Back to Qoyllur Rit'i

Parts of this essay appeared in the journal Society in March/April 2001. Re-printed with permission of the publisher.


By Vicente Revilla

The process of evangelization formed an essential component of the conquest process of the Americas. The Catholic Church and its representatives adapted to the challenge facing them, through the 'invention' of the open- air chapels of Mexico, to the campaigns waged by the extirpation of idolatry in Peru. Native Americans also adjusted to this change in circumstances using the facade of Catholicism to provide a veneer of legitimacy to their continuance of pre-Christian forms of worship. Famous examples include the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico, the Virgin of Copacabana in Bolivia, and the practice of Santeria in Cuba and Candomble in Brazil. In the Andes of Peru the miraculous image of El Senor de Qoyllur Rit'i provides an excellent example of the manner in which native Andean religious belief and Catholicism have met to forge a pilgrimage shrine of enormous popularity.
Adrian Locke, From Ice to Icon: El Senhor de Qoyllur Rit'i as Symbol of Native Andean Catholic Worship

The festival of Señor de Qoyllur Rit'i takes place annually in late May or early June high in the southern Andes of Cusco, Peru at 16,000 feet above sea level. Pilgrims trek to a towering glacier where the mountain's sacred ice is gathered. Just below the start of the glacier a rock- painted image of Christ is worshipped in a small chapel. According to Robert Randall, author of Return of the Pleiades: an Andean Pilgrimage, the festival occurs "in conjunction with the disappearance of the pleiades, which takes place at the end of April, when the earth moves to the other side of the sun." The stars eventually reappear in early June. The celebration of Qoyllur Rit'i officially ends on the eve (la entrada) of Corpus Christi, when ukukos (Andean trickster-priests) bring the sacred ice to the main plaza of Cusco. Broken up into small pieces, the "Lord's ice" is then passed around and shared by the faithful.


I arrived in Cusco, capital of the Old Inca empire at 3,416 meters above sea level, armed with my camera and a visual arts grant from the Research Foundation of the City University of New York to continue documenting the festival of Qoyllur Rit'i. I had been to Qoyllur Rit'i for the first time in June, 1995, and then again in 1998. 1999 would mark my third climb.

The city of Cusco is a city built on stones--very high-altitude stones and a mandatory stop before undertaking the journey to the festivity. My old friends asked if I felt sick from the altitude. Some could notice it the moment they arrived into the city. I did this time, but after chewing some coca leaves and resting for a few hours, I felt fine. "That's because you are built for this terrain," they said, alluding to medical studies indicating that Andean people have more red blood cells in order to cope with the reduced oxygen at high altitudes.

Having lived most of my adult life in the United States, I still keep inside me an imprint of the native Andean landscape. This trip, therefore, was not only a search for the Lord of the Snow Star but a quest to find myself in the Andean mountains. In the thin air, they stand magnificently around the city bringing, as usual, memories to me. It's no wonder, that the Incas considered them to be gods. Living among the skyscrapers of New York City, themselves deities of a sort for the modern industrial world, I have often wondered on how one's perceptions and reasoning can be impacted by what surround us. Mountains and skyscrapers stood for two totally separate concepts.

Pepo, a childhood friend, who had arranged my trips to the mountain before said that Roberto, Edward, and Eber would also be joining us on the trip. "Saqra? You have to talk to him" said Pepo. Saqra was another friend of mine somewhat different from the rest of my friends in Cusco. Saqra was an Ukuko (a trickster) and as such he believed in the role and in the mystery surrounding ukukos. Roberto, Edward and Eber were, on the other hand, old friends possessors of a good amount of Andean humor and a knowledge of the Quechua language which was conducive to their jokes. This trip to the mountain was, I hoped, going to be a better experience for all of us than the one in 1995 when we almost froze to death, or in 1998 when our car came close to tumbling off the cliffside. Edilberto, another friend, who was not going with us this time, reminded me as he always did, to be respectful to the mountain. Edi, as we all called him, was always suspicious and skeptical of those who arrived from Europe or the United States. In his eyes, gringos or anglos, as europeans are defined, were only interested in exploiting anything, including mountains, for financial reasons. For him, I was also another gringo.

So, with Pepo, I went walking around the narrow streets still beautifully surrounded by those magnificent stone walls.

"The magic is still here," I said, referring to the city itself.

"And the energy ," he replied making allusion to the thousands of tourists (esoterics, spiritualists, etc) who come to the city searching for that energy (spirits) that they thought was lacking in the modern industrial world. While I had left the city of Cusco at the age of twenty (to settle in the United States) Pepo had remained in the city all along. Through the years our mutual understanding of books, Andean culture and his interest to know more about American culture had kept our friendship together.

We had lunch at a chicheria, a place usually reserved for people of Quechua or meztizo background. We ate Andean food -- Quinua soup, Choclo (corn on the cob) a Peruvian kind of guinea pig and those wonderful Andean potatoes that have changed food habits around the world. Pepo and I found ourselves talking about how cooking with huacatay gave another dimension to Andean foods. The herb huacatay, I reminded him, was non existent in the North American market yet. The yuppies will make sure it gets there, Pepo commented laughingly. During my previous trips I had explained to him the meaning of the word yuppie. After finishing our meals, we washed it all down with chicha, a beer, made from yuracsara (white corn), low in alcohol and drunk while still in the process of fermenting. The fermentation can take one to two days. "Is it true that chicha is made in the long run by chewing it and spitting it out" I asked Pepo remembering a question by my colleague Bill Gargan from Brooklyn College. "That is the good chicha" Pepo said and we laughed about the truthfulness of his reply. A few days later, Pepo said "Your friend was right. He was talking about masato, a beer that is processed and fermented in that way in the Amazon jungle.

Pepo raised his glass, "To the apus [mountains]!" and spilled some chicha on the ground. "To the pacha mama [mother earth]!" I said and did the same thing. These were familiar rituals that gave me a sense of having come home. The praising of nature was part of a drinking routine in the Andean landscape.

"As a dramatization of ethnic identity, therefore, the cult of the Lord of Qoyllur R'iti functions again in a manner analogous to that of the saints of the Atlas studied by Gellner in the 1950's. In the Andes is the Indian identity that is being defended against the hispanizing pretentions of the urban groups in Cusco, whereas in the mountains of Morocco it is Berber a identity, the identity also of a conquered people, that is being preserved against the pretentions of Arab urban groups."
Gustavo Benavides, Resistance and Accomodation in Latin American Popular Religiosity

An old friend suddenly passed by (with his own friends) and, after the usual greetings, asked the question I had posed to myself many times already. The reasons behind my going to Qoyllur Rit'i?"

I felt everyone stop what they were doing to hear my answer. George L. Mallory, a famous British climber's was once asked why he liked to climb Mount Everest. His reply was , "Because it is there," That phrase however didn't make sense in the context of this chicheria gathering. I didn't feel, on the other hand, like having to justify what I was about to do even that much. I wasn't trying to "conquer" the mountain as is usually the case with mountain climbers. I simply intended to find the lord ice (photograph it) and perhaps get a better understanding of myself in the process. Qoyllur Rit'i is somehow bound up with who I am as a person, with being free, however temporarily, from what is represented by those skyscrapers in New York. My ancestors had lived in these mountains for thousands of years. I didn't have to justify my pilgrimage to the mountain.

We became embroiled in a discussion about the ownership of nature, God, and ethnicity. We agreed as we sat drinking our chicha that nature belonged to everybody. The mountain, or the Gods, we thought, couldn't be exclusive of an ethnic group. From that point on we agreed to avoid any further soul-searching about the mountain, including the question of the rights of indigenous people to control their own ancestral lands.

"The area around the sanctuary of Qoyllur Rit'i is said to be inhabited by many condenados (condemned) who, in Sisyphean fashion are condemned to climb the glaciers at night carrying a huge chunk of ice."
Robert Randall, "Return of the Pleiades"

After arranging for our departure the next morning, I went to look for Saqra, my trickster friend, who would be accompanying me on the climb. He happened to be an Ukuko during the festivity, "A trickster of the glaciers" as I called him." Ukukos are a kind of pagan priests, semigods who play various roles during the festival -- clowns, dancers, comedians, cooks, musicians, singers -- even policemen, if need be. Ukukos travel to the festivity as a part of a group (a nation as they define it themselves) or cofradia (a brotherhood). Ukukos, also, distinguish themselve by setting themselves apart from the other members of the group. As semigods as they claim to be, they are usually distant from the other members of their own "nation" To desguise their identity and not be recognized, Ukukos always talk in a falsetto voice and cover their face with a mask. The ukukos's look is that one of a bear. Ukukos are the ones who actually commune with the mountain. In the middle of the night they climb to the top of the glacier (to retrieve the ice) where they sometimes fall into crevasses and die. It is said that they also are expected to fight the condenados, (evil) should they come upon any.

Saqra, my Ukuko friend, didn't show up at the location where we had agreed to meet. In his place he sent a messenger, a young child with a note. "Saqra will not see you until next year's festival. My apologies, and be careful. Remember that we ukukos celebrate the dead (Ukuko muerto no es llorado. Ukuko muerto es celebrado)." You don't cry for a dead ukuko. You celebrate a dead Ukuko".

Yes, I thought very non-western way. One has to give back to nature what nature has given to us -- our very lives.

But death was not my concern right at the moment as much as his presence was needed to enlighten me and lead us to the glacier. I was disappointed because deep inside myself I knew that Saqra had a better understanding of the festivity from his perspective as an Ukuko than many people who had written about it.. He had been very helpful by sharing his knowledge of Qoyllur Rit'i during my previous trip in 1998. I was therefore expecting likewise this year. Specially since I had recently been reading Johan Reinhard's Discovering the Inca Ice Maiden which describes the discovery of the bodies (mummies) of young Inca women preserved in the ice. I wanted to know if the ukukos were continuing that tradition. Did they die in the mountain because natural accidents or their deaths were a kind of human self-sacrifice to the mountain God. I had the impression that somewhat Saqra had the clues to this question.

Early the next morning, Sunday, and prior to our departure to the festivity, I went to the cemetery to visit my mother's burial site. The cemetery in Cusco is actually a collection of pabellones, walls containing many different tombs. In front of each tomb or nicho, as they are called, there is a lapida, which is a a glass cover for the nicho. Relatives write phrases, inside the lapida and also leave flowers and photographs of the diseased for others to see. As I stood looking at the photograph of my mother, I became aware of a gentle melody coming from somewhere nearby. When I turned around I saw entering the cemetery a group (a nation) of perhaps thirty people dressed in ritual costumes and masks, dancing and singing. A young bare-faced woman who was dancing with a special grace seemed to be their leader. I quickly took a picture of her and immediately thought of Reinhard's book: The mountain-God must be appeased by music, dance & sacrifice? Would she die in an accident? Would I, or my friends die? I asked myself. They came all the way into the cemetery and then danced their way through the many different pabellones. Following their movements with my camera, I asked one of them if they were also going to Qoyllur Rit'i. He said they were.

My friends, as agreed, were waiting for me in front of the hotel. There, they were: Roberto, Edward, Pepo and Eber making fun of things and myself. "Where were you gringo?" When I told them that I had been in the cemetery, they said, "It's a little early to be visiting the cemetery, isn't it?" I agreed. It was early. I had, however, a need to see my mother's grave before the trip. "Is Saqra coming with us?" I replied , "no" They expected my response somehow and immediately we proceeded with our plan to depart. We loaded my gear into the car and headed for the market in the city, where we bought bread, fruit and water. We would need plenty of provisions to sustain us during our search for the Lord of the Snow Star.

We left Cusco at 9:00 a.m. The road out of town is paved until you reach Urcos, a two-hour drive. In Urcos we stopped in the open market for more bread and coca leaves. My friends ate rocoto relleno (stuffed peppers) which I reluctantly declined because I did not want to get sick before reaching the mountain. "On the way back I will eat more than any of you." I said, while taking pictures of the town as well as of my friends eating.

"The mountains control the weather, which provides water, which induces fertility."
Johan Reinhard, Sacred Peaks of the Andes

For the next seven hours the car climbed the sides of seemingly endless mountains. We were on the roof of the world. Dust was everywhere, and the sun was extremely hot. Every time we stopped by the roadside or in passing villages, hundreds of children suddenly appeared. Some carrying cooked potatoes for sale. They were cooked by the process of huatia that entailed burying the potatoes in a pit along with hot kjurpas (adobe) The children at these high altitudes walked mainly barefoot but looked healthy enough. Their faces were uniformly covered with dust, giving them a spectral look. They chatted with us freely, usually in the Quechua language. A language where my friends were more fluid in it than myself. We used up our supply of bread well before we arrived at our destination.

We arrived at Mawayani, the town just below the Qoyllur Rit'i sanctuary that same evening, May 30th. The festival was scheduled to take place two days later, on Tuesday, June 1st, under the full moon. After finding a parking space for our van, we rented horses for our tents and other equipment and started the ascent without any more delay.

As we started ascending and partly because I kept stopping to take pictures of the pilgrims going up the mountain, I realized that I was getting left behind. I was also tiring, red blood cells or not.

"Vicente, are you okay?"

I said that I was, but I felt exhausted. "I'll meet you guys by the last cross.

The path is indeed punctuated by about a dozen wooden crosses where pilgrims stop to pray and sometimes exchange miniature religious icons, cloth banner usually with the image of Christ. My friends reminded me that it was almost five o'clock and that walking in the dark would not be any easier or safer. "Hurry up!" they called. I understood my friends concern since in 1995 we had all gotten lost in the darkness of the night and slept without a tent or extra clothing. No. I was not concerned with the dark. I was more concerned with me not making up to the top of the mountain. My heavy breathing was obvious and my legs weren't moving much. I wasn't going to make it.

I sat down to rest and ponder what I should do next. Groups of pilgrims passed by me carrying religious icons imprinted with the image of the Lord of Qoyllur Rit'i The icons were carried by each brotherhood or nation attending the festivity. The objective was to have the icon rest for a night or nights in the shrine so it would be blessed and returned to its owners. All these rituals reminded me of a book I had read many years ago titled Pilgrims of the Andes by Salnow and conversations I had with Saqra about the festivity. A young campesino, at that moment passed by leading a horse. That was the answer I thought to my quest.. I had to use a horse to climb the mountain. Annoyed that I was cheating by not walking like everybody else, I struck a deal with him for 15 soles, about $5.00, to take me up the mountain. "Climb on," he said in Quechuan. I told him I didn't know how to ride, and he started to move away. "Wait," I said. "I'm a fast learner."

The campesino took me over to a big rock nearby and with some difficulty I managed to mount the horse. "It doesn't have any saddle or bit," I pointed out. "How am I supposed to hang on?"

He shrugged his shoulders and started walking, with the horse following. I was pretty nervous, even more so because I knew those horses could sense fear. But I soon found that I could indeed ride bareback as long as I didn't resist the animal's natural motion. "Look," I said, "no hands!" My bravado was only skin-deep, though. During my climb in 1998 I saw a dead horse at the bottom of the very cliffside that we were just then approaching. Horses, I had heard, tend to walk dangerously close to the edge of the trail instead of sticking to the shoulder of the mountain. "Waiki (friend)," I said in Quechua, "I think I'll walk for a while."

For the next three hours I alternately walked and rode. Finally I arrived at the last cross where my friends were waiting for me. They were annoyed with themselves because we had left the city too late and it was getting dark and misty and a light snow was starting to fall. "We left Cusco too late." It was indeed difficult even to see where we were. It was also getting very cold. We quickly set up our tents in a protected area away from the main activities of the festival. After paying the campesino for my ride, I said to my friend Edward, "Look, he's heading back down the mountain without any moonlight to guide him." In fact, there was nothing to see below us except fog and snow. "Don't worry for him," Edward said. "He's a part of the mountain. He'll never get lost." I nodded in agreement. Some people in this world were indeed part of the mountain.

"Conquest does not completely destroy the existing customs, culture, and religion. True enough, the conqueror imposes a formal cognitive system. But the people who have been subdued may begin a process of slow subversion of the culture and religion of the victor. The conquered people turn the imported technology against the conquerors, learning to change the meaning of imported concepts. By utilizing the conquerors formal cognitive system to describe the experiences of the conquered, the content of that system is altered. Instead of a means to inferiorize the vanquished and their way of life, it becomes a tool to valorize them."

Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo, "Syncretic Sociology: Towards a Cross-Disciplinary Study of Religion," Sociology of Religion; 1998, 59, 3, Fall, 217-236

Once the tents were assembled, my friends put on heavier clothing and went out to pray at the shrine where there is an image painted on a boulder of the Lord of Qoyllur Rit'i. I was ambivalent to pray, as my friends were doing, to a lord who in my opinion was not the real god of the mountain. I decided to stay by the tent to rest and keep an eye on our belongings. I watched people passing by on their way to the shrine -- singers, dancers, musicians , and hawkers of miniature "fake dollars," toy trucks and houses. These small objects (which are available to be bought in the mountain) are symbols of their requests to the Lord (Christ or mountain) for healing miracles and good fortune. They are part of a mock bazaar that takes place in different places of the mountain. For instance, one could purchase with real money fake dollars. With the fake money a miniature house made of stones that is for sale in the open could be obtained. The buyers of this fake miniature houses hoped that a miracle will take place, some day, when the real house become a reality in their lives.

A couple hours later my friends returned. It was now ten o'clock in the evening and there were hundreds of people on the mountain, 17,000 feet above sea level, most of them hoping for a cure, a miracle or just a piece of ice from the glacier.

"Let's eat." said Pepo.

We went to an area along the trail where hawkers of food, blankets, tents, tea and images of the Lord of Qoyllur Rit'i had set up shop, perhaps several hundred tents in all. I had eaten their food before without getting sick, but this time would be different. That night I got very little sleep, thanks to the cold and an upset stomach.

The next morning we decided to explore the glacier that would be scaled that night by the ukukos and other pilgrims, including us. The ukukos would carry crosses right up to the top of the glacier. In his Return of the Pleiades, Randall states that, "Many of the ukukos lit candles and prayed as the sun rose. They, then lined up behind a cross that had been brought the day before and began to carry it down. At the foot of the glacier they chipped out huge chunks of ice, which they tied on their backs." I decided to join my friends on the daytime hike. It would be a good preparation for the real climb that night.

I figured the trek to the base of the glacier from our tents, would take two hours, but I was wrong. The heat of the sun was unbearable, and we had not thought to bring any water with us. After about an hour I sat down in the shade of a boulder while my friends went on ahead and were soon out of sight. I felt dehydrating. I was thirsty.

A man, at that moment, came down the mountain with a piece of ice in his hands. He looked European. "May I take your picture?" I said, eyeing the ice he was carrying but too embarrassed to ask for any. He agreed to let me take his picture, and I asked him in English where he was from.

"Europe he said without being specific about a country,"

"Why," I asked, "would someone like yourself want to obtain the ice?" It was indeed a foolish question, questioning this European the way my own friends had questioned my own relationship with the mountain.

He gave me a look as if not comprehending my question. How about if he was terminally ill? I thought. How about if the wonders of western medicine couldn't do much for him and the ice was his last medical resource.? Of course, He had indeed as much right as anybody else to carry this mountain God. "This sacred ice means a lot to me."..."It is the spirit in the mountain that matters" He yelled as he hurriedly continued his climb down the mountain.

I sat there thirsty and tired and pondering about the beauty of these circumstances. These were moments that didn't exist anymore in the modern world where we were subdued by the mechanisms of science and technology. Here, in the Andes, I thought the mountains represented something else... something more human.

I took pictures of the people passing by with ice in their hands or on their backs and shoulders. I am sure if Borges the Argentinean writer was present here. I thought. He would draw inspiration, from the festivity, to write about labyrinthine men and women dreaming of people carrying ice from a mountain to distant and unknown places. I am sure that Borges characters would be similar to those from Lao Tse's book Tao Te Ching. People mastering nature by becoming nature.

Waking up from my thoughts, I asked a young woman carrying a small chunk of ice , "Do you think I could have some?"

She pointed up at the glacier. "There is plenty of ice up there."

"But you see," I said, "I wont be able to make it up to the glacier. I don't feel well enough."

She handed me a piece of the sacred ice. "Here," she said. "You know, it is the blood of God."

I said I was sure it was but that I was also hoping I didn't get any sicker than I already was.

"Sir," she said, "this ice is pure. It has been untouched for thousands of years. You could never get sick from it. It hasn't been contaminated yet"

I thanked her and rubbed my face and head and mouth with the melted ice, and indeed I did feel better. With my renewed energy I reached the bottom of the glacier where hundreds of people were playing, praying and chopping ice. There in the glacier men , women and children were playing... communing with the mountain. With an stick, I did likewise. I chopped off a small chunk of ice and sucked on it as I climbed back down to the level where our tent was located. I was totally exhausted. It would be impossible for me to make the trip back up to the glacier at midnight. I simply didn't have the stamina. I was disappointed but it would have to wait till next year.

Reaching the tent, I left the chunk of ice in front of my tent. I crawled inside and fell sleep for several hours. It was the middle of the night when I awoke. It was the freezing night that woke me up. Outside the tent, my friends were drinking a local drink canazo, alcohol fermented from sugar cane. They had also made tea with the ice the mountain. Are you Ok. They asked. I told them that I hadn't been feeling well and that I couldn't accompany them to the glacier. They cheered me up with jokes and good sense of humor. They also felt exhausted and had doubts to undertake the hike. We sat under a small fire and exchanged the day's experiences

By now it was 1:00 a.m., Tuesday morning, but the mountain was alive with the sounds of music, dancing and fireworks. No one was asleep. Nor we with our canazo and tea drinking. I looked up and I saw the most beautiful sky imaginable. "Where are the Pleiades?" I said with my tripod and the zoom ready to do astrophotography. The Pleiades were part of the festival. We searched for the constellation Taurus, where they are located, but the so- called Seven Sisters were nowhere to be found at that time of the night.

In just a few hours the ukukos were supposed to climb to the top of the glacier and bring back big blocks of sacred ice. Some would undoubtedly die in the attempt. We came to a general agreement that it would be too risky for us to try to follow them. "Next year," we said. Then, after drinking some more canazo, we all went to sleep. The chunk of ice in front of my tent had remained the same size. I touched it before getting inside.

When I awoke a few hours later, at first the mountain seemed to be in a state of chaos. Thousands of people were on the move. I followed those headed toward the shrine where according to Christian tradition the Lord of Qoyllur Rit'i was to be found. In my article, titled, Qoyllur Rit'i: Lord of the Shinning Snow, I had described in 1995, the following concerning the crowds. "The faithful stormed into the church like a stampede, making for the choice positions. I, laden with my equipment, went straight to a secluded corner where it was possible to take some pictures." When the mass started, religious chanting in Quechua filled the shrine that in reality was an odd looking building that had no chairs inside or pews. The pilgrims were all standing, holding miniature cars and houses, symbols of what they had come here to ask the God for. Some as a self punishment allowed the hot wax from the candles fall and melt in their hands.

Coming out from the shrine and among the crowds and the smell of incense, one could see the early-morning light bathing the figures of the dancers performing in front of the shrine. Other pilgrims were playing with their miniature trucks or houses made of pebbles. Some were pressing themselves against the side of the mountain and weeping, while others were content to simply hold hands. There were also mock weddings and other playlets taking place, all of these activities having one thing in common: a desire for miracles.

As I returned to my tent, I saw far in the distance the ukukos coming down the mountain in a single file. They were carrying in their backs huge chunks of the sacred ice that would eventually arrive to the city of Cusco.

Just before the Christian benediction was to take place at 11:00 a.m. (the priest performed it out of doors, facing the thousands of gathered pilgrims), my group began to head back to the town of Mawayani where thousands of people were already looking for transportation home. The descent was chaotic since most of the pilgrims wanted also to get home soon. The chunk of ice I had with me help me and my friends to get relief from the sun. Once down the mountain I gave it to a guinea pig seller who happily took it.

During our trip back to Cusco we again saw the children we had come upon during our trip up to the mountain, dusty-faced urchins running alongside our van as if we, not they, were the strange-looking ones. And, just as we had in 1998, we barely escaped being run off the narrow mountain road. We were two inches away to be gone. Sandy Tolan a journalist friend had reported the following in 1998 for International Public Radio " The driver is crazy, overtaking other buses on narrow mountains passes like he is immortal, nearly killing us all more than once."

The next day, June 2nd, was La Entrada de Corpus, the day the sacred ice arrived from the mountain. According to tradition, most of the statues of the saints are carried in procession to the main cathedral or other churches in Cusco to make them ready for the still greater procession that takes place the next day, the Feast of Corpus Christi, at the town center. I had to find the Ukukos among the crowds that were getting ready for la entrada de los santos.

Meanwhile, the sacred ice had arrived. As the faithful watched, the saints made their way toward the main cathedral, at which time the ukukos also arrived with their own sacred burden which they also carried into the cathedral. They and the bearers of the statues danced as one as they passed each other on the streets. Big crowds of people surrounded them. Finally, after several hours of merrymaking the ukukos laid down their blocks of ice and began chopping them into small pieces with swords. They then proceeded to distribute the ice to the people.

In just a few minutes the sacred ice was gone. Some were left with just a few drops of water on their palms, which they passed on to those who had nothing. Others clasped their dwindling shards of ice as if holding on to a piece of the mountain itself, with all that means to them. The Lord of the Snow Star was vanishing for another year.

As I was taking photos of these scenes, I saw in my viewfinder my friend Saqra whom I had hoped to be with us up in the mountain. I ran toward him and we embraced. "I need to talk to you," I said. "I need to ask you a great deal about the mountain..." He smiled but he could not tell me anything just now. "Next year, Vicente, I will share with you the secrets of the mountains." he said, and then disappeared back in the throng.

Pepo who was all along with me reminded me that it was time to eat and drink. "Let's go have some chiriuchu," he said. Chiriuchu is a typical Andean cold dish that is eaten just once a year, on the Feast of Corpus Christi.

"Yes, of course," I said as we headed toward tables arranged for the occasion in the town center. There they were, Roberto, Edward, Ebert, Edi sitting by a table and waiting for me. It was a very pagan feast we made, eating, drinking, arguing and watching the procession of the saints. I took pictures of it all, and of course I took one more picture of the mountain in the background before getting ready to head back to that strange land to the north.



Back to Qoyllur Rit'i