosphere both festive and mystical that reigns in this place… are incredible to capture and immortalize!

There is a special moment during the festival that I’d like to see once. It’s the bringing of the cross down from the glacier which is held to be sacred. Hundreds of pilgrims climb there at night and wait until the sun comes out to bring that cross down to the center of the celebration. That must be a very particular moment to live.

Anyway, Izabela and I plan to come there again in 2019. As far as we know, the festival will take place this year around the 10th of June. So if you feel like knowing and experiencing this amazing cultural event in Peru this year, feel free to contact us and we’ll organise everything. We have all the camping equipment necessary for such an expedition, and also the team of cooks, porters…etc who will always help us along this journey!

 

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