I stopped, again, to catch my breath in the thin Andean air, struggling to ease the dizziness as I inhaled from a portable oxygen tank. I must have been a curious sight to the Peruvians passing by. My friends, Andray and Louise, stood beside me, concerned. Realizing we were blocking pedestrian traffic, I pressed myself into the side of the mountain to let the other pilgrims pass.
At about 15,000 feet above sea level, we still had farther to climb to our destination, the Sinakara valley in southern Peru’s Ocongate province. We had come to participate in Qoyllur Rit’i — the Snow Star Festival, the annual midyear Andean pilgrimage, which attracts tens of thousands of Peruvians who travel from all over the country, the largest festival of its kind. They divide themselves into nations — groups with distinct traditions — and are invited by the Brotherhood of the Lord of Qoyllur Rit’i, a volunteer body that organizes the event. During our trip last June, our guides, whom we hired from the tour office at the Casa de la Gringa hotel in Cuzco, told us that as many as 500 nations had sent delegations.