people, earthquakes, ruins and mountains

The highest Andes in Perú are beautiful icy mountains which form a great range called the Cordillera Blanca (‘white range’). The highest is Nevado Huascarán (6,768 metres – 22,205 feet). Below these huge icy peaks runs a deep straight valley called the Callejón de Huaylas. Many people live here because there’s plenty of water from the rivers for growing crops and the climate is wonderful. But the mountains hide an icy secret: they are killers. Perú has many earthquakes and, fortunately, most of these are small. But occasional big ones can cause massive landslides (locally Chavin de Huntar, Plaza de Armascalled aluviones). Some of these have smashed through towns causing terrible destruction.

In one place called Chavín de Huantar, a landslide covered the remains of a temple thousands of years old. It’s now been partly dug out and I visited it. Chavín is a pretty place, on the other side (the Amazon side) of the mountains.

Chavin snake god carvingI also looked around the Callejón de Huaylas – you know, the big valley on the Pacific (west) side of the mountains. Here I met some kids, saw houses made of mud and found a beautiful blue-green lake right under the highest mountain. Lots of tourist visitors come here to see these beautiful mountains.

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The Yungay tragedy

Yungay used to be a busy market town. Behind it reared the huge icy mountain giant, Nevado Huascarán. When an earthquake struck central Perú on 31st May 1970, an enormous section of ice and rock peeled off the mountain and crashed into the river far below to form a fast-moving flow of ice, mud, water and boulders called an aluvión. It rampaged at incredible speed down the valley towards the unsuspecting people of Yungay and smashed through the town, burying the whole place. About 25,000 people died in Yungay alone. Afterwards, all that you could see where the town had been was a vast spread of mud and boulders, the twisted wreck of a bus and the large palm trees which had once shaded the central square of the town.

Today, people keep an eye on all the big mountain lakes. They’ve drained some and built strong concrete overspills at the outlets of others. The idea is to spot any dangerous-looking ice before it collapses and also to try and make any landslide less damaging by partly containing it, or making sure there’s not a lot of water (like a lake) to mix with it. It’s when water gets mixed up in landslides that they become so dangerous because they flow, just like rivers, but much faster. They are hugely powerful and can carry boulders the size of houses without difficulty.

The Chimbote earthquake which caused the destruction of Yungay, was the worst to hit Perú in the 20th century. In total, it killed 50,000 people with another 20,000 never found.