In Cusco, there’s probably no event more majestic and impressive than the pilgrimage to the Sanctuary of the Lord of Qoyllur Rit’i. Every year, almost 100 thousand people arrive at the hollow of Sinak’ara to dance, sing and walk endlessly for 4 nights with their colorful outfits. The exhaustion and sincere love for this place make visitors enter in a kind of trance that’s spectacular to see.
This festival is extremely complex. Visitors are divided by nations: Paucartambo, Quispicanchi, Canchis, Acomayo, Paruro, Tawantinsuyo, Anta and Urubamba. Every nation has dozens of dancing groups known as comparsas. Among the main dances, these stand out: Qhapaq qolla, Qhapaq negro, Chunchachas, Wayri chunchus, Mestiza Qoyacha and many others. The pablitos or ukukus are responsible for organizing and controlling this immense celebration where alcohol is prohibited. If the pablitos of any nation discover someone drunk, they simply flog them 3 times with their thick whips.
This celebration has pre-Inca origins and a profound relationship to water, sun, and mountains. However, the Catholic church in their attempts to evangelize made this festival their own and tried to focus it on their own beliefs. In one way or another, it’s impossible to deny the fact that this place is impactful and that miracles happen.
Only travelers with an open mind and humble heart will be able to enjoy this magic. Share affectionately all that you can. Remember that you’re not in your own country, and the rules of the game are different. Just be quiet, listen and watch.
Now, pay attention to this basic guide for visiting the Sactuary of the Lord of Qoyllur Rit’i.
When is it celebrated?
This important festival is celebrated the Saturday to Wednesday before the Catholic Corpus Cristi. Because of that, it happens between May and June. In 2020, it will happen from June 6-10.
How do you get there?
To get to the Sanctuary of the Lord of Qoyllur Rit’i, you can take a bus toward the town of Mahuayani. Generally, buses leave from the entrance to the Coliseo Cerrado (Casa de la Juventud) in the city of Cusco. The fare is between 15 and 30 soles ($5-10 USD). Once you get to Mahuayani, you’ll walk for about 2-4 hours, depending on your strength and speed, to the Sanctuary. We recommend you leave Cusco at midnight and walk at dawn. In this way, you’ll avoid the intense sun. Don’t worry about the darkness; Andean traditions are well thought out. In these dates, there’s always a full moon.
What to bring?
For the cold
It’s important that you understand that the cold is extremely intense in the Sanctuary of the Lord of Qoyllur Rit’i. Since it’s in a hollow depression, the sun will warm you up around 7:00 AM and will go away at 3:00 PM. After that, the cold temperatures can get down to -5 °C or 23 °F. So you shouldn’t forget to bring a coat and thermal pants, gloves, and something to warm your head. Why don’t you try out a traditional Andean chullo?
Bring lemon hard candies and coca leaves to give you energy and protect you from the bad effects of the altitude. At the bus stop, both in Mahuayani and in the Sanctuary, you can get all the food you’ll need. Remember that this place is not touristic, so don’t expect clean restaurants and gourmet food. You’ll have to eat sitting on the floor but in the company of Peruvians who will surely welcome you warmly. We recommend that you bring purifying tablets or drops for water and your own bottle. There are various water spigots you can use. In this way, you can avoid using plastic.
Where to camp?
This may be the most complicated part. Since the comparsas of pilgrims have their places historically assigned in the esplanade of Sinak’ara and due to the thousands of people participating in the pilgrimage, it can be really difficult to find a good place to camp. We recommend that you go with an open and humble heart and ask those responsible for a comparsa if it’s possible to rent a place in their area to set up your tent. Take advantage of this opportunity to make new friends and discover Andean culture from the inside.
How to get back?
You’ll have to get back to the town of Mahuayani after walking 2-4 hours from the Sanctuary. It’s better to arrive between noon and early afternoon because it can be difficult to find cars to get back to Cusco. Ask the people around where buses leave for Cusco. Sometimes, you’ll have to go in a truck, so prepare yourself!
We hope we’ve helped you learn a bit more about this important tradition. The pilgrims say that visiting the Lord of Qoyllur Rit’i and the sacred Apus of Sinak’ara and Qollqe punku is really healing and that they go back to Cusco clean and happy.
Featured image by: @karinamchfoto, don’t forget to follow him on Instagram.