Sunday, January 3

Angry Huascaran & the Yungay Tragedy

Saturday, we woke up to another panetón accompanied by hot chocolate before squeezing into a little combi (van) heading north up the Callejón de Huaylas, or the Huaylas valley (see map). 

Along the potholed road that winds up the valley floor, every image that passed the window was captivating. I took at least 30 pictures on the ride of the towering peaks, the steep--and yet still inhabited--hills and the modest pueblos. But I deleted them all because my camera couldn't do it justice.

Poverty is prevalent in Callejón de Huaylas, but it's a different poverty than I've seen in Lima or Arequipa. Something about the lush river valley and the strength of the Quechua culture here changes the poverty from desperate to hopeful. The small homes we passed were real adobe, surrounded by the family's animals and small crop. 

The traditionally dressed women wore vibrant weaves and distinguished hats with a satin embellishment, like this señora who joined us on the bus:

The ride itself was an experience. At one point, I swear we were flying at 75 mph, swerving to miss potholes and passing on blind corners. But after an hour drive, we paid our four soles fare ($1.30) and got out at Yungay. 

Yungay lies below the highest mountain in Peru, el Huascarán. At 22,204 feet, I strained my neck to look at him. At first, the giant hid his face behind the clouds, but finally as we waited for the bus back to Huaraz, el Huascarán showed his face. How little and insignificant I felt. 

But this mountain, in all it's majesty, is not purely benevolent. The 25,000 people buried on the valley floor as a result of the mountain's wrath are testimony to the region's unforgiving nature.

On May 31, 1970, an earthquake let loose a landslide of ice and granite from Huascarán that engulfed the town of Yungay. This photo shows where the city once stood, and the church's facade that was reconstructed in memory of the victims:

Ironically, except for the few who escaped to the cemetery below and stadium on high ground, everyone died.
 They estimate that 25,000 but they were never really sure. Whole families disappeared within minutes of the earthquake. Their remains still lay below the landslide, along with the city's rubble.

Where the pueblo once stood is a national cemetery called Campo Santo, or Sacred Land. Visitors come to see the few remnants of the old city and pay their respects to the victims. Walking through it, we saw boulders like these that came with the landslide, as well as this bus that was bent in half:

These three resilient palm trees (now dead) remain in their original places, even as the entire church was wiped away:
A new pueblo has been formed only a half-mile up the road, but tragedy and the cemetery stand as a reminder of the harsh environment that surrounds Peruvians in valley. Sergio said that the Yungay landslide may have been the most devastating natural disaster in Peruvian history--and it happened right below the country's highest mountain.

Only a day after we visited Yungay, Huascarán and his other mountain peers again reminded us of their power and wrath. A 5.7 pt tremor hit Huaráz close to city. 

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