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The sacred mountain of Pariacaca across literature

The section of the Qhapaq Nhan which joins the highland outpost of Jauja (aka Xauxa) and Pachacamac on the coast traverses some of the continent’s most spectacular – and storied – landscapes. For centuries travelers have marveled at, and written about, the fabled mountain of Pariacaca – an 18,868 ft ‘apu’ or sacred mountain.

For this month’s blog I read as many accounts of the region as I could find and have shared some of the best excerpts below. There are pieces on the beauty of the landscapes, descriptions of the incredible flight of 1,500 stone steps known as the Escalera de Pariacaca; and a fascinating treatise on Pariacaca’s unlikely and important place in the history of medicine. I hope you enjoy reading about it as much as I did...

On the natural beauty of the landscapes

The Jauja Valley is commonly regarded as one of the most beautiful in Peru – something which clearly has not changed much since Pedro de Cieza de Leon, author of the definitive Crónicas del Perú, passed through in the 16th century. So struck by the valley was he that he even mentioned it in the first line of the book’s introduction:

“Those who read this book, and have been in Peru, will remember the road which goes from lima to Xauxa by the rugged mountains of Huarochiri and the snowy heights of Pariacaca, and will understand if they have heard or seen more than I write.”

And then, later on, Cieza de Leon goes into more detail:

“No more picturesque view can charm the eye of the weary traveller than is presented by the immense garden which forms the valley of Xauxa, which is forty square leagues in extent. Its two principal towns are Xauxa and Huancayo, in the centre of the valley is the convent of Ocopa, and the remaining population is scattered in small villages surrounded by trees on either side of the river of Xauxa, which flows through the valley. The mighty Andes bound the river on every side.”

On the feat that was the Qhapaq Nhan

Like all of the Europeans who set eyes upon the Great Inca Road, Cieza de Leon was flabbergasted by its vast extent and extremely high standards of maintenance.

“In the time of the kings it was kept clean, so that there was neither a loose stone nor a growing weed on it, for it was always kept in good order. In the inhabited parts, near the towns, there were great palaces and lodgings for the soldiers. In the snowy wildernesses and plains, shelter-houses were built, where travellers could take refuge from the cold and rain.”

On the legendary Escalera de Pariacaca

Modern engineers marvel at the massive walls of Saksaywaman and the otherworldly grandeur of Machu Picchu, but in many ways the construction of the Qhapaq Nhan – a 25,000 mile network of roads which held an empire together – was an even more impressive achievement. And nowhere is this more evident than in the Escalera de Pariacaca, a stone staircase that climbs 2 km (approximately 1,500 steps) to the summit of Cerro San Cristobal.

The steps did not escape Cieza de Leon’s attention:

“It is no small sight to behold the grandeur of that range, and what great steps it has, and to this day men pass by that snow- covered region...”

And when the Spanish missionary Fray Diego de Ocaña passed through about 30 years later he was similarly impressed.

“And on the shore of these lagoons the road goes down a slope, the path so narrow that only one horse can pass...To go down to where these lagoons are, there is a staircase made by hand, similar to the staircase you would see on a tower, except much longer... This steps of this staircase of Pariacaca continue for a quarter of a league. Anyone who has walked this road will understand the great danger and work that was required to build these steps.”

Even the historian Cesár W. Astuahuamán Gonzales, writing in 1999 was wowed.

Then the ascent to the Escalera Lagoon begins, on an extensive rocky outcrop and along the side of a stream of water crossed by a bridge of rock slabs. The path adapts to the terrain in a variety of different manners: in some places the depressions have been filled with mud and rock slabs have been placed on top to define the surface of the road; in others, in addition to the road surface, rock edges have been placed on the sides, and in yet other cases where the slope of the outcrop is more pronounced the path is defined by rock slab steps and an edge.

On altitude sickness

Pariacaca also has an important place in the history of medicine as it is the backdrop for the first European description of altitude sickness, or soroche as it is known in the Andes. The Jesuit missionary José de Acosta dedicates a good few pages of his 1590 tome The Natural and Moral History of the Indies to what he terms ‘sickness at great heights’. I will quote at length because it’s such a gripping and delightful read.

“I thought good to speake this, to shew a strange effect, which happens in some partes of the Indies where the ayre and the wind that rains makes men dazie, not lesse, but more then at sea. Some hold it for a fable, others say that it is an addition ; for my part I will speake what I have tried. There is in Peru a high mountaine which they call Pariacaca, and having heard speake of the alteration it bred, I went as well prepared as I could according to the instructions which were given me, by such as they call Vaguianos, or expert men; but notwithstanding all my provision, when I came to mount the stairs, as they call them, which is the top of this inountaine, I was suddenly surprized with so mortal and strange a pang that I was ready to fall from my beast to the ground ; and although we were many in company, yet every one made haste (with out any tarrying for his companion) to free himselfe speedily from this ill passage.”

He goes on to describe his symptoms in graphic and gory detail:

“Being then alone with one Indian, whom I intreated to keep me on my beast, I was surprised with such pangs of straining and casting as I thought to cast up my soul too; for having cast up meate, fleugrne, and choller, both yellow and greene, in the end I cast up blood, with the straining of my stomacke. To conclude, if this had continued, I should vndoubtedly have died ; but this lasted not above three or four houres, that we were come into a more convenient and naturall temperature, where all our companions, being fourteene or fifteene, were much wearied. Some in the passage demaunded confession, thinking verily to die ; others got off their beasts, beeing over come with casting, and going to the stoole ; and it was tolde me that some have lost their lives there with this accident. I beheld one that did beate himselfe against the earth, crying out for the rage and griefe which this passage of Pariacaca hadde caused. But commonly it dooth no important harme, onely this, paine and trouble some distaste while it endures.”

Its easy to see why Pariacaca is a sacred mountain.

Even at the time de Acosta was aware that the problem was not unique to Pariacaca:

“Not onely the passage of Pariacaca hath this propertie, but also all this ridge of the mountaine, which runnes above five hundred leagues long, and in what place soever you passe, you shall finde strange intemperatures, yet more in some partes then in other, and rather to those which mount from the sea than from the plaines. Besides Pariacaca, I have passed it by Lucanas and Soras ;  in another place, by Collahuas, and by Cavanas. Finally, by foure different places, going and comming, and alwaies in this passage I have felt this alteration, although in no place so strongly as at the first in Pariacaca, which hath beene tried by all such as have passed it. And no doubt but the winde is the cause of this intemperature and strange alteration, or the aire that raignes there.”

He even proposes a remedy for soroche:

“For the best remedy (and all they finde) is to stoppe their noses, their eares, and their mouthes, as much as may be, and to cover themselves with cloatkes, especially the stomacke, for that the ayre is subtile and piercing, going into the entrailes, and not onely men feele this alteration, but also beasts, that sometimes stay there, so as there is no spurre can make them goe forward.”

And he comes up with a pretty darned accurate explanation for its causes:

“I therefore perswade my selfe, that the element of the aire is there so subtile and delicate, as it is not proportionable with the breathing of man, which requires a more grosse and temperate aire, and I beleeve it is the cause that doth so much alter the stomacke and trouble all the disposition. The passages of the rnountaines Nevada and others of Europe which I have seene, although the aire be colde there, and doth force men to weare more clothes, yet this colde doth not take away the appetite for meat, but contrariwise it provokes; neither dooth it cause any casting of the stomacke, but onely some paine in the feete and handes. Finally, their operation is outward. But that of the Indies, whereof I speake (without molesting of foote or hand, or any outward parte), troubles all the entrailes within: and that which is more admirable, when the sunne is hote, which maketh mee imagine that the griefe wee feele comes from the qualitie of the aire which wee breathe.”

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