Ausangate is a mountain 200 kms.
South of Cusco, the imperial capital
of the Inca empire. It rises up to
6,372 m.a.s.l. and it is revered from
the beginning of times.
High up there, 26 kms. South of the
Ausangate peak, lies the Sinakara
valley. It is there that you find the sanctuary of Qoyllur R’iti, at the foot of the Sinakara glacier that stands at the
center of one of the largest pilgrimages on the planet, being it one of the most important festivities in Cusco, Peru.
The sanctity of the place derives from four interrelated elements:
1. The date of the yearly pilgrimage to the location, more precisely June 21st., a pre Christian sacred day, time of
the solstice, related to the pre historic and pan Andean interest on the constellation of the Pleyades and its
relationship with the travels of the mythical pilgrim hero Wirakocha.
2. The importance of the mountain Apu Ausangate on which slopes the sanctuary lies, as local beliefs relate
special powers with mountains.
3. The pre Columbian legend that indicates that Ausangate presents itself to peasants as a light skinned and fair
4. The Christian legend that tells of a shepherd and the religious authorities from Cusco, who met a mysterious
young man of Caucasian appearance in the place where the sanctuary is located, assuming him to be the child
All pre Columbian traditions were quickly adapted as forms of Christian devotion by Spanish institutions, political
and religious, during viceregal times, in an important syncretic process.
The transformation of the location from a native sacred space into a Catholic pilgrimage event began in 1783,
when the clergy began worship of the Lord of Qoyllur R’iti (the Lord of the Star of the Snow) after indicating Christ
had appeared in this location.
Brotherhoods control cult, chapel and processions of sacred images. They take tremendous care to mark the
occasion as Catholic in all its procedures and rites. Nevertheless, up to present times there is a parallelism of
beliefs. There are pilgrims who do not visit the Christian temple nor do they take part in the masses; rather going
to alternative sanctuaries on open air which remind of pre Columbian beliefs.
On two occasions, in mid June, during the full moon previous to Corpus Christi, and on September 14th., for many
centuries now, pilgrims have arrived by the thousands in a coordinated process that travelers repeat in respect.
The occasion in June now also has a tourist character, so one can take part in the purest form of the festival in
Preparation starts months ahead in the communities and villages in Peru and Bolivia, organized by volunteers
whose responsibility is called “cargo”, meaning those people are in charge of representing a “nation”. Each group
of pilgrims takes a lamina, an icon which represents their community or nation, to be presented to the Lord of
Qoyllur R’iti at the sanctuary during one night. This traditional Andean pilgrimage implies the presence of
musicians, dancers, choreographers, rites and elaborate costumes; without which the very nature of the festivity
would lose its purpose, as all of these elements are part of the cult to the Lord of Qoyllur R’iti itself.
Aside from the magical religious aspect, the festivities have all of the spectacular elements of great
choreographies of large masses of people. These choreographies of hundreds of dancers are intrinsically related
with Andean rites which have the ukuko or paulucha as a main character during the entire event.
The ukuko is believed to be the son of a bear and a woman. He dresses in white shirt, a shabby dark coat
covered with long strands of cloth that go down to his knees and a woolen mask, carrying a whip to control the
pilgrims who are not allowed to drink alcohol. But ukukos are also embezzlers who talk in a high falsetto, play
pranks and make jokes.
Feared by all due to their supernatural strength, ukukos also assume the unique responsibility, on behalf of all of
the pilgrims, of climbing up to the top of the mountain until they reach the Sinakara glacier.
Traditionally they came back with ice blocks tied to their backs to give bits and pieces to the pilgrims. But for some
years now, due to the retreat of the glacier as a consequence of global warming, and in a sign of respect for the
mountain or Apu, ukukos have decided no to continue with this practice, even though they continue climbing
ritually to the top, risking their lives, eventually one of them dying in the process of this dangerous rite.
This festival has a powerful mystical religious imposition and it touches in a magical way the spirits of those who
come, fighting low temperatures, lack of oxygen, sleep and food with the intensity and might of the collective
energy produced in the occasion.
Nevertheless, global warming is a factor that has creeped in, taking a toll on the glacier, which is the main element
of worship in this occasion, affecting the reality and nature of the event. This brings forward new obligations for
today and tomorrow. The festivity of the Lord of Qoyllur R’iti has turned into a symbol of how climate change
affects us globally. It can fall victim to it to finally disappear if we do not pay attention to signs of environmental
wear and tear that show so dramatically.
We have to think over our habits to understand if we are contributing with our consumption of goods and services
to the disrepair of nature.
We must also bear in mind that restoring glaciers falls through two moments:
First, we have to keep its surroundings clean. To do this we have to control the presence of wastes at the moment
of a visit or pilgrimage, as in the specific case of the Lord of Qoyllur R’iti festivity.
Second, we must act at the base of the glaciers, keeping them white, so that they remain at a low temperature and
stop melting due to the albedo effect. This process can be handled by local communities which will be of special
importance as they know the terrain, are used to high altitudes and know local traditions. Handling of this process
would become a source of work for them.
Preserving the festivity of the Lord of Qoyllur R’iti takes a new dimension as it will serve as a reference that will let
us know if we are doing the right things to correct global warming, or, on the contrary, if we continue to move
relentlessly and arrogantly toward climatic conditions that are adverse to humanity as a whole, simply because we
are incapable of understanding that order and balance are more powerful sources of life than our human desires
of going in one direction always at greater speed and with no control.