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The shamans Qero: An interview with the last Inca town

The Queros and the last Inca habit

For all its Andean spiritual ceremonies, Travel and Healing uses spiritual practitioners from the high-altitude community of Q’eros, located near the town of Paucartambo 115km from Cusco. Q’eros is actually a collection of five communities: Kiku Grande, Hatun Q’eros, Hapo, Q’eros Totorane, and Marca Chia. Legend holds that a group of Inca escaped the Spanish invasion of 1532 and fled high into the mountains to form the communities of Q’eros. According to myth, Spanish soldiers pursued them but were all killed (all but one, who came back to Cusco to tell the story) as the surrounding mountain spirits rallied to the Incas’ defense and caused a massive rockslide, crushing the pursuers. The people of Q’eros lived in relative isolation, continuing the Inca spiritual traditions, until they and their territory were incorporated into the Yabar family’s estate in the 1800’s; for roughly 100 years, each person in Q’eros was forced to perform years of agricultural service on the Yabar family’s plantations. In 1963, the Yabar family was forced out, and the Q’eros became the owners of the area. The Q’eros continued their spiritual traditions during their period of servitude and to this day are recognized as having preserved the purest Inca traditions of any community in Peru. However, some members of Q’eros have converted to Christianity, and there is a small Roman Catholic influence on the beliefs and practices of the community.

Interview with master Queros

To help us learn more about the people of Q’eros, I interviewed four Q’eros paqos over the course of a week. (A “paqo” is a kind of Andean Priest or mystic. They are not shamans: a shaman works in an altered state of consciousness, or with people who are in an altered state, caused by hallucinogenic plants, drumming, dancing, or meditation. The paqos from Q’eros do not do this. Note that in the itineraries on our website, we refer to the paqos as shamans to prevent confusion and to avoid having to explain the difference.) I interviewed Marcelino on November 18 and Asunta, Nasario and Santiago on November 25, 2016 at the Travel and Healing office in Cusco. My friend Lisa Sims, who is on the Andean spiritual path and has much experience with paqos and the Q’eros communities, was a great help as co-interviewer during the second set of interviews. She also provided invaluable assistance with editing the interviews for accuracy. Before starting, we all blew our breath through and exchanged qintus, the traditional three-leaf arrangement of coca leaves used to honor the mountain spirits and to show respect to each other (the Travel and Healing logo is a qintu).  After exchanging the leaves and blowing on them, it is tradition to chew them. With the honors completed, I began asking them questions about Q’eros and their spiritual practices. My questions and their answers are below. Many of their answers were similar, and I have edited some of them together for length. Also, the Q’eros are quite laconic and tend not to offer background information and context when answering questions. I have fleshed out some of their answers with additional background information to give a fuller picture of Andean spirituality.

Nasario Quispa Yapura
Asunta Quispe Yapura
Marcelino Samata Apaza
Santiago Salas Pauccar
What are your names, and where are you from in Q’eros?

-Nasario Quispa Yapura, from Chuachua
-Asunta Quispe Yapura, from Chuachua. (Nasario and Asunta are brother and sister, respectively, and the children of Manuel Quispe, a famous and powerful paqo from Q’eros.)
-Santiago Salas Pauccar, from Chuachua.
(Note that Chuachua is an annex of Hatun Q’eros.)
-Marcelino Samata Apaza, from Kiku Grande

What is daily life like for people in your communities? What is your daily life like as paqos?

All the communities of Q’eros are highly agricultural. The people there spend their days working their plots of land, tending to their animals, performing domestic chores or weaving. They grow typical high-Andean crops, such as corn, potatoes and olluco (a potato relative) and raise alpacas, llamas, sheep and a few horses. The
woven products are divided by gender and center around clothing and ritual cloths used in the ceremonies. Women make the uncuño for use in coca leafs reading ceremonies, and the mestana, a portable altar cloth used in ceremonies, worn by the women as a wrap, and used to wrap the ceremonial bundle during the despacho (Offering to Mother Earth) ceremony. Women also make watanas, a multipurpose cord made of string and beads which can be used as bracelets, draped from hats, or used to tie sacred bundles.  Men traditionally make chullos, the knitted and sometimes beaded cap used by the paqos during their ceremonies.
Paqos are the spiritual leaders and healers of Q’eros, and they have additional duties beyond the domestic ones. As they continue their practice, followers of the Andean spiritual path gradually add to their mesa, a set of specially selected stones from sacred mountains. To further their spiritual development and connect themselves to the mountain spirits, Paqos perform karpaciones, which are ceremonies using their mesa. A person must perform many such ceremonies at sacred mountains, such as Ausangate [PICTURE – Ausangate] and Waman Lipa, before they can become a paqo. Finally, since there are no hospitals in Q’eros, paqos are responsible for medical care as well. They use ceremonial cleansings and local herbs to treat illnesses.

What are some of the most important concepts in the Andean spiritual practice?

The core of Andean spirituality is Pachamama, what we might call the Earth Mother in English. She represents the Earth, its bounty, soil fertility, and all its natural processes; she provides us with all of our food and sustenance. She is the feminine half of the Andean universe. The most important ceremony in the Q’eros tradition is the despacho, the Offering to Pachamama. This is a long, elaborate event in which a ceremonial offering is first constructed step-by-step using items such as coca leaves, llama fat, candy, alcohol, flowers, confetti and seashells. The entire offering is wrapped in paper and a ceremonial cloth and tied shut before each participant blows their breath through it three times. The package is then held against each person’s forehead while the paqo invokes Pachamama and her blessings. Finally, the cloth is removed and the bundle is ceremonially burned to send the essence of the items within to Pachamama. The entire ritual is an offering of gratitude to the Earth Mother for her bounty and blessings.  It can also be to ask for permission and support to start a new business, build a new house, or undertake any endeavor.
Apus are the spirits of the mountains of the Andes. There are dozens of these in the Cusco region alone, with the most important apu being Ausangate, the 6,384m (20,944ft) mountain towering over Cusco to the southeast. Each apu has a different function, and requests are made of different ones depending on what you are asking for. The apus are the masculine aspect of the Andean universe, and they exist with the feminine Pachamama in a relationship called yanantin, the relationship between complementary parts of a harmonious whole. It is important to note that male and female aren’t seen as conflicting opposites; rather, they are integral parts of something larger. This important concept permeates every aspect of their lives, ceremonies, weavings and even the layout of villages.
Also crucial to the Q’eros worldview is ayni, the concept of reciprocal sharing. This applies to interactions both between groups of people and between people and the environment. For example, when two strangers meet in the Q’eros highlands, it is common to exchange qintus, the three-leaf group of coca leaves, as a sign of mutual respect. If a member of a Q’eros community becomes sick, the other community members will plant his fields for him in the understanding that he will return the favor when his fortunes change. Ayni is also present when a paqo makes a request of the apus: as Santiago explained to me, coca leaves are used as an offering or favor to the Pachamama and the apus, and in turn, the wind coming off the mountain blows back health and fertility for one’s animals.
Paqos have been called the “Masters of the Living Energy,” (1) and another part of their job is to help people transfer their dense, “stuck” energy known as hucha to Pachamama. An excess of hucha can cause health and relationship problems. Pachamama takes this problematic “heavy” energy and delivers it to the Andean version of the “innerworld” known as Uku Pacha, where it is converted to a lighter, freer form of energy called sami. This energy then returns to the human world, Kay Pacha. The highest plane of existence is Hanaq Pacha, which includes the stars and heavens in general.

What kind of paqo are you, and what ceremonies do you do for Travel and Healing?

There are two key types of paqos, the Pampamisayoq and the Altomisayoq. The latter is the more senior of the two and has the ability to communicate directly with the apus and awkis (nature spirits), whereas Pampamisayoqs do not. Legend holds that one of the ways an Altomisayoq can be appointed is by being struck by lightning; one of the last Altomisayoqs is said to have been directly appointed by Jesus Christ, evidence of the syncretic nature of their beliefs. My interviewees stated that there are currently no living Altomisayoqs, and all four of them, Marcelino, Santiago, Asunta and Nasario were Pampamisayoqs. However, Asunta and Nasario’s father was the famous Altomisayoq Manuel Quispe.
Paqos tend to specialize in certain ceremonies, and I asked each of my interviewees what their specialties were. Marcelino specialized in Coca Leaf Readings, which is a form of divination. The paqo throws coca leaves out of a bag onto a weaving and interprets the way they land. The leaves have two sides: a darker green side which, when still on the plant, faces the sun and a whiter side that faces the earth. The more coca leaves face up, the more auspicious a sign it is and vice versa. The pattern of the leaves is also important. Coca leaf readings can also be used to determine what ceremonies and cleansings are necessary for a particular person. Marcelino also performed the despacho ceremonies described above.
Santiago, Asunta and Nasario all did coca leaf readings and despachos as well. Santiago mentioned that he performed the despacho negro, or Black Despacho. This is to remove the heavy hucha energy mentioned above which can cause health problems and difficulties with one’s neighbors. This ceremony involves rubbing the herbs mamarura and rosemary on the afflicted person’s skin to remove the hucha and then throwing the herbs into a river to return the energy to Pachamama.

What are your most rewarding experiences working with Travel and Healing clients?

-Santiago: Doing despachos to give clients spiritual power and faith.
-Asunta: Opening the hearts of clients and working with Pachamama.
-Nasario: Working with faith and heart.
-Marcelino: Calling the apus and Pachamama to help the clients.
(Marcelino also mentioned how much he had enjoyed working for Travel and Healing in Holland, Chile, Poland, Switzerland, and Denmark.)

What is the importance of coca leaves in Andean religions?

Westerners tend to think of and demonize coca leaves solely as the source of cocaine. Yet, as you have already read, they play huge nutritional, ceremonial and relationship roles in Andean culture. Not just the Q’eros but almost all rural Peruvians chew it for energy and nutrition, use it in all of their ceremonies, and exchange it with each other to build and strengthen relationships. (See our Coca Leaf newsletter to learn more.)

When I asked the paqos this question, they seemed a little confused. The role of the coca leaf is so obvious and integral to them that it seemed strange that someone would even ask about it. After a moment, they affirmed the leaf’s importance by emphasizing that Pachamama grows it, and that it can even be a symbol of her. You can call the apus and ask them to listen to you by blowing your breath through it towards them (recall how we started the interviews by exchanging the leaves and calling the mountains with our breath). Santiago was the most talkative of the interviewees and waxed eloquent on this question, saying that the leaves are to call the forces of Pachamama, the apus and awkis (nature spirits). According to Santiago, coca leaves act as a key to open the different worlds and allow us to transmit our mutual ayni favors; the favor then returns to us.

Do you have a message to pass on from Pachamama?

-Asunta: Allying yourself with Pachamama will aid you in your spiritual path. This will promote your health, family, business ventures, and your entire life.
-Nasario: Pachamama gives us our food, our water, our home, and all our blessings; we must thank her for this. To live in harmony, we must live in alliance with Pachamama
-Santiago: Pachamama will protect your animals and house once you ally with her.

Is your culture in danger from excessive tourism?

Around the world, many local cultures have changed, often for the worse, in the face of tourism and development pressures. But the paqos were all in agreement: Q’eros is not in danger of changing in the face of tourism. Marcelino said that the energy in Q’eros is too strong for the community to be damaged by tourism. The other three agreed, saying that foreigners only come to the place to look for paqos and the learn about the apus. All four agreed that tourism was a good thing that would help the communities develop. There are still relatively few foreigners visiting Q’eros, and there are certainly no hotels and restaurants there catering to tourism; the paqos perform much of their work outside the communities, in places like Cusco and the Sacred Valley. You cannot even enter Q’eros without an invitation. To avoid flooding Q’eros with tourists that the communities simply aren’t prepared to handle, Travel and Healing conducts all its ceremonies in and around Cusco. We pay the paqos fair compensation for their time and travel.
On that note we ended the interviews. Travel and Healing offers all the ceremonies described above: the despacho, Coca Leaf Readings, and cleansings. We offer them individually or integrated into our other tours. Please let us know if you’d like to come meet Marcelino, Nasario, Santiago or Asunta and get started on the Andean spiritual path!