in arequipa, peru: juanita, ice maiden of the incas


The southern Peruvian city of Arequipa boasts many wonders: more taxis than humans, several volcanos staring angrily at you when the clouds part, fried guinea pig on every menu, and the occasional power outage. Here I can count myself as one of the taller people in the city, which is a treat. Texturally one might call it your typical South American city, complete with a large central square flanked by an enormous Catholic cathedral where, it seems, the locals are in a constant state of praying to their god, just like their ancestors have done for centuries.

One item of interest not to be missed in Arequipa is Juanita, the Ice Maiden of the Incas. No, this is not Peru’s answer to “Priscilla Queen of the Desert.” Juanita is real and can be found in the Museo Santuarios Andinos of the Universidad Catolica de Santa Maria. Just a few steps from Arequipa’s central square, this museum boasts a collection of important Incan artifacts found on the tops of the nearby volcanos.

Juanita was found in 1995 on the Ampato volcano, more than five hundred years after she perished there in a ritual offering to the gods. This volcano, which is more than six thousand feet above sea level, sheltered Juanita in ice until a neighboring volcano, Sabancaya, erupted and melted some of the ice on Ampato, revealing Juanita. Scientists stumbled upon her by accident, when they saw a few brightly-colored feathers from the headdress of a mini golden doll protruding from the earth. Just below it were the mummified remains of Juanita, perfectly preserved from centuries in the ice.

It is estimated that Juanita was 12 to 14 years old at the time of her death, and her ritualized burial, complete with everything necessary for the afterlife, came after a blow to the skull. Before the violent moment of her death, however, Juanita was in effect put to sleep with intoxicating beverages while several festivals and rituals took place around her. According to the museum, at birth Juanita’s parents offered her as a sacrifice to the gods, the time of which would be determined by an event that would necessitate her ritualized murder. In most cases, Incan offerings to the gods were a result of some sort of natural disaster, drought or a sick noble man. It was in those moments that the Incas gave offerings to the gods, in hopes of making the gods happy and ending the ailment, drought or natural disaster. The series of events that led up to Juanita’s death has led to her now being encased in a subzero glass display in a museum.

The museum experience was quite good for such a small museum. The visit begins with a short video about the expedition that found Juanita, and the scientists that are studying her. A guide then takes you through approximately six dimly lit and low temperature halls, in which you see the artifacts that were buried with Juanita and other frozen “mummies” of the Incas. The tour culminates with Juanita, and she is truly a site to behold. I was fortunate to have been able to see her, as she is only on display at the museum from September through December.

While the empire of the Incas collapsed approximately one hundred years after Juanita’s death, her ritualized burial in the lonely ice of a volcanic mountaintop has granted her the immortality that eluded her civilization.