There is a caldera with a volcano, containing a sublimely lovely lake above Cotacachi, Ecuador. A friend hired a driver, an Ecuadorian tour guide, and an Indigenous tour guide to take us up there for a hike around the caldera. For over a century, the lake has been called Cuicocha –“cocha” means lake and “cuy” means guinea pig, which is a common food animal here. (We managed not to eat any cuys during our stay.)
Sacred Rainbows Below the Volcano
Our indigenous guide, José Antonio, explained that the proper name for this lake, in Quechua is Kuychikocha (kwee-chi-ko-cha), which means “rainbow lake”. As rainbows are not common in this region, a lake with rainbows is a sacred thing. The Spanish conquistadors apparently changed the name of the lake.
We drove to the trailhead. A winding trail circled the gorgeous lake to our left, with spectacular views of the mountainside sloping far down to our right. Cuicocha’s highest point is well over 10,000’. The double view is definitely worth the effort to get there!
The high altitude can be a bit of a problem. I had to rest several times, simply from a lack of oxygen. Our guides reminded me to walk slowly, so I focused on feeling my feet landing on the narrow, rocky trail. Hiking slowly, I noticed the birds swooping into the volcanic basin and sweeping over the lake’s surface.
At that altitude, there is profound peace. The stillness of the lake affected me, inspiring inner tranquility. I would have been happy to just sit and breathe on the cusp between the volcanic lake and the fields miles below.
Learning About Ceremonial Rituals at the Volcano
José Antonio is very involved in the shamanic community locally. He and I lagged behind the others as he showed me medicinal plants and their uses. He described the ceremonial rituals that the shamans do around the lake.
It was a fascinating few hours of education that Gary and I received! Alas, I was unable to record it. The others forged ahead, while we took our time talking about healing plants, healing methods, cleansing ceremonies.
Gary was with us when José Antonio explained much of what is behind the annual Festival of the Sun called “Inti Raymi”.
It honors and gives thanks to the god within the sun (called “inti” by Incas) and Pachamama (Earth) and this takes place on the summer solstice. Part of a series of four annual sacred festivals, it is meant to ensure life and fertility.
A shaman takes the participants in that festival up to the volcano’s rim, to the stone structure where we stood, and performs a ritual cleansing beforehand.
The Four Equinoxes
The stone structure had four sections representing the four equinoxes and solstices of the year.
The Spanish conquistadors didn’t like such a pagan festival, so they linked it to their Catholic celebration of John the Baptist and called it the Festival of San Juan. I would have loved to understand Spanish better in order to understand these precious explanations better.
The walk back down the volcano was possibly even more beautiful than the walk up because my eyes were on the scenery on both sides rather than just on the trail. The shapes of the landscape below were formed by centuries of layers of ash after volcanic eruptions.
This particular journey requires fortitude, acclimation to altitude, and professional guides (required by law). It’s well worth doing for anyone who is interested in participating in something unusual and uplifting.
Have you had the opportunity to learn about local indigenous rituals? Please share your experience with us.
by: Bonnie Willow