© Copyright 2020 Armando Vega

The Snow Star 


Climate change is the grim companion of tens of thousands of pilgrims to an ancient tropical glacier in the Peruvian Andes

Photos by Armando Vega

Text by Amanda Magnani

At night, the way to the sacred snows of Qolque Punku is illuminated by the reflection of the full moon. For centuries, pilgrims from indigenous groups in the Andes Mountains have made the journey through the Sinakara Valley to seek the blessings of Qoyllur Rit’i. Translated from Quechua as “the snow star,” in recent years, its brilliance has dimmed due to the melting of the glaciers caused by climate change. Since 2017 photographer Armando Vega has been documenting the rites of Qoyllur Rit’i, years in which he and other pilgrims have witnessed the glacier’s seemingly inexorable recession.


The history of the pilgrimage to the Sanctuary of the Lord of Qoyllur Rit’i involves pre-Columbian and Catholic cultural heritage. The dances, songs and prayers offered to the deities mix Spanish and Quechua, an expression of religious syncretism. Pilgrims make the journey to the glacier to give thanks to it and to honor the stars, the harvest season and Jesus Christ.


Richart Aybar Quispe Soto, 49, is a member of the Tahuantinsuyo nation, inheritors and interpreters of andean religious traditions that stretch back to the days of the Incas, and he has participated in the pilgrimage for more than 35 years as a Pablo, a dancer who acts as a guardian of the snow. “When you go to Qoyllur Rit’i, you’re in a different space,” said Aybar Quispe. “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.”


Considered the largest religious festival of the Andes, it attracts between 90,000 and 100,000 devotees to the sanctuary, according to UNESCO. There are over 60,000 dancers, and 30,000 to 40,000 pilgrims and visitors who accompany them. During four days, believers dance and pray long into the night, uninterrupted, indifferent to fatigue and the damp cold of dawn. 


More than a mere element of nature, for Qoyllur Rit’i’s devotees, the Qolque Punku glacier is holy. As Aybar Quispe described the trek to the glacier, “When I walked up years ago, we didn't need, as we do today, lanterns to find the way. 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.” 


Due to global warming, the glacier and thus the rituals that accompany it are changing. Talk to any pilgrim and you will hear the about the imposing size of the glaciers in the past. While decades ago the ice could be spotted near the cross of Kochapata, only 800 meters from the sanctuary, today, pilgrims must walk about a kilometer-and-a-half from the temple to touch snow, at 5,000 meters above sea level.


The Andes are home to 99% of the world's tropical glaciers, and 70% of them are in Peru. The rain that feeds the glaciers falls during the summer, when high temperatures favor the melting of ice. The alarming speed of disappearance of the icecaps serves as a measure of the pace of global warming. According to data from the National Research Institute on Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems (INAIGEM), between 1962 and 2016, Peru lost 57% of its glaciers.


The culture of indigenous Andean communities in Peru is intimately linked to their relationship to the land. Their life is guided by the lunar calendar and agricultural cycles. According to their cosmovision inherited from the Incas, the mountains, glaciers, the sun and the moon are sacred. 


Every year, pilgrims walk at least eight kilometers from the city of Mahuayani to Qoyllur Rit’i sanctuary. Before roads were built in the area, the journey was longer; it started in cities such as Urcos, located about 80 km from the temple. To this day, pilgrims from the region of Q’eros, the indigenous group whose culture is considered to be least affected by the legacy of Spanish colonialism and religious syncretism of the last half-millennium, travel the entire route on foot, crossing the Andes for two and a half days. Along the road, pilgrims from across the country carry everything they need for the four-day celebration including costumes, musical instruments, tents and food. Adults, children and the elderly walk side by side, enduring below zero temperatures and snowfall.


When pilgrims arrive at the glacier, they receive blessings for the year to come. They offer up prayers in Quechua and hold the belief that the whiteness of the snow brings them closer to heaven. Or at least that’s how it used to be. 


“We are not losing the ground we walk on. We are losing our mother,” explained Hélio Regalado, 35, as he sat in a bar in Paucartambo. He is from Argentina and has participated in the pilgrimage for ten years as a Wayri Chunchu dancer. When talking about how the glaciers looked in the past, the pilgrims of Qoyllur Rit’i speak with voices of sadness. As José Isaac Quispe Peralta, 21, explained, “Describing how the glacier used to be is like trying to explain colors to a blind man. It’s impossible.” Peralta is a pablito from the  Tahuantinsuyo nation and Aybar Quispe’s son. He grieves a future in which his children and grandchildren will no longer witness the glacier ceremony. 


At the site of the glacier, whiteness is increasingly scarce and the grandeur of the mountains turns into sheer vulnerability. If you compare photographs taken in the 1930s by Martín Chambi with the current state of the glacier, the mountains seem naked. 


Historically one of the most important traditions during the pilgrimage involved cutting large blocks of ice which the pablitos would later carry down the mountain on their backs. The ice, sacred and blessed, was then divided among pilgrims who would take it home to provide divine protection during the year. 


In 2004, due to climate change related issues, the Council of Nations of the Brotherhood of the Lord of Qoyllur Rit’imade the decision to stop cutting the ice. As Norberto Vega Cutipa, 59, chairman of the council explained, “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.” As for Aybar Quispe, he laments that his son will never be baptized in the snow as he was, adding “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. A part of me would disappear.”

© 2021 Armando Vega