The Andes: A Cultural History

The Andes: A Cultural History

The Andes: A Cultural History

The Andes: A Cultural History


The Andes form the backbone of South America. Irradiating from Cuzco--the symbolic "navel" of the indigenous world--the mountain range was home to an extraordinary theocratic empire and civilization, the Incas, who built stone temples, roads, palaces, and forts. The clash between Atahualpa, the last Inca, and the illiterate conquistador Pizarro, between indigenous identity and European mercantile values, has forged Andean culture and history for the last 500 years.

Jason Wilson explores the 5,000-mile chain of volcanoes, deep valleys, and upland plains, revealing the Andes' mystery, inaccessibility, and power through the insights of chroniclers, scientists, and modern-day novelists. His account starts at sacred Cuzco and Machu Picchu, moves along imagined Inca routes south to Lake Titicaca, La Paz, Potos , and then follows the Argentine and Chilean Andes to Patagonia. It then moves north through Chimborazo, Quito, and into Colombia, along the Cauca Valley up to Bogot and east to Caracas.

Looking at the literature inspired by the Andes as well as its turbulent history, this book brings to life the region's spectacular landscapes and the many ways in which they have been imagined.


The Andes are some forty million years old. Though relatively new in geological terms, the mountains started to rise around one hundred and eighty million years ago. As Simon Lamb reveals in his personal account of a decade spent in the Bolivian Andes, the range rises as the Nazca plate under the Pacific Ocean glides into molten earth under the Andes, pressing against the solid Brazilian shield so that horizontal layers tilt. The whole range, viewed from satellite pictures, is made of solidified magma. Lamb suggests that the mountains are “wave-like” and tells us that for each mile a mountain rises it pushes seven miles down below the surface. It is as if the Andes have rocky roots several miles down, an image that consolidates the sense of Andean solidity, holding up the peaks even as they still rise.

The Andes are indeed still rising, mainly because of the crunching up of granitic matter from tectonic plates and sudden irruptions of magma from volcanoes. The mountains lie on a fault line, which explains their sixty active and numerous dormant volcanoes as well as constant earthquakes and tremors. Most of the surface rock is solidified magma, with andesite (named after the Andes) the most typical volcanic igneous rock and volcanic ash. Lamb defines the rocks of the Andes as mostly intermediate between basalt and granite.

When in March 1835 Charles Darwin set off for the Portillo Pass, between Argentina and Chile, he stopped and meditated on the shingle and shells he found high in the Andes: “No one fact in the geology of South America, interested me more than these terraces of rudely-stratified shingle.” It convinced him of the truth of the geologist Charles Lyell’s geological theory of the slow rising of the Andes. Back home in Gower Street, London, when he summarized what had most impressed him during five years of sailing around the world in the Beagle, he listed the Brazilian jungle, the Patagonian plains and the “lofty” Andes. In awkward words, he . . .

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