Cuzco and the surrounding highlands celebrate many lively fiestas and holidays. In addition to national holidays, the most crowded times are around local festivals, when you should book all accommodations well in advance.

The Q’oyoriti Pilgrimage

Rivers and mountains are apus (sacred deities) for the Andean people, possessed of a vital force called kamaq. At 6384m, Ausangate is the Cuzco department’s highest mountain and the most important apu in the area. The subject of countless legends, it's the pakarina (mythical place of sacred origin) of llamas and alpacas, and controls their health and fertility. Condemned souls are also doomed to wander its freezing heights as punishment for their sins.

Ausangate is the site of the traditional festival of Q’oyoriti (Star of the Snow), held in late May or early June between the Christian feasts of the Ascension and Corpus Christi. Despite its overtly Catholic aspect – it’s officially all about the icy image of Christ that appeared here in 1783 – the festival remains primarily and obviously a celebration and appeasement of the apu, consisting of four or more days of literally nonstop music and dance. Incredibly elaborate costumes and dances – featuring, at the more extreme end, llama fetuses and mutual whipping – repetitive brass-band music, fireworks, and sprinklings of holy water all contribute to a dizzy, delirious spectacle. Highly unusual: no alcohol is allowed. Offenders are whipped by anonymous men dressed as ukukus (mountain spirits) with white masks that hide their features, who maintain law and order.

Many cuzqueños (inhabitants of Cuzco) believe that if you attend Q’oyoriti three times, you’ll get your heart’s desire. Pilgrims buy an alacita (miniature scale model) of houses, cars, trucks, petrol stations, university degrees, driver’s licenses or money at stalls lining the pilgrimage pathway. The items are blessed at the church. Repeat three years in a row and see what happens.

Q’oyoriti is a pilgrimage – the only way in is by trekking three or more hours up a mountain, traditionally in the wee hours to arrive around dawn. The sight of a solid, endless line of people quietly wending their way up or down the track and disappearing around a bend in the mountain is unforgettable, as is Q’oyoriti’s eerie, other-worldly feel. The majority of attendees are traditionally dressed campesinos (peasants) for whom seeing a foreigner may be a novelty (they may even point you out).

Discomfort is another aspect of the pilgrimage. Q’oyoriti takes place at an altitude of 4750m, where glaciers flow down into the Sinakara Valley. It’s brutally cold, and there’s no infrastructure, no town, just one big elaborate church (complete with flashing lights around the altar) built to house the image of El Señor de Q’oyoriti (The Christ of Q’oyoriti). The temporary toilets are a major ordeal. The blue plastic sea of restaurants, stalls and tents is all carried in, on foot or donkey. The whole thing is monumentally striking: a temporary tent city at the foot of a glacier, created and dismantled yearly to honor two mutually contradictory yet coexisting religions in a festival with dance and costumes whose origins no one can remember.