Q’ero preserve tradition at the Western ‘roof of the world’

CHARCAPATA, Peru – Bernardino Quispe, 75, sat in front of his grandson’s stone hut as a biting wind snaked through the Q’ero village of Charcapata, located 17,000 feet above sea level in the Peruvian Andes.

“I liked it better in the old days,” he said in his native Quechua. “Nowadays, there are a lot of tourists.”

Quispe is a pampa misayoq, or traditional healer, in a family of healers. He is one of the few in this remote nation of 800 people who remember a time before the Q’ero were “discovered” by an anthropological expedition led by Oscar Nunez del Prado in 1949.

Even now, few outsiders want to brave the biting cold, oxygen-deprived air and the two- to four-day mountain journey by car, horse and foot to visit the Q’ero.

Other community members say they receive maybe two or three visits a year.

But in the last five years, the influence of a slowly increasing business of mystical tourism, as well as efforts by the Peruvian government to connect the Q’ero to modern society, have challenged this nation’s protected and traditional lifestyle and divided community members.

In Peru, the Q’ero hold an almost mythical status as the “last of the Incas,” a people who fled the Spanish conquest and escaped to the high altitudes of the Andes, where they maintained their traditional lifestyle and ceremonies for 500 years.

After del Prado, other researchers like Alberto Villoldo visited the Q’ero and introduced their healing traditions to the rest of the world, organizing visits by Q’ero healers to tourists in nearby Cusco and traveling with the Q’ero to Europe and the United States.

The Q’ero authorities, said Villoldo in one article, have said that the time has come to link the eagle and the condor and spread Q’ero wisdom to the rest of the world.

Peruvian tour operator Dennis Alejo said there are currently seven or eight tour agencies who lead visits to the Q’eros or facilitate the travel of Q’ero healers to Europe and North America, and that about 60 to 70 tourists a year actually make it to the communities. Most of them, he said, are serious spiritual seekers who want to meet the Q’ero in their own territory and receive a despacho, or earth offering, from one of the healers.

Alejo, who began regular visits to the Q’ero eight years ago, makes no secret of either his enthusiasm for the Q’ero or the amount of income his business can generate for him. In a month-long series of European workshops, he can net over $150,000, which he said he splits with the healers with whom he works.

Alejo considers himself small fry next to someone like Villoldo, who has brought up to 200 tourists at a time to his workshops with Q’ero in the Cusco area.

He is also forthcoming about the effect he feels the business of “mystical tourism” has had on the Q’ero Nation.

“There are a lot more fights and jealousy now in the communities,” he said. “Property, which used to be held communally, is now split between rich Q’eros and poor Q’eros.”

Other Peruvians tell stories of unscrupulous tour operators who have taken advantage of the Q’ero healers’ inability to speak Spanish and cheated them out of their share, and of some Q’ero healers who have turned the tables on tour operators and fired them completely.

During the recent Toledo administration, Alejo said, Peruvian first lady Eliane Karp tried to build a highway that would connect the Q’ero communities to the rest of the world. The result was internal conflict within the Q’ero Nation between those who wanted the highway, and those who didn’t.

Ultimately, the three communities who were in favor of the highway separated entirely from the Q’ero Nation. These communities have abandoned their traditional clothing and stone huts in favor of modern clothes and multilevel brick buildings.

The highway, for now, has been stalled by resistance from the five remaining Q’ero communities. These communities have also managed to exert a certain amount of control over tourist visits to the nation, demanding special permission from groups larger than 10. Recently, a group of filmmakers who showed up unannounced were asked to pay a $2,000 entrance fee, which sent them back home again. A Frenchman who tried to talk the Q’ero into collaborating with him on developing a Q’ero theme park was also sent home, community members said.

In the traditional communities like Charcapata, where Bernardino Quispe was visiting his grandson, life continues much as it has for the past several hundred years. Community members live mostly on potatoes and an occasional alpaca. Decisions are made by male members of community councils. Trees don’t grow in these rocky altitudes, so food is cooked inside the stone huts using dried alpaca dung as fuel. The main problem, community members say, is that the sun continues to get hotter and the caps of snow on the mountains smaller and smaller.

“We have everything we need here,” said Bernardino Quispe’s nephew, Modesto, 35, also a pampa misoyoq. “We don’t need anything else.”

Modesto Quispe said he enjoys working with tourists in Cusco and visitors to the community.

“I think the people who come up here to visit us just want a little tranquility,” he added.

Traditionally, the pampa misoyoq performed their ceremonies for ayni, or reciprocal exchange, within the community. But the younger generation in the traditional Q’ero villages knows that tourists will pay for ceremonies as well as traditional weavings.

Bernardino’s grandson, Santos, 25, is receiving training from his grandfather to be a pampa misoyoq.

He offered one visitor a woven despacho cloth for $30, which he said “has been in the family for 200 years” then offered to sell another visitor his hat.

He would rather have a name-brand backpack, he said, than the traditional blanket the Q’ero men use to carry their belongings.

Bernardino Quispe peeled a potato and ate it, smiling at his great-granddaughter, Yolanda, 2. If there is ever a road built to the Q’ero Nation, he may not be around to see it.

Meanwhile, there are potatoes to be harvested.

“Cold wind,” he said as he stood up and walked barefoot down the mountain.