XXV. Caraz & Yungay – 2 June

XXV. Caraz & Yungay  2 June:

XXV-A  Yungay:

It looks like a cross at the top of a small-town church steeple outlined against the snow-capped mountains.

To reach it we have walked through an immense, immaculately-maintained garden, with probably thousands of rose-bushes and many calla lillies, _____, and other flowers surrounded by close-clipped green hedges. Behind us are the Cordillera Huayhuash [also called the Cordillera Negra], ahead of us stand the taller Cordillera Blanca. Even in the earliest days of winter, Huascarán and Huandoy wear caps of deep snow, with the early morning sun peering over their shoulders.

It is warm. Other than a few birds, the distant bray of a burro, and an occasional “Buenos dias” from a passing worker in the garden, it is silent.

The white mountains smile down on us with unmistakable benevolence.


The cross is actually at the top of a replica of the pueblo’s church. We have just walked through, or over, the Plaza de Armas; and a bit of the broken remains of the old stone church is visible above the ground. Between our feet and the Plaza de Armas itself lie some portion of the more than 53 million cubic meters of rock and ice that rushed from the Cordillera Blanca toward the Cordillera Negra in mere seconds on May 31, 1970.

On that day the benevolent mountains in front of us killed 17,000 people in the small town that stood where we are standing now.  [Specifically, a 7.7 earthquake loosened more than 15 cubic tons of ice and rock from the North Peak of Huascarán [Peru’s highest peak, at 6768 meters], and sent it speeding the 14 km. to Yungay, at more than 165 mph, dropping 3,000 meters in altitude, rushed the eight miles to Yungay.   Yungay’s population declined from 18,000 to 1,000 in three or four minutes. 

Beautiful, but peligroso.

One of the workmen has paused, chin resting on the handle of his shovel, to talk with us. He is 51 years old. He was 12 in 1970. His house was over there, higher up, and protected by a sizeable hill. His house stood on the safe side, the side away from the Cordillera Blanca. His father died. Most of his siblings died. It all took five minutes, he says – for all that ice and rock rushing from the Cordillera Blanca toward the Cordillera Negra to hit Yungay.

He works here, tending this memorial garden.  It is a lovely spot, for a town or for a garden.  The altitude, the flowering garden, the high mountains on each side, the absence of traffic or commercial activity, combine to make it a fine place to spend a day.  I sense also that in addition to being a way to honor the dead, the hiring of survivors may be someone’s way of aiding them.   Still, it must feel odd.

I do not know what it is like to lose most of my family in a few chaotic seconds, to watch something devour most of my known world even before I have time to understand what it is. That experience, at 12, would be life-shaping. It would likely be the dominant experience of one’s lifetime. But then to spend most of each day for three decades tending a memorial garden honoring those dead and commemorating that traumatic experience, with little possibility of forgetting it for a moment, must be a unique experience.

In our world, we lose parents and friends, and grieve for them. But within days after the funeral we fly back to our adult homes and re-immerse ourselves in our jobs and families and other pursuits. While we continue to grieve, and think of the lost parents or friends each day for the rest of our lives, we do not find that each time we open a document or sketch a wall or repair a tire it leads us back to the subject of our loss. We do not spend each working day mowing the cemetery lawn and replacing the flowers on our parents’ grave.

If our new acquaintance feels strange or melancholy about it, he doesn’t show that.  He speaks of it matter-of-factly.  Obviously he isn’t happy about what happened, but working here every day doesn’t appear to depress him.   As he chats with us, there’s nothing maudlin or self-pitying in what he says about his life.  When he leaves he turns and waves with his spade.   Jauntily.

Soon afterward, I pause to speak to another gentleman who works here.  Another survivor.  He’s older.  He looks intelligent, a little cynical, a little guarded.  As near as I can tell from our discussion, he may have been out of town when it all happened.  He was a teenager.   He too lost his family.   His face lacks the openness and joy of the other survivor’s.   Maybe it’s because he was away when it happened.  Or because his life after the event wasn’t as smooth as the other’s.  Or maybe it has nothing at all to do with the past, he’s just bored by tourists or woke up with a sour stomach.  I don’t know, but later, when I start putting these words together with these photos, I note the startling contrast and write a short tanka.

We wander through the place.  It feels both sombre and peaceful.   I shoot these photographs, . . .  

Huascarán in morning sunlight . . .

. . . and behind what was Yungay




a family's memorial . . .

. . . and what's left of the church









the villain . . .

. . . and what's left of the bus

XXV-B: to the pass and back

    We lunch in Caraz.  Ragna needs to charge her video-camera battery, so we borrow an outlet from the restauarateur — and proceed to eat, pay, and go out to the car.  We pull out, drive maybe 50 meters, and realize the battery and charger are still in the restaurant — and before we can even back up, the restaurateur’s son has caught up to us to return it.

   There’s plenty of daylight left, so we head for Punta Winchus, a pass in the Cordillera Negra.   We’ve heard three things: it’s a difficult drive, there are some unusual trees there that take a century to mature, but light up with as many as 20,000 blooms flowers when they bloom [raimundi – Puya Raimondii]; and that near the trees there’s a spot where you can see the ocean — from 4157 meters high and maybe 150 km. away — and still see the Cordillera Blanca.     

[brief account to be inserted shortly; and photos, some of which appear below, to be integrated with that]

Travel Notes:



Other Points:

1. I mention above the earthquake, 7.7 on the Richter scale, that destroyed Yungay on May 31, 1970, killing almost all of the town’s 18,000 people.    [Specifically, the earthquake loosened more than 15 cubic tons of ice and rock from the North Peak of Huascarán.  Huascarán, Peru’s highest peak (6768 meters), overlooks Yungay from just 14 km. away.  The rock and ice, dropping 3,000 meters in altitude, rushed the 8 miles to Yungay, at speeds up to about 165 mph.  That’d take about three minutes or so, I think.]

In the same moments, about half the 30,000 residents of Huaraz perished from a similar earthquake, avalanche, flood sequence, and only about 10% of the town’s buildings remained standing.   With the notable exception of Caraz [which lacks an unobscured view of the Cordillera Blanca, so that the Cordillera Blanca lacked an unobstructed path to Caraz on May 21, 1970], many towns in this valley suffered similarly.  A total of more than 53 million cubic meters of rock and ice  rushed from the Cordillera Blanca toward the Cordillera Negra in mere seconds on May 31, 1970.

2. More photos from Yungay follow, but this was the tanka:


sm-08-5537-survivor-waving-with-shovelThis mountain took both

their families in seconds.

Each stares at those peaks

sm-08-5603-second-survivormost of each day. One waves and

smiles, one’s face holds just anger.





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