The first time I heard of the Qoyllur R’iti Pilgrimage, I was 25 years old and leading tours in South America for a Canadian travel company. In between trips, I often spent my days with a Peruvian family that live high up in the hills surrounding Cuzco. In their living room hung a poster of a tiny church at the base of a snow-capped mountain. They told me that they considered the mountain to be sacred and that the altar of the church was built around a rock where the face of Jesus is said to have appeared. Since then, thousands of people from all over the Andes travel there on a an annual pilgrimage called, Qoyllur R’iti. I knew in that moment that one day I had to go.

Qoyllur R’iti means “Brilliant Star of Snow”. It is a spectacular festival and pilgrimage known to those living in the Andes but relatively unheard of to the rest the world. It wasn’t until 10 years later in May 2009, that I finally had the opportunity to experience it for myself.

Doing as locals do, I departed by bus at midnight with three Peruvian friends, Tula, Gary and Betsy to the small village of Mahuayani. Three hours later we arrived in the dead of night. It was cold so we fuelled ourselves with a bowl of soup sold by a vendor at the starting point and then began our 3-hour ascent to 4,600m along a winding mountain path. Guided by the light of the full moon, we hiked alongside men, women and children. En route, we passed stations of the cross located at each kilometre that were surrounded by candles and pilgrims stopping to pray and lay their offerings.

As we got closer, tables were set up for  along the path with vendors selling everything from sheep soup, to little plastic cars, and bundles of fake money. Tula, my Peruvian soul sister, explained that locals believe we must make this Pilgrimage for three consecutive years in order to manifest our dreams into reality. This is also done by making miniature offerings to the Apus, the spirits of the mountains. Over the course of the day I saw people building little stone houses with pebbles of the homes they dreamt of, purchasing miniature plastic replicas, leaving hand written notes under rocks of their desires, buying diplomas, marriage certificates, wads of fake bills etc. These offerings to the Apus put into motion the manifestation of their dreams for the future.

By 6am the sky brightened and we arrived at a large open area surrounded by snow-capped peaks that reached the sky and tents pitched as far as we could see. The massive celebration had begun and it was a spectacular mix of Catholic religion and Andean tradition. Music rang through the air and dancers performed in elaborate costumes. Many had travelled from all throughout the Andes, from Cuzco, Apurimac, Puno, Arequipa, and Bolivia. With so much happening at once I was in awe with a feeling sensory overload. It was an experience beyond words.

After weaving our way through the crowds, the tents, the food stalls, and the dancers, I left my friends and explored on my own. I saw the church that I’d seen in the poster hanging in the living room so many years before. Upon entering I was blown away. It was packed with people and the entire church was lit up by white candles. It was absolutely stunning.

After a full day at the festival my three amigos continued the hike up to the glacier which was to include another night of trekking. I had to return to Cuzco for work, so hiked on my own along the same path with a train of people as far as I could see. Everyone walked at a rapid pace carrying their loads of left over food, tarps, tents, and large wooden crosses.

I hadn’t seen one other foreigner during the entire time I was there and I felt as though I had just lived a page out of National Geographic. This was one of those moments that I will remember for the rest of my life.

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