The Andes are the longest mountain range in the world, spanning over Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina and Peru. In Peru, the mountains house 70% of the world’s tropical glaciers, which have been a place of ritual for Indigenous populations for centuries.
1. The Snow Star Festival
Every year, at the end of May or beginning of June, the Snow Star Festival, called Quyllurit’i, takes place. Before the pandemic, around 100,000 pilgrims came to the Colquepunco glacier for the festival.
When you go to Quyllurit’i, you’re in a different space. You get there, and you’re transformed.Richart Aybar Quispe Soto
“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”, Richart Aybar Quispe Soto, who has been part of the festival for over 35 years, explained for National Geographic.
According to tradition, the pilgrims gather at the foothills of the mountain, where a sanctuary honours the Lord of Quyllurit’i. The festival combines Catholic elements, Jesus Christ being the lord of the glacier, with indigenous nature deities, the glacier being considered sacred.
Dance plays a central part in the pilgrimage: a hundred different dances are performed representing the different ‘nations’. The Council of Pilgrim Nations and the Brotherhood of the Lord of Qoyllurit’i direct the pilgrimage activities, its rules and codes of behaviour, and supply food, while pablitos or pabluchas, figures wearing garments of alpaca fibre and woven wool animal masks, maintain order.
As the moon rises, the pilgrims start making their way up the mountain, guided by the moonlight reflected the glacier. But since the climate change is melting the glacier, the traditions had to change over the last decades.
2. Climate change impact
It disappeared. And we asked ourselves, what happened? ‘Sin, it was sin,’ they would say, and it wasn’t sin, it was global warming.Richart Aybar Quispe Soto
The glacier has been melting due to climate change and this meant the festival had to adapt. To try and slow down the shrinkage, since 2004, pilgrims are no longer allowed to carve blocks of ice out of the glacier. The melted water is believed to have healing properties and it was taken to local communities to people who could not make the journey themselves.
“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,” explained Norberto Vega Cutipa, chairman Council of Nations of the Brotherhood of the Lord of Quyllurit’i.
We are not losing the ground we walk on. We are losing our mother.Hélio Regalado, Wayri Chunchu dancer at Quyllurit’i
Aybar Quispe, a dancer known as guardian of the glacier, said the disappearance of the glacier would not shatter his faith, but he would still lose a part of himself. He is also sad for the future generations who will not be able to experience the same traditions, “the same kind of cleansing from the snow”, as he did.
The other effect of the melting ice is that pilgrims now need lanterns to find their way up the mountain, whereas the glacier was reflecting enough moonlight in the past. “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”, Richard Quispe recollected.
“Describing how the glacier used to be is like trying to explain colours to a blind man. It’s impossible”, his son added.