Updated May 29th, 2017.
It was pitch black as we slowly made our way up the steep hill. Each step seemed more difficult than the last, and I was desperately struggling for breath. “It’s the altitude”, I told myself. “Nothing to do with the food-and-alcohol-to-exercise ratio…”.
My partner and I had been decided to visit Copacabana, Bolivia by the beauty and enormity of Lake Titicaca (the worlds highest navigable lake) and the mountainous terrain that flanks her vast shores.
We’d also managed to time our visit with the Inti Raymi celebrations on 21st June. This date had only meant the Winter Solstice to us (being in the southern hemisphere), but for the Aymara natives it holds much greater significance – the start of a new year.
So we found ourselves trudging up the steep hillside at 5:45 a.m. along with the Copacabana locals, following the glow of torches up ahead. Excitable chatter rose above the sound of our heavy breathing. The early morning sky was beginning to brighten and we knew that the main event – the reason we’d hauled ourselves out of bed early – wasn’t far off.
Before the sun rises crowds gather to welcome in the New Year
When we finally reached the top there were hundreds of people milling around. Bolivian ladies, wearing colourful woven skirts were selling bottles of beer. Musicians were perched on a rock, the rhythm of their drums pulsating through the crowd while the haunting panpipes reminded us that we weren’t just at any old festival gathering. A handful of other Westerners were dotted amongst the locals, relishing a rare intimate cultural encounter. Stray dogs had even made the climb up the hill and were wandering around, looking slightly bemused at the activities unfolding.
As people wait for the festivities to start they play typical pan flutes of the region
In the centre stood an old man wearing a traditional headdress and long robes, addressing the crowd. Coca leaf offerings to Pachamama (Mother Earth) were placed on a large flat rock, which was then set on fire. The most surreal thing about it was that the old man was using a megaphone to make himself heard, which seemed extremely out of place in this otherwise traditional, ancient setting.
Through an animated speech the old man implored us to worship the sun as the new day (and new year) dawned. It was an immense sight when the tip of the sun emerged and the entire crowd silently held their hands up towards it. Everything was suddenly quiet but the respect for the sun radiating from the locals spoke volumes. Once the sun was fully visible everyone cheered and turned to hug one another, including strangers. It was a beautiful sight to behold and I found myself wishing that new year celebrations in England could be so convivial instead of the over-hyped drunken affairs that they usually are.
With arms raised we all take a moment to give respect to the sun
The revellers rejoiced and danced to the music, and for 7 a.m. it was the most jovial, animated party I’d ever been to. We were extremely lucky to have experienced this incredible cultural encounter, and walked back down the hill feeling much more enlightened than we had been on the way up.
Written by: Helen Davey