From Patagonia to the Caribbean

By Pablo Corral, translated from Spanish by Margaret Peden-Sayers

South America is a continent of geographic extremes. There we find the largest tropical rain forest on the planet and the driest desert, and on its west an entire coastline, from Patagonia to the shores of the Caribbean, is dominated by the uninterrupted and spectacular drama of the cordillera of the Andes.

To say that this is the longest cordillera on earth doesn’t convey its true dimensions.  But when we realize that if we lay its 8,500 kilometers along other latitudes and parallels it would stretch from San Francisco to London, from Paris to Beijing, or from Melbourne to Tokyo, we begin to appreciate its grandeur.  

Because of the chain’s extraordinary length, a large portion of the inhabitants of Spanish America live in its shadow or on its slopes.  In short, many of South America’s diverse peoples live by the grace of, or despite, the Andes.

When I began my journey on January 1, 1995, I planned to travel the cordillera from south to north, to learn its caprices, its generosity, its harshness.  I wanted to experience in all its dimensions the childhood companion that had opened horizons to my imagination.

More than a journey undertaken for adventure, this was a quest for identity, something that is a major concern for many of us Latin Americans.  We are not European, but neither are we all indigenous, and our countries have not yet had time to amalgamate in any definitive way the cultural diversity bequeathed us by history.  Which is why the geographical excesses of our continent often are transformed into a point of reference, and our very identity derived from them.  

The iceberg cemetery at Lago Gray, Torres del Paine National Park


It is easy to reach the end of the world.  A four hour flight from Santiago or Buenos Aires will deposit us in the savage heart of Patagonia, at the Finis Terra of sixteenth century Iberian voyagers.  But the ease with which we moderns can be transported anywhere on the globe makes us forget the unimaginable courage and effort it took to populate these wild reaches of the planet.  

Goethe said that we can truly love only what we know.  When I got out of the airplane in Punta Arenas, my heart was pounding with unusual intensity.  I had studied maps of Patagonia with true fervor, as if my life depended on burning every inch into my brain.  On these charts I had seen the austral Andes break apart before the ferocious advance of the sea, its peaks turned into the islands of an archipelago, until at Cape Horn the cordillera sinks hopelessly into the Antarctic seas.  

Ferdinand Magellan probably was expecting to find a direct passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific, something similar to the Strait of Gibraltar. But in 1520 he found himself in a labyrinth of maddening proportions, an unassailable corridor confused by countless bays, its channels obstructed by undetectable icebergs and rivers of black rock plunging into marine depths.  

Unbeknownst to him, he was picking his way through the peaks of the cordillera.  

I had imagined that today’s Patagonia would be the same remote, untouched territory reported by the earliest explorers.  Punta Arenas, however, was a surprise.  More than modern, I would describe it as recent.  Supermarkets are everywhere, state-of-the-art service stations, and much more activity than I’d dreamed of.  Extensive coal mines, oil wells, a methanol refinery, and constant traffic of large-draft ships sailing the mythic straits that offer as much danger as safe passage, have supercharged the economy.  

Even so, this city struck me as an hallucinatory attempt to cling to a savage, primitive land.  This part of the world is still characterized by isolated sheep ranches, impenetrable glaciers, huge forests and lakes, and countless islands and fjords whose names no one remembers.  

Outside Punta Arenas lie sweeping plains whose desolation is illusory.  It is home to minute flowers that hide their faces from the wind; mosses that protect themselves in the lee of rocks; rabbits, foxes, pumas, guanacos, condors, and ñandus that give human life a wide berth.  Like humans, though, they seek the warmest corners in which to take shelter.  

Without warning, the plain is interrupted.  The cordillera is a wall growing higher by the second, a dinosaur awakening from a millenary sleep.  

These mountains have been eroded by glaciers until nothing is left but essence, pure rock.  We could spend weeks observing the monumental granite structure of Fitz Roy, in Argentina, or the contorted shapes of Los Cuernos del Paine, forms constantly changing beneath mysterious caprices of light and cloud formations scudding in from the Pacific.  

I imagine how magical it would have been to capture with a high speed camera the transformation of this landscape through thousands of millennia.  South America separating from Africa, in its march west creating the titanic crash between the South American and Nazca plates and lifting the occidental coast of the continent as if it were the prow of an icebreaker.  

Dusk holds black night at bay in the Patagonian summer: it is nearly twelve o’clock midnight and still the sun hasn’t set.  I watch the phosphorescent blue of ice floes breaking away from the Gray glacier; they have come to die in the cemetery of icebergs.  Do these great bodies of ice die as they are transmuted into water? I ask myself.  I know only that irrevocable change is painful.  My father is in a hospital in Houston, beginning an exhausting battle against illness and death.  I cannot abandon my work for long.  I am here, now, before these mountains that make me feel insignificant, solitary, and humanly frail in a universe of constant transformation.  

Quellon, in the south of Chiloe, Chile.


“Excuse me, Señora.  Is this the road to Quemchi?”  

“Sí, Señor.  It isn’t far.”  

“Will there be an inn there, somewhere I can get something to eat?  It’s cold and rainy out here.”  

“I don’t know that you will find anything at this time of day.  And it is always like this; people tend to stay indoors.  You’re not from around here?”  

“No, I come from Quito, Ecuador.”  

“We have supper underway, won’t you join us?  You’re welcome to stay with us.”  

I had reached Chiloé, a tiny replica of Ireland, after several days on a cargo ferry, a none too reliable method for transporting goods and travelers among the small, isolated towns of the Patagonian archipelago no austral highway will ever reach.  

The husband of señora Irene Miranda greets me with a friendly smile.  Theirs is a large family, and they have also invited neighbors.  They are fishermen by trade, and they are preparing curanto, a famous seafood specialty of Chiloé.  Nearly all these people are fair-skinned, and some have blue eyes. They look like descendants of the Belgians and Germans who came to expand the frontier: blood and fire crushing the extraordinary resistance of the Mapuche Indians.  They have no sense of their ancestry.  Now they are simply Chileans.  

Here there is lots of time for conversation.  Time for wine and family stories.  Time for baking bread and gathering young and old around the fire.  

The kitchen is like one large hearth, with soot-blackened walls and a window too small to let out the heat.  

They would like for me to stay; they want me to tell them more about my country, and to tell me more about theirs.  But we travelers are always just passing through on our way home.  

As she tells me good-bye, señora Irene says, “We are simple people.  My brother, my husband, are fishermen, and like you, they travel.  All we wish is for them to be welcomed wherever they go.”  

Patricio Aylwin, Chile’s first president after the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship, in 1994


My friends in the United States joke about Santiago, calling it Sanhattan. This is a sophisticated, modern city that sometimes makes me think of a strange mutation: urban California grafted onto a somber Spanish city.  

Santiago is very different from the rest of Chile.  Here Chile’s economic success is readily apparent. Luxurious buildings sheathed in glass, enormous car lots, highways, massive commercial centers as large as their counterparts in the US.  What I would call an accelerated Northamericanization.  Despite the fact that the highest peaks in the Andes are found in this zone, the imposing cordillera is eternally obscured by stubborn pollution.  

The boom is a pervading topic, the economic miracle of Chile.   The streets of the center are filled with executives in impeccable dark suits, as sober and elegant as any on Wall Street.  Chile has taken its role as an economic tiger very seriously.  

The principal threat to the long term stability of Chile’s economy is that the country exports only a few products (principally copper) and is therefore vulnerable to international fluctuations in prices.  

Industrial and urban development have their price.  The first thing to be sacrificed are intangibles, the values and attitudes that sustain a social structure.  



Time for sharing.  

Military ceremony in Viña del Mar

I am on my way to the studio of the well-know architect Germán del Sol, in one of the residential sections of Santiago: large shady trees, oceans of flowers, lots of glass.  I am welcomed with the traditional cordiality of the Chileans.  Chile is a land of poets, no doubt of that.  The meeting was to last a few minutes, but two hours later we are still talking.  

Germán del Sol maintains that there are two Chiles, parallel but widely separated: an official Chile and a real Chile.  

The official nation is that of economic advancement, success.  The face that Chile wants to show to the world: the great Latin American tiger, the England of South America. “In the official Chile,” Germán tells me, “there is little true wealth, the kind that is enjoyed and given away.”  

He continues his thesis.  

“In the real Chile, on the other hand, everyone gives his best, without weighing whom it benefits and without calling attention to it.  The greatest riches are affection, family, friendship.  There is all the time in the world to be the person you are, to love the people you love, and to enjoy the things money can’t buy.  The real Chile thrives on a tolerance for diversity and upon the generosity of all, including the poor.”  

“In the real Chile you find true riches and a different quality of life -without ever overlooking the need to root out the appalling hunger and misery that is still all about us.”  

This is an analysis that can be applied to all of Latin America as we approach the end of a millennium.  Ecuador.  Venezuela.  Mexico.  I digest his ideas, while he adds, “My grandmother Olga says that happy people don’t get any attention.  Because they aren’t news.  And that thinking of others is enough to make us happy from time to time.”  

I agree enthusiastically.  

Workers at a cooperative mine in Potosi, Bolivia


Not a cloud on the horizon.  

To my eyes, accustomed to the green Andes of the north, the clouds are the skin of the mountains.  These mountains seem exposed, fleshless, baked dry. And the same is true of the people who live among them.  In the north of Chile, people have a certain asperity, a natural brusqueness.  

Beyond the fertile, fruit-growing valleys of central Chile, the desert begins.  A dry, barren land that stretches mercilessly along the Pacific coast to the border between Peru and Ecuador, a distance of some 3,500 kilometers.  

Were it not for the flourishing mines that insure the basic infrastructures, it would be impossible to live here.  

In Chile and Argentina (an Andean country I’ve given less than its due because of my focus on the Pacific coast), many people live in the foothills of the Andes, or within sight of them, but because of the extremes of the seasons almost no one lives in the Andes themselves.  

From Bolivia to where the cordillera ends in the Caribbean, on the other hand, many towns perch in the niches and folds of the mountainsides.  

The perilous highway that rises into the Andes from San Pedro de Atacama is hemmed in by imposing snow-covered volcanoes.  Painting the whiteness a sulfurous yellow are terrible fissures spewing vapor, sometimes fire.  We have crossed the Tropic of Capricorn and yet the rarefied air of these heights holds no heat. Oxygen is sparse, and my heart labors constantly to adjust the level between my blood pressure and the decreasing atmospheric pressure.  

The moon. This looks like the moon.  

An infinite plain. White. Unspeakably white.  

But not from snow.  From salt.  Interminable salt deserts.  Remains of inland seas.  Dirt houses, coppery inhabitants with bleached hands that mine the salt and who understand the lingua franca of Spanish America barely or not at all.  

Farther on, in heights too rare to breathe, the imperial city of Potosí.  The highest in the world.  Once the richest in the Americas, ruled by King Silver.  

Its streets are laden with history, a history of luxury, excess, and tragedy. Some historians speculate that during the colonial period, between 1545 and 1825, eight million Indians and Africans died from the barbaric labor conditions in the mines of Cerro Rico, also known as Cerro de Plata.  

The landscape looks like an anthill.  It is drilled by hundreds of kilometers of tunnels that hide twenty thousand miners from the light.  

Most of the bocaminas, individual entrances to a myriad of interconnecting tunnels, are the property of coops of independent miners who have no bosses, but have no capital, either, men who labor in conditions similar to those of their ancestors.  The mountain is still producing silver after five hundred years of exploitation.  

At the end of the work day the city is flooded with people.  Miners, of course, although it is impossible to know that from their appearance. Strolling with their girl friends, wives, or families, dressed in blue jeans, baseballs caps, and jackets with English-language logos, they would be at home in any capital of Andean America.  Teenagers listen to rock on the street corners and loudspeakers blast the melodramatic music of Mexican balladeers or the Caribbean rhythms of the vallenato.  Brazil’s Xuxa show is playing on television, and a bare-chested Arnold Schwarzenegger cradles his machine gun on the massive adobe wall of the colonial Treasury building.  

Sellers of health potions in La Paz, Bolivia


La Paz is a city with profound indigenous resonances.  But to an educated eye, the results of five hundred years of mestizaje, the blending of races, are easy to see.  There are practically no communities of pure, untouched Indians left in all the Andes.  Early on, Quechua, the language of the Inca empire, was spread among Andean peoples who had never spoken it before by the Spaniards, who used it as a veiled mechanism for segregation-they wanted to reserve Spanish as the language of the colonizing elite.  

Any time we refer to a “native,” an Indian, we are in fact talking about greater or lesser degrees of mestizaje.  The long organza and taffeta skirts of La Paz’s Aymará speaking Indian women originated with the Spaniards.  Like their felt derby and top hats, their blankets,  shawls, and beads.  In the three Andean countries with the largest indigenous populations, that is, in Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, the colonial government, to facilitate collecting tribute and maintaining political control, imposed upon each community dress codes that combined Spanish elements like embroidered blouses and felt hats with native ones, such as cloth wrapped around the body, alpargata sandals, headdresses, and short jackets.  

Every village in the Andes has its identifying style.  A certain hat shape, a special textile design, that reveals that person’s precise origin, even the hamlet the person comes from, along with his or her marital status.  

These garments have remained virtually the same for centuries, but in recent decades there have been more changes in society -and in styles- than during the entire  history of the nation: the traditional isolation of indigenous peoples is fast disappearing.  

There is growing urbanization throughout the region, and what new generations from the rural tradition are seeking is to be accepted on equal terms when they  arrive in urban centers. Many young people find that revealing their origins in the way they dress, or by the tongue they speak, can act as a real handicap given existing class divisions.  Men are the first to abandon everything -particularly clothing- that identifies them as Indians in the eyes of the mestizo society, because it is they who are the first to venture outside their home country in search of a better living conditions.   

The fiesta has the rare virtue of erasing social differences.  It doesn’t matter who may be hiding behind that mask, or what language the devil-costumed dancers of Oruro speak.  

An endless parade of buses arrives in Oruro from all corners of the country, bringing people of every status who want nothing more than to dance away the three days of this huge Andean carnival.  This is a fiesta of Bolivia’s mestizaje.  

In the half dozen trips I have made to Bolivia, I have always found some popular celebration in progress.  

The fiesta is a place to touch base with the community.  

To celebrate the change of seasons that because they are imperceptible in the tropics leave no markers in communal memory.  

And to give emigrants an excuse for coming home.  

One imagines that a cold land should be sad.  

Bolivia, however, is just the opposite.  It is the happiest country in the Andes.  

Photographing on a day of the challa-the blessing of the earth-in the isolated village of Toledo in the department of Oruro, I joined in a fiesta in the patio of a Indian house.  A tiny little old woman kept serving me strips of rubbery, unchewable llama that I diligently hid behind the wall as I danced in endless circles with plump, rosy-cheeked girls who kept repeating,”Marryme, marryme, I have a mud house, many llamas, potato fields,” and laughing uproariously about the questionable amatory prowess of white men.  

End of carnival party, in the town of Toledo, in the Bolivian Altiplano


Titicaca, a huge lake in the navel of the altiplano, is the cradle of the Inca empire.  The first question you ask yourself is how people survive in such a cold place, with its frequent frosts and its friable, easily eroded humus.  And most puzzling is how this seemingly inhospitable land could ever have given birth to a civilization as advanced as the Incas’s.  

The answer may be more apparent than it would seem.  Although little is cultivated at these heights-only hardy species such as certain tubers-the cordillera offers its dwellers the coolness of altitude in a normally torrid zone.  Here the lower one goes, the warmer, ending, finally, in tropical conditions.  So within modest distances we find  the spectrum of ecologies and climates that allowed the Andean peoples to develop a complex system that provided all the necessary components of a balanced diet.  

This adaptation to the surroundings has been interrupted at various times in history by great droughts and floods resulting from climatalogical cycles. Apparently major ecological tragedies in the central Andes tied to the phenomenon of El Niño and to deforestation eventually forced the Incas to use military means to assure a broader agricultural base less susceptible to changes in climate.  

The level of organization so readily observed in Cuzco, Sacsayhuaman, Ollantaytambo, and Machu Picchu, makes it difficult to picture how the Incas fell so quickly to such a small number of Spanish troops.  I want to explore Machu Picchu with some privacy, but during the day, Machu Picchu looks too much an amusement park for my tastes.  So I persuade the guard at the ruins to allow my former girl friend and me to stay late, until the hotel employees have gone to bed at midnight.  

“You will hear strange sounds.  Ghosts are everywhere.  You shouldn’t wander through the citadel unless you are invited by the ancients,” the guard told me worriedly -but without convincing me.  

There was no moon, and my pocket flashlight had little effect in such vast spaces.  We had no extra batteries or appropriate clothing for spending the night in the open, and all too quickly we discovered that the ruins are a true labyrinth.  

The wind began to howl, and my goosebumps were matched by a chill in my eagerness to explore.  Although I suppose if we had clung together we could have survived the cold of the night.  

From the slope where we stood, we could see the whole citadel, the unmistakable silhouettes of the small stone houses nestled among the peaks. It was easy to imagine a fire burning in each of the houses; happy, repetitive music; conversation among priests and warriors; the first embrace of a bride and groom, a runner from Cuzco reporting the latest news.  

For a moment I couldn’t be sure whether it actually was my imagination or whether I had wakened the ghosts the guard so feared.  

They were, of course, echoes from a remote past, a time retained only in the memory of the stones.  The Inca civilization had fallen centuries ago, and I was here, at the end of the millennium, in Machu Picchu, longing for a warm hotel, a meal, and a shot of pisco against the cold.  

Suellen shushed me, and pointed behind us: the coal black silhouettes of three llamas watching us intently were silhouetted against the Milky Way.  

To the Incas, the dark portions of the heavens were as important as the stars themselves.  

Sunrise at the Macchu Picchu solar observatory, during the winter equinox


No city in Peru can compete with Lima.  It is the one center of growth, the great homogenizer.  Immigrants arrive from the Andes and imitate Lima’s ways, integrating however they can into the cruel, vibrant surroundings.  

The city is disorderly, enormous, frighteningly passionate.  The ancient seat of Peru’s viceregency was the richest and most lordly city of Spanish America; today it is the clamorous synthesis of contemporary Peru, the summation of the hopes of an age-old people.  

This is a bad moment to visit.  Long-standing quarrels over the boundary between Peru and Ecuador have been heightened by recent skirmishes on the border.  I have been reluctant to reveal my nationality ever since in Paucartambo, Cuzco, a professor concluded, when I told him what country I come from, that no one would carry that many cameras unless he was a spy.  

It has always interested me that the Spanish colonies were unable to band into a single country following their wars of independence, the way the Portuguese and English colonies did.  The Spanish American states, however, quickly broke apart due to the interests of local elite who didn’t want to sacrifice their personal share of power.  And there were always the towering Andes, standing in the way of the regular communication necessary to good government.   

In a bar in Barranco, in Lima, the enchanting Julie Freundt is singing verses of the great Peruvian composer, doña Chabuca Granda:  “I love you Peru, and I love every shade of green that robes you, love the sober gray mantle of your coast growing bright as it rises toward your hills.”  

She infected me with her love for her great country.  

With Julie, we patrons undertake a musical journey through all Spanish America.  In the bar with me were delegates to a convention of Latin America graphic industrialists, so that there were representatives from every country.  

“Uruguay!  Uruguay!” “Venezuela!”  “Chile!”  “Colombia!”  “Mexico!”  

Everyone was shouting, and we all sang at the top of our lungs the warm popular ballads  we knew so well, reviving the age-old dream: the great Utopia of a United Spanish America.  

“Ecuador!  Ecuador!”  


Then Julie sang -“for our brother country, our brother forever”- the Ecuadorian pasillo called Our Vow, written by the venerable Julio Jaramillo, proving once again that frontiers are the inventions of our myopia.   

North of Lima the desert continues, flanked always by a dramatic, inexhaustible cordillera.  I can’t comprehend how people live in such arid places, clustered in the dubious oases that form beside the temperamental rivers of the cordillera.  

After two days of uninterrupted travel, passing through colonial cities and stunning pre-Inca ruins like Chan-Chan, we reach Ecuador.  

The mud city of Chan Chan, in northern Peru

As we cross the frontier, the desert unexpectedly metamorphoses.  

We begin to see large banana and cocoa plantations, and our eyes are dazzled by green that seems unreal after such numbing aridity.  Green should be less blatant, I think, but the coast of Ecuador, closer culturally to the Caribbean than to the Andean world, has never been known for discretion.  

Here everyonnnne speeeeaks in the sloooooow cadences of the traaaa-pics. Everything is casual: conversation, homes, clothing, laughter.  And the greatest virtue is openheartedness.  

Even though I am back in my own country, on the coast I still feel like a stranger.  

Ecuadorians of the tropical lowlands have a rather poor opinion of those of us who live in the Andes.  They think we are hypocritical, cunning, and excessively formal, and it is not uncommon to hear prejudiced comments about how the stupid Andean Indians hold back the nation’s development.  

We mountain people, on the other hand, see the coast dwellers as uncivil, corrupt, loud, and clownish.  

These are the kinds of stereotypical impressions that keep the country on the verge of disaster, and that lead the people who live on the coast to vote only for candidates from the tropics, and us mountain-dwellers to vote for the man from the high country.  

The truth is that even though we live in the same country, we scarcely know one another.  Ignorance is the source of all our racism and discrimination.  

The argument could be made that the cordillera is the principal culprit: it creates such extreme differences in climate that totally different cultures grow up within kilometers of each other. Ecuador’s tropics become even more tropical when contrasted with the high Andes.  

Unlike other Andean countries, Ecuador has two centers of growth: Quito, the Andean capital, and Guayaquil, the largest of our cities and most powerful economically.  It is like mixing the citizens of Oslo and Madrid, or Boston and Havana, in the same housing complex.   

It is possible to climb the cordillera again and again, from Patagonia to the Caribbean, and each time the landscape will be different.  

The Andes are greener in Ecuador than in Peru, its high valleys delightful; however, the lack of incentives for agricultural development keeps the rural areas in a state of stifling depression.  

Ever since Bolivia, I have been hearing that there are no jobs for agricultural workers.  Anyone who can leaves for the big cities, where they become the urban poor; unable to grow their own food, they become even poorer. Those who find a way, leave the country altogether.  

Hat weavers in the town of Sigsig, in the province of Azuay, Ecuador

In the province of Azuay, in the south of Ecuador, there are towns where there is no one left but women, old men, and children.  Every able-bodied man has emigrated to the United States.  But the money they send home is dramatically changing the surroundings and local culture.  

Now you see elegant California style houses scattered across the countryside, in which the women are living in the old ways: keeping their animals in the house and sleeping on the floor.  And in Cuenca, young Indian girls blast around town in their 4 X 4 vehicles.  Dollars are as common as sucres, and the price of real estate has inflated irrationally.  Most of all, values and priorities are changing by leaps and bounds.  

In every migratory process there are two dynamics at work: those pushing an individual to abandon his homeland, and those beckoning him to a land that offers better living conditions, whether imagined or real.  

Ecuadorian society, like Bolivia’s or Peru’s, is highly stratified, and there is little social mobility.  

My grandfather, an honorable man, but one with very conservative ideals, had an elaborately calibrated scale of classifications to identify the social strata: noble, white, chaso, cholo, longo, Indian, zambo, and Black.  And he considered anyone who tried to climb that ladder an opportunist.  Not surprisingly, society has become much more democratic in, less elitist and more visibly mestizo.  

But there is still a long way to go.  

The crisis among Ecuador’s rural population drives them from the country, attracted by the siren call of money.  And the U.S. is the El Dorado of the twentieth century.  I can’t help but think that the Spanish American’s desire to emigrate is nearly identical to the one that inspired the Spanish conquistadors.  

The men who came here in our early centuries were not the nobility, nor men who had a secure future.  They were the dispossessed, adventurers who had nothing to lose and who were ready to risk their lives in exchange for a chance to make something of themselves, to gain social status and a better life.  

Prestige and a good name were more important than gold; they were the reason for seeking gold.  

It is important to realize that the Spanish immigrants of the sixteenth century came to the New World more than two hundred years before the North American pilgrims, and at a time when the voyage was significantly more difficult.  Nearly eighty percent of them -precisely because of the enormous risks involved- were male, unlike the pilgrims, who came with their families, and who instead of creating a mestizo class were inclined to eradicate indigenous peoples entirely.  

We cannot judge history and demand of the conquistadors of the sixteenth century that they leap centuries ahead of their epoch and recognize the essential equality of all human beings.  But it is disheartening to think that the relatively normal individuals who populated New Spain left such deep wounds of abuse and mistreatment in Andean society.  Theirs was a stormy time of expansion and conquest in which the Indian, the other so different from themselves, was seen either as an obstruction or as a tool to be used in achieving their dreams.  

In all history there are elements of cruelty and beauty.  

As in the bullfight.  

The matador crosses himself before entering the ring.  He thinks of his mother, his wife, his children.  

He must concentrate all his courage and bravery.  

This is a battle in which the least misstep can lead to death.  

He points his sword directly at the heart.  With no doubts, no remorse.  

Like the Ecuadorian or Peruvian soldier trapped in fratricidal conflict. Like the guerrilla or the mercenary.  Like the Inca priest.  Like the conquistador or hero of the republic.  

Right at the heart.  With no doubts, no remorse.  

In the region of Cayambe, Ecuador


Mariana de Garzón is a medical doctor who has worked in community development and public health in more than two hundred Indian and mestizo communities throughout Ecuador, a simple woman who states her pride in being mestizo, of having both Spanish and Indian blood.  

“Marianita, what are the fundamental indigenous values?  Giving more importance to the community than to the individual?  Solidarity?”  

“Those are concepts you find in books, and essential ones.  But for me the great gift of the indigenous culture is intuition.  We have all seen the Indian woman carrying her wide-eyed baby on her back.  The child is wrapped in a blanket so tightly that it can scarcely move.  Experts want to end this custom because supposedly it inhibits small motor skills.  But because of its immobility, the baby in its first months uses his eyes to absorb everything, to learn about the world.”  

This may be one reason why it is so common to find campesinos-whether or not of Indian ancestry-with uncommon sensibility and perception.  I myself grew up beside a simple and wise Indian named Don Eugenio Conde, who could predict rain, crop blights, the best time to sow and harvest.  For him all things had a being, a spirit.  He talked about the mountains as if they were alive.  He assigned them human virtues and faults.  The mountains, Don Eugenio used to tell me, sometimes are in a bad mood and do not want us to come near them.  Other times they call to us, invite us, welcome us.  He insisted that we must keep in tune with nature, look at her with respect, and approach her with humility.  

We westerners need to learn to listen, to look, to see with our senses, to intuit.  And, of course, maintain a sense of community.  

“Indians often believe in the inevitability of events,” says Marianita. “They resign themselves, lower their heads.  They are fatalists.  That’s why we must call on both heritages: the active, enterprising, astute character of the Spaniard and the sensitivity, silence, humility, and intuition of the Indian.”  

Phreatic explosion of the Pichincha volcano and Quito on October 7, 1999


Filing out of the baroque church of San Francisco in Quito come bleeding flagellants, zealots with Christ’s wounds, barefoot penitents in funeral robes, faces covered, devout carrying the heavy platforms of their saints. The rosary blaring from the loudspeakers sounds like a prayer to a distant and moribund God.  It is Good Friday.  The end of a millennium.  And it is difficult to know what century we are in.  These could be medieval rites.  

Sincere faith touches the very essence of the people.  It softens the severity of the ritual.  

In Chile, in Argentina, in the Bolivian, Peruvian, and Ecuadorian Andes, in Colombia and Venezuela, Catholicism is the most consistent cultural link.  

It is not only a religion.  It is a way of thinking, an expression of the culture.  

Its manifestations are diverse.  Indian communities drink chicha and dance in a circle to celebrate the Virgin; the citizens of Chiloé celebrate with moderation and formality; and in Paucartamblo, Cuzco, people toss flowers at the Virgin and sing mournful songs in Quechua.  

The large cities are becoming increasingly agnostic and detached from the Church, more and more adopting the scepticism of segments of the developed world.  But even today it is impossible to understand Latin America without studying the subtleties and resonances of Catholicism.  

Just now as I am writing, the earth began to tremble.  I am at home, on the sixth floor of a building in Quito.  It doesn’t stop.  The earth rumbles with a heavy, muted sound.  

I should go outside.  This could become a full-fledged earthquake.  

(Hours later)  

Unfortunately, the news has reported an earthquake in Bahía de Caraquez, on the coast of Ecuador.  Fifty percent of the houses have been destroyed. Television shows the desolation of the victims.  

They have very little left.  Perhaps faith.  Courage.  Friendship.  

I think of the great tragedies common to the Andes, of the unpredictable nature of this land, of these mountains constantly forming and reforming.  

The earthquake in southern Chile in 1960, the strongest since we have had instruments to measure them.  The Huaraz, Peru, earthquake, and the destruction of the village of Ancash in 1966: the eruption of the Nevado del Ruiz volcano in Colombia, in which 30,000 people were lost in the town of Armero.  Earthquakes in Caracas, Quito, and Santiago.  

The earthquake of Popayán, Colombia, which took place on a Maundy Thursday, and which is remembered every year in the lugubrious processions of Holy Week.  

Maybe religion helps us combat the anxiety of living on earth that constantly trembles beneath our feet.  

Bolivar Square in Bogota


The social situation changed very little with the Republic, in part because the local elite were not ready to accept the liberal and democratic ideals that inspired the heroes of the independence.  Several decades, a century, would have to go by before the armed triumph of progressives over conservatives imposed universal suffrage, a lay state, and equality before the law.  Civil wars that opposed conservatives and liberals popped up throughout the region, but probably nowhere as frequently as in Colombia.  

My great-grandfather, Antonio Vega Muñoz, general of the conservative armies of Ecuador during the civil war fought between the Andean large landholders and the liberal merchants of the coast, died early in the century in a strange incident.  My grandfather was only eight years old but he lived his entire life filled with implacable bitterness.  He did not forgive those who had murdered his father until minutes before he died.  

When I think about Colombia and the internal violence that darkens one of the richest and most beautiful countries of the Andes, I remember the long history of civil wars, of fratricidal confrontations that because of an interminable assortment of anger, resentments, and revenge continue until today.  

Someone kills my brother so I must avenge his death.  My son’s, my wife’s.  

And on and on, in a vicious circle.  

In a spiral of violence.  

I am frightened by the divisions I observe in Colombia.  

Guerrillas, trying to capture power through various political agendas.  

Paramilitaries and private armies organized by landowners to defend themselves against the guerrillas.  Already out of control.  

Frightened soldiers, facing danger, finger always on the trigger.  

The cocaine mafia, defending the most lucrative business on the planet.  

And civilians, most of them at odds with the agendas of the armed groups, suffering fear and desolation.   

The Spanish came to America bringing a long tradition of professional guilds. Beginning with the colonies, they formed influence and self-interest groups: guilds of scribes, of artisans, small merchants, and others.  

The power of guilds and unions is still astonishing across the continent: miners can endanger the stability of Chile or Bolivia; educators provoke political change in Argentina; the now nearly extinct Sendero Luminoso leaves Lima in darkness;  Indians or truckers can block all of Ecuador’s highways; and oil field workers can bring Venezuela to its knees.  

Groups, unions, parties, brotherhoods, become very powerful and look to no interest but their own.  

A dramatic and radical self-interest is developing, the kind, for example, that allows Ecuadorian workers in the Social Security system to demand conditions for themselves that would leave millions of insured without coverage, or leads guerrillas and paramilitaries in Colombia to try to impose their political views upon the entire population.  

It is extremely dangerous when one group believes it owns the truth.  

“And why so much violence in Colombia?” I ask a community leader named Papa Giovanni when we get together to have a few beers in Barrio Triste, one of the most depressed sections of Medellín.  

“You don’t see it ?  We have violence because there we have so many poor.”  

Improvised dancing in Barrio Triste, in Medellín


Women are the unrecognized heroes of Latin America.  

More firmly rooted, more solid and practical than men, they perform the daily chores and are the foundation of the social structure.  

They care for the children and look after the money -which is nearly always too little.  

Gabriel García Márquez, the Colombian Nobel laureate for literature, paints a very precise picture of Latin American women.  While we men wander the world obsessed with danger and daydreams, the hopeless endeavors and dazzling discoveries bequeathed by Spanish adventurers, women are like the trees: impassive, matter-of-fact, prescient.  

I remember an Indian woman in Peru dragging home her drunken husband, and a woman employed by my parents in Quito, doña Cristina Anchatuña, who watched me grow up.  She constantly had to pay for the foolishness of her irresponsible husband, and her sweat continued to support their children after they were grown.  I think of the fisherman’s wife in Chiloé.  And my divorced friend Lucia, who is raising her daughter.  

Women from all social classes.  

I remember Pepita Restrepo and her daughter María José, in Medellín.  Dear female friends.  

Pepita works tirelessly in her home studio, making ponques.  Her husband’s income doesn’t stretch far enough.  Times are hard in Colombia.  And María José has started up a small business, a successful publishing company.  

There is a huge reunion of Pepita’s family to celebrate the recent return of her brother Mariano, along with his three daughters, from California, where he has been living.  

Cristina,  Berta Luz, and Catalina, seem dazed.  They speak no Spanish, and I feel sure they have never seen a family with nearly a hundred members. Mariano, their father, is outdoing himself in attentions.  It is Catalina’s sixteenth birthday, and she is receiving presents and congratulations from several generations of relatives.  Everyone is talking excitedly; lots of noise and celebration.  

The vallenato music begins, a reminder that we are not far from the Caribbean.  Everyone dances, old and young alike.  

At the party Pepita points out the women -young, old, separated, abandoned, divorced- who are raising their families.  More than a dozen.  

Holy Week procession in Popayan, Colombia


In the extreme south of Colombia, in the Pasto knot -an amazing snarl of deep canyons, abysses, and overhanging cliffs- the cordillera of the Andes divides into three branches, three autonomous mountain chains.  

If Ecuador has problems with its dramatic valley of volcanoes, and suffers over regionalism and difficulties in communication, imagine for a moment what such a profusion of geographical contrasts means for Colombia.  For example, to travel from Bogotá to Medellín, the two principal cities, you have to climb from the cold, rainy plain where the capital is located, up the Cordillera Oriental, drive down to the valley of the Magdalena river, nearly at sea level, climb again, this time the Cordillera Central, pass through the temperate zone of the coffee plantations back down into the bowl of the Cauca river, and up, for the last time, into the mild valleys bordering the green, leafy city of Medellín.  

It’s like riding a roller coaster, except that in this lunatic geography park we have to put on and take off clothes at the whim of the cordillera.  Any drive through Colombian territory means traveling through the full scale of sea levels and temperatures, and these extremes imply a parallel, equally diverse culture.  

Colombia doesn’t have two regions competing for supremacy, as is the case with Ecuador and Bolivia.  No, Colombia has a half dozen climatic zones and discrete cultures.  

The population of Colombia is the most varied on the Continent: descendants of Black slaves, European and Asian immigrants, Caribbean and high Andes Indians, and combinations of all these groups.  

Colombia is probably the country that best synthesizes South America’s diversity.  An explosive formula.  

El Libertador, Simón Bolívar, founded Gran Colombia, a enormous country composed of the territories of present-day Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, and Venezuela.  As a political entity, Gran Colombia lasted barely eight years. Bolívar committed the basic error of trying to concentrate power in the capital, Bogotá, instead of organizing a federal state that distributed responsibilities and rights to the local capitals.  A confederacy was hindered even more by distances and difficulty of communications: one single legal procedure required a formidable journey to the capital.  

Of course first-class highways constructed in recent decades have reduced difficulty in travel in the cordillera, or erased it altogether.  

A hundred years ago, transporting a piano to Cuzco from Lima could take several weeks, and often, in the case of delicate objects, it was carried on the back of an Indian.  Delivering machinery for the tin mines of Bolivia meant crossing the entire Argentina pampa on mule back, traveling the rivers of Paraguay and, finally, using hundreds of men, ascending the cordillera. The effort could cost months, and dozens of lives.  

Automobiles and planes have the virtue of separating us from geography.  We forget barriers and the road becomes secondary to the goal.  We are nearly always in a hurry, eager to get where we’re going, counting the time we spend getting somewhere as wasted.  

The road is never secondary to a campesino from Bolivia, Ecuador, or Colombia, who has no choice but to walk to his patch of land.  The campesino is not desperate to get where he’s going because he knows that covering that distance is part of his life.  In the same way that sixteenth century immigrants prepared themselves for months of travel, or my great grandparents organized a crew to carry their trunks for a week’s trip down to Guayaquil, the foot traveler accepts the incontrovertible power of the mountain.  

The power of vertical transformation, source of the most spectacular ecological diversity.  

Biologists confirm that because of the quantity of ecological zones contained in such a short horizontal distance, the slopes of the Amazon and coast regions of the Andes, from Bolivia to Venezuela -along the tropical band- contains the most important biological heritage on the planet.  A heritage endangered by the devastating advance of human in-civilization.  

Luis Andrés Pérez Mendoza with his little niece and girlfriend in Mérida


The Andes are a cold line drawn on the blazing heart of Venezuela.  A narrow branch of Colombia’s Cordillera Oriental penetrates Venezuelan territory and ends, diminished and with a different name, at Caracas.  

Green, an absolute, unyielding green.  Passes in the cordillera, the natural breeches highways are built through, are now windows through which we catch glimpses of plains and the Golfo de Venezuela.  Even at 3,700 meters, in the magical town of San Rafael de Mucuchíes, you can sense the presence of the Caribbean.  These people are outgoing, warm; they touch one another, hug one another, laugh deeply, and open their doors to a stranger with total sincerity.  

I will remember a small fiesta in Mucuchíes, Mérida for a long time.  Young, fair-skinned boys and girls, descendants of Iberian agriculturists, gaze at each other from opposite ends of the street, at first timidly.  The tropical music strikes up and the ice is broken.  Happy, repetitive rhythms weave hands and gazes together.  Everyone dances till early morning, passionately, until the mist of the heights blankets the streets.  

The air is cold and moist, and I can breathe without struggling.  I realize that the tension of traveling the highways of Colombia, with their real and imagined menace, has exhausted me, and that in these Andes, less monumental than those I have left behind, finally I feel free of fear.  

All my friends tell me I must meet the artist Juan Félix Sánchez, that he is the living symbol of Venezuela’s Andes.  He is a delightful old man, ninety- some years old, with a completely lucid mind.  The prototype of the Andean campesino.  

“I tell you, young journalist,” he says to me.  “I have lived life with gusto, and it won’t be long now before I’ll be leaving it.  I tell you to get in the habit of opening your eyes every morning with joy, give thanks for friendship, your family, for shared laughter, for sweet-smelling fields, and this clean mountain air.  And welcome night with peace and silence.”  

Don Juan Félix has a laugh that rumbles from deep in his chest and spills out into every aspect of his existence.  

I had the good fortune to meet him before his death made him an icon of popular culture.  Now I see his smiling face in craft shops, life-size sculptures, and on walls all over Venezuela.  

Lake Mucubajíes is near the artist’s home.  Its waters are so calm that it makes a perfect mirror.  I toss a round stone into it and wait: the waves ripple outward; in a few minutes the lake has lost its ability to reflect the mountains.  I remember the cemetery keeper who hours earlier had told me that if only one of the dead in his small holy ground had not come to work in these Andes his town would be different.  

Felix Caraballo, lives in La Vega, one of the most populous neighborhoods in Caracas. He says that for the first time a government “speaks with the poor, recognizes them. Most of the people in La Vega are with Chavez.


After leaving the warm welcome of Mérida, I come to Caracas.  This is a modern, vibrant city, but one of unimaginable social contrasts.  It was one of the richest cities on the continent, the capital of one of the greatest oil-producing countries in the world.  Years of economic crisis have turned it into a city with tarnished pretensions of luxury.  At times I think that places, too, grow weary of keeping up an impeccable, dignified appearance, and over time content themselves with decency, then with decorum, and finally nostalgically resign themselves to the shabbiness accumulated through more than twenty years.  The great buildings and superhighways of the seventies no longer have the shine of years past.  The city has been ground down by its poor.  

In every large city, as in Caracas, homes in the elegant neighborhoods have high walls; scarcely anyone knows his neighbors.  How different from the small towns along this long cordillera where neighbors share daily life.  The prototypically Spanish plaza is the heart of each community: inhabitants gather there in a simple rite of human interchange.  

Wealth builds solitary cities, disjoints community, causes the interests of the individual to supplant the riches of shared life.  

I climb the 2,300 meters of Avilá, that stupendous mountain in the Cordillera de la Costa that separates the city of Caracas from the sea, and on one side I see an endless sea of lights, and on the other, the hypnotic sparkle of the Caribbean.  

Rising beyond a horizon that hides countless ships is the United States, our neighbor to the north.  Its people do not know us, do not understand us, know nothing of our amazing diversity nor comprehend the resonances of our history or geography.  

We are distant neighbors, separated by a high wall of indifference.  Citizens of the United States call themselves Americans, disregarding the fact that we, too, are Americans.  America stretches from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego.  We were brought up with that conviction.  

Evening sinks into the tropical waters.  Three and a half years after that first day in Patagonia, I end my journey through the cordillera of the Andes.  

Fireflies streak the dusk with their persistent intermittence.  Fleetingly they glow with light; they conquer the darkness only to disappear in it.  Like the lives of the hundreds of millions of Indians, whites, Blacks, mestizos, and mulattos who built this continent, all of us simply Americans.  

Mexico, D.F., August 18, 1998