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Image courtesy of Carol Parker

FEATURE - September 2016 - Kansas City

A Pilgrim in the Andes

by Carol Parker Ph.D. 


Imagine a 21,000 foot mountain covered with shimmering blue-white glaciers. Think of people struggling up this mountain over the centuries to pay homage to the powerful deities that reside there. Your first thought might be of ancient pilgrimages in the Himalayas. Yet, a similar tradition exists in South America—the Andean Spiritual Cosmology. Maestros (teachers) in this pre-Inca cosmology have guided pilgrims and apprentices in ceremony and pilgrimage for thousands of years and continue to do so today. The principles of Ayni (reciprocity), balance, and harmony with Pachamama (Mother Earth) have always been basic to life in the remote Quechua villages of the Andes. Prayer and ceremony are intertwined with the daily struggle for survival at 15,000-17,000 feet.  


Apu  Sawasiray

My first visit to the Peruvian Andes in 2007 involved a trek with five altomisayoks and pampamisoyoks (high mountain shamans) and 20 people of all ages. We had no idea what we were getting into! Arriving at basecamp at 15,000 feet on a glacier lake at the base of the apu (holy mountain) Sawasiray, we were humbled by exhaustion and overcome with awe by the deafening sound of cracking glacier ice.


As dusk fell, the temperature dropped and dark clouds gathered around Sawasiray. Adolfo, an altomisayok, knew a blizzard was imminent. He voiced his concern then disappeared over a hill. Two hours later, when he reappeared, the clouds had completely dispersed and hundreds of stars twinkled in the cold night. We were excited to see the Southern Cross for the first time! Later, Adolfo told us he had done a ceremony to change the weather, because he feared our group would be trapped in several feet of snow. We thanked him profusely, but he quietly remarked that his teacher would have made the clouds disappear in two seconds, not two hours!


Apu  Ausangate

Since that first pilgrimage, I have trekked to several apus in the Andean Spiritual Cosmology. Paqos (shamans) will visit all twelve of the most important apus in the Cusco region as part of their apprenticeships. Karpay (initiation) may take place on an apu, especially the most important apu known as Ausangate. The initiation of a paqo may require spending several nights alone on the glacier at 18,000 feet.


Fortunately, Westerners who wish to study with these wise mystics and healers are not required to engage in life-endangering initiations! However, the Andean paqos emphasize that ordeal is valuable on one’s spiritual path of transformation. The student who struggles up a mountain, participates in a baptism in an ice-cold mountain lake, and prays for healing at the base of a glacier, will invoke the beneficial energy and guidance of the apus. 


My first pilgrimage on Ausangate involved a karpay at a stunning mountain pass at 16,000 feet, carried out by several paqos and observed by a curious herd of llamas! The paqos encircled our small group and prayed over us with their misas (medicine bundles). The procedure lasted a long time in the cold and wind, but eventually they permitted us to return to our tents far below. By the time we stumbled into basecamp, it was dark. We were grateful for the delicious potato soup prepared by our cooks.


I often dreamed of Ausangate after that. Always in my dream the mountain shimmered against a blue and cloudless sky. Adolfo, who has become my main teacher, said my dreams meant I should return to Ausangate for further pilgrimage and ceremony, which I have done. One memorable experience involved full immersion in a circular turquoise lake which has been used as a site for baptism and cleansing hucha (heavy energies) for millenia. Paqos often make an annual trek to this lake.


As our group prepared for immersion, the paqos stood in the icy waters and prayed. Sahumerio (sweet incense) burned nearby. One at a time, clothed only in swimsuits, we stepped into the water as the paqos prayed to the apus and brushed us with reeds dipped in the cold water. Then we knelt in the water and immersed ourselves.

I expected to feel shocked and cold, but experienced instead a powerful, exhilarating energy. Someone wrapped me in a poncho, and I sat alone for a while in profound Chinqay (meditation). The exhilaration became a deep sense of sacred presence and for the rest of the day I had no desire to speak. 


Since then, Ausangate has been a protector in my travels and a benefactor in my life. For the local people who live near this mountain, he is a great deity who cares for them and their animals. Despachos (ceremonial gifts) are made regularly for Ausangate by the local paqos to insure fertility of the llamas and alpacas and health for the people.


One afternoon, my group had gone ahead, and I found myself hiking alone on Ausangate.  Suddenly, dozens of alpacas streamed over the ridge and down into the valley. They were about twenty feet from me, moving quickly down the steep slope. White and brown mother alpacas and their babies ran by without noticing me. I was enthralled with watching their adorable furry faces and graceful movements. Then, I realized I could not hear them. I thought perhaps the wind was carrying their hoofbeats in another direction but then noticed the air wasn’t moving.


I became aware of a vast stillness. My ears strained to hear sounds, but I was completely enveloped in sacred silence. The animals seemed filled with the same immensity of silence. I recalled a story I had heard from a Quechua villager. He said, “Ausangate not only protects llamas and alpacas, he creates them.” That day on the ridge, I felt I was witnessing the creation of a huge herd of magical alpacas whose hooves made no sound as they ran. 


Year after year, I return to the Peruvian Andes.  The magic draws me back, and the sweet generosity of the Quechua people teaches me how to live on Pachamama in Ayni.  I know I will always be a pilgrim in these mountains.

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Carol Parker Ph.D. is an eco-therapist and wilderness guide.  She leads vision quests and pilgrimages in Death Valley, CA, Canyon de Chelly, AZ and Peru. 505 235 1284

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