Ancient cultures all revere the night skies and many myths revolve around the heavens. One of the oldest in the Andes, and one involving a star cluster generating myths in cultures around the globe, concerns the Pleiades.
Cañon del Colca
I leave Arequipa early on a modern 16 seat Mercedes-Benz bus bound for the headwaters of the Cañon del Colca. This is the giant gorge cut into the Andes Mountains by the Rio de Colca – a physical expression combining the Pacific Ring of Fire, river water, and the aftermath of a collision between two enormous plates of the earth’s crust. The Quechua folk tunes spinning on the tape player entertain as we climb through the suburbs.
After three long hours on this bone-jarring dirt road we reach the village of Vizchachani for a break. Life is quite difficult here on the altiplano. At nearly 4,000 meters this environment is severe – cold, windy, and very dry. But the scenery is breathtaking, literally! The crisp air is thin and I’m feeling oxygen deprivation – the bus is feeling the altitude too. The cure for the bus is rest. My cure is the traditional Andean altitude sickness remedy, coca leaf tea.
Mate de Coca
Coca was revered as the “Divine Plant” by the Inca and used by indigenous Andeans for thousands of years before them. This remedy is not to be confused with the narcotic cocaine, which is the drug distilled from just one of the eighteen identified alkaloids contained in the leaves. The additional alkaloids in the tea are purported to supply properties that encourage health and healing as well. In potency it’s like Miller Lite compared to Bacardi 180, and any “altered state” sensation is negligible to non-existent. Think of it as a shot or two of espresso. As an altitude sickness remedy it works very well.
Now that our bus has entered the altiplano we arrive soon at the colonial town of Chivay. Established by the Conquistadors as a regional capital, it governed the canyon’s rich silver mines and the slaves that worked them. Along with the Spanish came the Catholic Church and their brand of spiritual enlightenment, so many villages in the canyon have impressive baroque cathedrals dwarfing the nearby adobe huts. I check into the hotel and quickly leave for my next destination, Mirador Cruz del Condor.
At times the road into the canyon is little more than a path, giving glimpses of the river far below. Some of the best pre-Incan agricultural terracing in Peru is found here, and although terraces like these appear throughout the Andes, here they are still actively farmed. Mirador Cruz del Condor makes use of one of these to provide a pullout for parking the bus.
I walk a short distance to the canyon rim to savor impressive views of the canyon and river below, wheeling condors circling on thermal currents above, and huge volcanoes looming in the distance.
Festival de Q’ollorit’I
On our return drive the road passes through the village of Yanque and brings an unexpected highlight to this journey. As with most early agricultural societies, ritual defines life.
Early Andean cultures had multiple layers of spiritual belief, and one of them involved sky worship. The Pleiades were tightly bound into these beliefs, and yearly the reappearance of this star cluster above the horizon brings a festival marking the beginning of a new agricultural cycle. Originally venerated as the return of the “seed scatterer”, as part of the European conquest the Church co-opted this and renamed it the Festival de Q’ollorit’I (Festival of the Return of the Stars). No matter if it was completely pagan, it served to control and placate the people.
As we enter the village night is falling and the twilight darkness begins to reveal tiny pinpoints of light, both in the sky and on the earth. Long processions of men carrying torches march down from the surrounding hillside terraces, pitchforks in hand and away from the day’s work. The women and children have spent the entire day preparing a feast of roast guinea pig and quinoa, brewing the chicha corn beer, and decorating the candlelit shrines. Life here is communal – everyone pitches in and tonight is just one in a series of festivities until the harvest.
On reaching the village the men circle the plaza stopping where the church dominates one side. Here the procession ends and food, drink, and general merriment take over – today’s hard work leads to tonight’s hard play.
The bus parks and I merge into the crowd of locals to share in their accomplishment, and even though I’m an outsider they welcome me warmly. Everyone in the village dons traditional bright colors while Quechua folk music wafts through the thin air, live and untainted by the studio flourishes I heard earlier on tape.
Food is shared communally and all drink from the large pot of chicha. I’m honored and privileged to be invited into this ritual, one that’s been practiced for several millennia and exists today little touched by the outside world.
Written by Steve Smith
Originally posted on
Header photo: Wikimedia Commons (remixed by Steve Smith)
Body photos: Steve Smith