Andean glaciers are melting, reshaping centuries-old Indigenous rituals

The Snow Star Festival, an annual religious celebration, has been an integral part of Andean tradition and beliefs. But climate change and COVID-19 are threatening that.

“It disappeared. And we asked ourselves, what happened?,” says Richart Aybar Quispe Soto, who has taken part in the pilgrimage for more than 35 years. “'Sin, it was sin,' they would say, and it wasn’t sin, it was global warming.”

At night, believers would use the reflection from the moon that cascaded atop snow-capped peaks as a guide to make their way up the sacred Colque Punku glacier. The tradition goes back centuries for pilgrims from various indigenous groups in the Andes who have made the journey through the Sinakara Valley in Peru during four days of religious festivities known as Qoyllur Rit’i, Quechuan for “the snow star.”

“When you go to Qoyllur Rit’i, you’re in a different space,” says Richart Aybar Quispe Soto, who has taken part in the pilgrimage for more than 35 years. “You get there, and you’re transformed. I go there to be in the snow, to be near the stars, to be close to the moon. I go there to see the first ray of the sun at dawn, to wait with great devotion, to return purified. Up there, we are reborn.”

The Snow Star Festival has been an integral part of Andean tradition and beliefs. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, some 100,000 pilgrims would make their way to the Ocongate district in the southern highlands Cusco region of Peru. It is unclear if the festival will be formally held this year.

In recent years, the Colque Punku has lost some of its brilliance. The snow that turns into ice that forms the glacier is melting. Researchers have determined that tropical glaciers in the Peruvian Andes have decreased in size by about 30 percent in recent years.

 

“The effects of climate change today are not only compromising our survival but our ability to find meaning,” says photographer Armando Vega, who has been documenting the Qoyllur Rit’i tradition since 2017. “I hope the pilgrims' display of reverence to an element of Mother Earth can change people's perception of nature not only as a resource to be exploited for our communal gains, but as a gift that must be preserved, as a window to the human spirit.” (Some of the world's biggest lakes are drying up. Here's why.)

The Snow Star Festival, traditionally in late May or early June, mixes Roman Catholic and indigenous beliefs, honoring both Jesus Christ as well as the area’s glacier, which is considered sacred among some indigenous people. A central part of the pilgrimage is a sanctuary at the base of the mountain where a boulder features an image of Jesus Christ known as the Lord of Qoyllur Rit’i (pronounced KOL-yer REE-chee). Believers dance and pray long into the night, seeking health, peace and prosperity.

“We are not losing the ground we walk on. We are losing our mother,” Hélio Regalado, who has participated in the pilgrimage for 10 years as a Wayri Chunchu dancer, says of melting glacier.

Aybar Quispe, another one of the indigenous dancers known as the guardians of the glacier, says he is saddened by the knowledge that the melting ice means future generations will not experience the same kind of cleansing from the snow he was blessed with growing up.

“If the glacier were to disappear, I wouldn’t lose my faith if I couldn’t go to Qoyllur Rit’i, but I would be heartbroken,” he says. “A part of me would disappear.”

The Andes, the longest mountain range in the world, spans seven countries — Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina and Peru. Seventy percent of the world’s tropical glaciers are in Peru and various studies have raised alarms at the rapid rate of melting ice in the region. (These Swiss villagers prayed for their glaciers to recede. Now they want them back.)

That has changed some of the longtime rituals.

In 2004, in an effort to slow down the rate of the melting glacier, festival organizers banned the practice of cutting blocks of ice to share with the community, believing the melted water had healing powers. “Many have cried. They broke down in tears, for this was a tradition of hundreds of years—but we had to make the decision to stop,” says Norberto Vega Cutipa, chairman Council of Nations of the Brotherhood of the Lord of Qoyllur Rit’i.

Pilgrims remember the thick layers of ice from years past when the glacier was just a short distance from the site of the sanctuary and the moon illuminated the way. (Indigenous protectors of Colombia's sacred peaks have kept others out—till now.)

“When I walked up years ago, we didn't need, as we do today, lanterns to find the way,” says Quispe. “We had enough light from the glacier. When we arrived there at night, the moon began to rise—the mother moon—and little by little the area looked as if it were daytime. It was like heaven; it was a dream.”

“Describing how the glacier used to be is like trying to explain colors to a blind man,” says Quispe’s son, José Isaac Quispe Peralta,” also a dancer. “It’s impossible.”

The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, funded Explorer Armando Vega’s work. Learn more about the Society’s support of Explorers working to inspire, educate, and better understand human history and cultures.



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