Pilgrims have made the dangerous journey to the high Andes of southern Peru for hundreds of years to pay tribute to the "apus," or mountain spirits. Since before the Incas, Andean people have worshipped the Qolqepunku Glacier, 50 miles east of Cusco, as a site of sacred ice.
The sacred ice is said to have medicinal and spiritual powers. "The local people use the ice to make healing drinks and to call forth rain for their crops," explained Peru's renowned Andean scholar Jorge Flores Ochoa.
Dances at Qoyllur Rit'i are tied to ancient agricultural and pastoral rituals that date to the Incas and other pre-Columbian cultures. Above, a masked celebrant dressed as a sheep climbs to the glacier to play in the snow and ice.
Men known as ukukus (bear-men) guard the glacier and protect pilgrims from harm. In prior years the ukukus performed an all-night vigil on the glacier, where they prayed to the gods and battled condemned souls (condenados) said to inhabit the icy slopes. At dawn they raced down the mountain with chunks of ice tied to their backs, which was melted into holy water in the church.
Since 2003, the ukukus no longer carry ice down from Qolqepunku. "We must protect the glacier," said one ukuku leader. Pilgrims have been banned from taking the sacred ice. Those who are caught with the contraband ice are whipped by the ukukus, shown climbing the barren mountain above.
The largest indigenous pilgrimage in the Western Hemisphere, Qoyllur Rit'i attracts more than 100,000 pilgrims from Peru and Bolivia each May or June. Pilgrims camp in sub-zero temperatures, which have become more extreme with the onset of climate change. In 2007, a man froze to death overnight. More have perished in cravasses that have opened in the glacier.
Glaciers in Peru are retreating an average of 65 feet a year. According to the country's natural resources institute, Peru has lost 30 percent of the surface of its glaciers in the last 23 years. Experts predict that most of the country's glaciers below 18,000 feet will be gone by the year 2015.