Man, cities, and condors

Mario Vargas Llosa

In the Andes, human beings have the condor’s vocation: rise upward, climb the stairways of air, soar above the clouds, scan the earth below, far below. Why else would cities like Quito, La Paz, and Cuzco be so high that more than clusters of human dwellings they resemble the nests of those large, proud birds that from the highest Andean peaks scour the landscape in search of prey that they fall upon like meteors? It is probable that at this very minute, in this blue dusk turning into night, there is a line of condors perched on one of the peaks above Quito, surveying—half-enraged, half-intimidated—the superb spectacle below. Who are these people who dared to climb to such heights? Who are they who built their refuges on these high, windswept plateaus where for centuries on end only condors ventured?

The cities of the Andes, each and every one, are a testimony to the heroic adventures of the many generations of men and women who overcame enormous obstacles set before them by fiendish geography to construct dwellings, tame the land, acclimatize domestic animals, and make life liveable for those who follow. The mantle of fireflies that Quito turns into every night proves that this audacious undertaking, the conquest of the Andes by human civilization, has not yet ended, and undoubtedly never will. Here nature has never been completely subdued, humanized by commerce with mankind, as it has in other places on the globe, such as Europe or North America. Still today there is something indomitable and uncontrollable in these mountains that from time to time unleash their fury in the form of earthquakes and avalanches, those huaycos that bury whole towns and sow terror and death in their passing.

That is why a scene as idyllic and rich as this, the myriad of lights of haughty Quito, twinkling in the night, cannot be trusted. Because there in the background, massive and untouchable, stand those mountains of eternal snows, implacable and belligerent.

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