The Vanishing Glacier of Pastoruri


The Death Knell of Pastoruri

Pastoruri shrouded in clouds

I was there in 2005 when the glacier was retreating so fast that it was deemed dangerous to visit many interesting ice formations like the much touted “ Ice Cave “ and it might just be as well for the weather was atrocious with snow, sleet and rain and the sky was so low I hardly did see anything.

Some of the formations were gone already…

The place was packed nonetheless and the many vendors there selling souvenirs and snacks were doing a brisk business.

My itinerary

Pastoruri Glacier the world’s only tropical glacier accessible by road had been the life line for many locals scraping a living in nearby villages, principally Catac. In peak season the glacier used to pull in tens of thousands of visitors a year but now the number is dwindling to less than one third a year and fast decreasing.

Rare to find me with companions but then Pastoruri was popular 🙂

The reason – the glacier is dying.

Cordillera Blanca – a 200 km long range of the Andes in Peru

In actual fact many of the glaciers in Cordillera Blanca, the range of Andes north of the tropic of Capricorn, home to 70% of the world’s tropical glaciers have been sounding their death knell in the last couple of decades: 40 % of their surface area has disappeared since the 1970s and Pastoruri alone has shrunk by half in the last 20 years.

All 722 glaciers there are at risk of disappearing…

The process is likely to be irreversible and there’s no better case in point than Pastoruri for it has since the early 2,000s fractured into two halves, with the northern lesser part now no more than a pitiful slab of thin ice standing forlornly against the dark granite of the cirque of Cerro Pastoruri. The southern half fares a bit better as it still bears a semblance to a glacier but it is exsanguinating fast and its meltwater has formed a large glacial lake just buy its edge.

The glacier has shrunk tremendously over the years ( credit : Living on Earth )

As the glacier retreats the once heavy-metal-rich rock surface is now left exposed to the elements and the run-off meltwater nowadays contaminates the river and soil downstream with cations that decrease their bioproductivity.

and supports an ecosystem that counts such unique flora like the gigantic Puya Raimondi

Sooner or later this part of Peru will have a crisis at hand….

The glaciated peaks hold vast amount of potable water

With this background information my second visit a few years later was more like paying homage to a dying giant, a victim to the phenomenon of global warming. As expected the number of tourists going there was a far cry from when I first visited it in 2005. The whole parking lot was vacant save one tourist minivan which I rode in. Gone were all those vendors and all the hassle and bustle that left me with a indelible impression then.

The two halves of the glacier as seen from the trail

Unlike many others I took the left paved trail from the parking lot to see the glacier’s northern member first. Along the way there are still many signposts left standing though all those strange ice formations they described were all long gone, leaving only bare dark granite behind with marks of serrations.

Then came the pitiful sight of what’s left standing below the new exposed northern peaks of Cerro Pastoruri – just a small excrescence, like an unsightly outgrowth 🙁

The northern half, a shadow of its former self…

I didn’t linger long for it was just so painful to watch. I then scurried back to take the right trail and that duly brought me to the southern half of the glacier – it still looks grand with its 10 m high terminal face, glistening with a tint of blue under the sun but the many crevasses on its surface tell a different story – it’s retreating and fragmenting inside 🙁

The southern half looks a bit better….

A lot of the rocks on the ground have distinctive shiny streaks in them, and I think they are mostly composed of iron pyrite. No wonder the glacial meltwater will be rendered acidic and as it runs off the terrain it will carry more dissolved minerals on their way, some less desirable than others…..

This would probably be my last visit to this glacier and many predict that what’s left would be gone within the next decade or so.

How long will they last ?


Without knowing the sad story behind the glacier of Pastoruri a tour of the place is still rewarding just for its majestic landscape and mountain setting and I would still highly recommend it !