Most visitors to the ancient Inca capital of Cusco in southern Peru are drawn by the extraordinary ruined temples and palaces and the dramatic scenery of the high Andes. But the only true way to get to the heart of the indigenous Andean culture is to join a traditional fiesta. Nearly every town and village in the region engages in these raucous and chaotic celebrations, a window on a secret world that has survived centuries of oppression.

Of all the fiestas, the most extraordinary and spectacular is Qoyllur Riti, held at an extremely high altitude in a remote Andean valley to the south of Cusco. Here you can join tens of thousands of indigenous pilgrims, both Quechua and Aymara, as they trek up to a campsite at the foot of a glacier to celebrate the reappearance of the Pleiades constellation in the southern sky – a phenomenon that has long been used to predict when crops should be planted.

At the heart of the fiesta are young men dressed in ritual costumes of the Ukuku, a half-man, half-bear trickster hero from Andean mythology, and if you’re hardy enough, you can join them as they climb even higher to spend the night singing, dancing and engaging in ritual combat on the glacier itself. Be warned, though, that this is an extreme celebration. Some years, pilgrims have died during the night, having frozen or fallen into crevasses, and when the pilgrim-celebrants descend from the mountain at first light, waving flags and toting blocks of ice on their backs, they bear the bodies, the blood sacrifice at once mourned and celebrated as vital to the success of the
agricultural year ahead.

Qoyllur Riti happens every year in early May. You can arrange transport to the start of the trek near the town of Ocongate with tour companies in Cusco.

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