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It’s dusk at Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, a casita-style ecolodge that lies in the shadow of the iconic Incan ruins. The air is crisp, but instead of curling up by the lobby fire with a pisco sour, I’m headed out to pay my respects to Mother Nature. The Peruvian Pay the Earth ceremony is traditionally carried out on August 1 to mark the start of spring in the southern hemisphere and the Andean New Year. On this day, families make their offerings to the mountains, asking for health and happiness in return.

Snaking through the property’s jungle-like landscape, I trek up a set of torchlit stone stairs to a clearing next to the Urabamba River. Our shaman, Daniel, who is of Incan descent and speaks only Quechua, places his offerings on a round table. The small pile of coca leaves makes perfect sense, but I’m a bit perplexed by the bottle of Coca-Cola. “Mother Nature likes sweet best,” Daniel says through his interpreter.

The Incans had the largest empire in pre-Columbian America, but participating in a traditional ceremony doesn’t simply offer a window onto the past. Almost a quarter of Peru’s contemporary population is Quechua, and across the region, ancestral homage is paid through indigenous pan flute music, foods like grilled guinea pig, multicolour knit clothing and even reverence for those fuzzy-face, grass-munching llamas. Daniel’s offering demonstrates how the spiritual practice of his Andean predecessors continues to influence life today.

shaman ceremonyCoca leaves on a blanket during a shaman ceremony in Peru

He starts the ceremony by holding up three coca leaves that have been fused together with llama fat. They represent the celestial, the terrestrial and the world of the dead. (The polytheistic Incas believed in an afterlife and worshipped a variety of nature gods and goddesses.) I take two sets of leaves, one for the mountains and one for Mother Nature, and blow on each three times while making two wishes. It’s completely dark and my breath hangs in the air. Daniel lays the leaves on a carnation wreath, which sits on a large square of rose-printed wrapping paper, and scatters coca seeds, white and yellow corn and sugar on top. Each element has a different meaning. Coca seeds are considered sacred, while white corn signifies purity and yellow corn is said to bring luck. Before wrapping up the offering, he positions a dried llama fetus on top and ties the whole thing together with colourful strands of ribbon.

“This is his token of gratitude,” the interpreter explains. “He loves the mountains and wants to honour them; if not, they will punish him.”
Daniel approaches and brushes me with a large feather to rid my body of bad energy. As I close my eyes, focusing entirely on my wishes, he touches the offering to my forehead and heart, which is supposed to infuse the body with positive energy.

When I open my eyes, Daniel is holding the sacred gift in his hands. He’ll now take it to a nearby clearing and commit it to the fire. (Smoke is more easily consumed by the spirits.) As he walks off, I wonder what the mountains will make of my wishes.



Comments… or add another

Sylvia Reddom

Monday, March 3rd 2014 16:30
Thanks Sarah Treleaven Your story just transported us there mentally, even though we will not be there "physically" until next year.

Jim Campbell

Monday, March 3rd 2014 16:43
I've stayed at the Inkaterra. It is a fabulous place amongst natural beauty.

Becky Ludo

Friday, March 7th 2014 00:03
This is in one of my dreams to visit Machu Pic
chu one day.
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