People, Mountains and Spirits in the Andes

Cara Howell

The Andean mountain range in South America beckons outdoor enthusiasts from all over the world to explore its mountain tops and deep valleys. For foreigners, the Andes offer an outdoor adventure and a cultural experience like none other. Throughout the Andean mountain range, interconnecting paths create a trail system of sierra intersections and valley thoroughfares. Hikers wander to snowcapped peaks with waterfalls dripping down mountainsides, and expansive valleys opening below. Villages of thatched-roof homes seem far away from modern society. The rural countryside of the Andes and its inhabitants offer the South American traveler true contact with the beauty and culture of the Andes.

The Andes form the longest continuous mountain chain in the world, stretching over 4000 miles from the Cordillera Santa Maria Mountains in Colombia to the Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of Chile. The width of the range varies: in Ecuador they measure some sixty miles wide, while in Bolivia their width extends to over one-hundred eighty miles. In geological terms, the Andes are considered to be relatively young mountains; they were formed some fifty to sixty million years ago, and are considered the world's second-highest mountain chain; only the Himalayas surpass the Andes in height.

Due to the frigid Humboldt Current of the Pacific, the Andean coastal plain is a two thousand-mile desert, one of the world's driest. The temperature inversions of the current permit only a small amount of rain to fall on the coast. Equally unexpected as the dry land itself is the gray mist, called garua, that wraps much of the desert coast from March to November. The gurua neither condenses into rain nor burns off under the sun's heat. Instead, it lingers, encasing the land in a damp mantle that shadows and obscures the horizon.

The grandeur of the mountains is equaled only by that of the many Indian cultures that have influenced and left their marks on the region. The artifacts, ruins, legends, beliefs, and superstitions that were left behind by pre-Columbian cultures contribute to the character of the Andes as much as the majestic mountains themselves. Although more than four hundred and fifty years have passed since the conquest of the Incas, many of the beliefs and customs of the pre-Hispanic world remain.

The belief in Pachamama, the earth-mother, lives on today. Pachamama provides all the necessities of life, from food to housing. The past resides with her, the present is acted out upon her, and the future will be born from her. She controls life while also harboring the dead and their spirits. Pachamama dies every year during Easter week. For seven days she has no control over the evil spirits that inhabit the countryside, and the world becomes a place of danger. For the campesino, Pachamama lives not as a legend or folktale, but as a very real being. She is the earth and force around which all life must be ordered. Offerings are presented to her, and days set aside to worship her.

Pachamama resides in all places, but 'apus' are earth spirits that inhabit particular locations. Any natural formation, such as a stream, a lake, or a hill, can be an apu's home. Local apus in the hills and streams near a village provide daily protection for the people's crops and animals. Apus that inhabit small peaks control the fertility of fields, while the greatest apus living at the tops of mountain peaks, control animal fertility.

Apus are all-powerful gods; ambivalent beings, apus can be beneficent by performing miracles, or malevolent by punishing the disrespectful. Because of their immense powers, apus are greatly feared and respected. Even today people assemble to call upon apus to cure ailments and solve life's problems.

The Andes are both a physical phenomena and a cultural marvel. Travelers are sure to be awed by the beauty and wildlife, as well as by the rich culture of the Andean people. The powerful magnetism of the Andes draws travelers beyond the comforts of town to explore the many trails and paths, as well as the people along the way! The magic of the Andes lies not only in the beauty of its landscape but in the Quechua people who dwell there and carry on age-old customs and traditions.