“THE GROUND’S NOT as cold this year, and there’s twice as many people.”
We stood and looked down at the sprawling city of tents that was Qoyllur Rit’i. The ground may have been warmer, but the cold still seeped up through heavy boots and three pairs of woollen socks, wrapping icy fingers around toes that had grown up wearing flip flops on Aussie beaches. I stamped my feet and listened as Chango marvelled at the growth of the festival since his last attendance five years ago. It is, he told us, the only indigenous celebration in the Americas that is consistently growing in size.
We had left Cusco at five in the morning, crammed our party of five into a taxi, and watched the sun rise over the Sacred Valley, the mist lifting, color seeping into the landscape as we drove. Nobody talked much.
Two and a half hours later we arrived at Ocongate, the jumping-off point for the five-mile (8 km) trek to the sanctuary of Sinak’ara, where Qoyllur Rit’i takes place. We joined a procession of hundreds – Andean women of all ages with large colorful bundles on their backs, children, men on crutches, young couples, a faint smattering of tourists.
One family led a donkey loaded down with a mattress – I was to envy them later. The trek followed a river through a high valley, and as we climbed still higher the vegetation became sparser and finally disappeared, and the chill in the air became more profound.
At regular intervals we passed richly dressed crucifixes, where many stopped to pray. Almost all at least made the sign of the cross themselves while trudging past. Every kilometer or so was a collection of blue plastic tents, rest stops complete with bubbling soups, trout and chicarrones. We took full advantage; the climb, after the initial upwards slog, was gentle, but the altitude was a killer. Qoyllur Rit’i takes place at 15,420 feet (4,700 m).
We arrived to mayhem. Thousands of people thronged the immediate surrounds of the church, haggling over dream-replicas in the symbolic market, competing drum beats and twirling dancers, vendors hawking rolls of blue plastic as a gentle snow-rain began to soak through woollen caps.
We somehow found Chango and Coneto, who had practically sprinted the trail, amidst the hordes. John had fallen in with his fellow ukukus and would catch up with us later.
The night was full of movement. We huddled in restaurants sipping coffee, wrapping hands around cheap and delicious bowls of steaming soup. Later we walked past the hundreds in line to enter the church, clutching offerings and shivering in the less-than-zero air, and declined to join them. The dances were more exciting – frenetic drum beats, ukukus lashing at each other with whips, girls in brightly colored skirts twirling.
We passed one group in which a conspicuous gringo camera crew was circling, lights blazing, cameras pushing into singing faces, and I felt resentful of the intrusion. The walk back to camp took us past a roped-off enclave, with a grandly outfitted dining tent, a foreign tour group inside taking dinner on their camp stools. Next door a group of locals lay in sleeping bags on the ground under a stretched out piece of blue plastic.
I got thinking about this, unable to sleep on the icy ground in the wee hours as the drums beat on and my feet became increasingly numb. I was angry at the presence of the other gringos – not that they were there, but that they came as a species apart, roped off in their shiny dining tents, expensive video cameras between them and the dancers.
But where do you draw the line? This is predominately a festival for the local communities – even the Peruvians I came with were from Lima, believers in their own way, yes, friends with ukukus, but not completely and wholly of Qoyllur Rit’i.
And I had come to look, to take photos, to be a tourist – perhaps I did it a little rougher, maybe I dined knee to knee with the real celebrants, but what makes me so special? Why should others miss out who don’t have the opportunity to be shown the way by local friends, who go with tour groups and inevitably become that species apart, whether they like it or not? And why shouldn’t film crews be able to share this with those who don’t have the opportunity to travel at all?
I was still thinking about it the next morning as the ukukus came down from their night on the glacier, as mass was held, as we walked homeward in silence.
What do you think? Just where do we draw the line between travel and tourism? Who decides the standards of sensitive travel? Share your thoughts in the comment section!
To learn more about travel in Peru, check out Matador’s Peru Focus Page.