For those who know me, its no secret that I love history. As a PCV, I’ve hit the jackpot with a placement in Peru. There’s so many different cultural heritages to learn about and so many great archaeological sites to visit that would make any history buff want to cry. Not to mention, there is so much more to Peruvian history than just than the Incas and Machu Picchu. So in the spirit of sharing my love for history, I decided to do a series called Throwback Thursday where I highlight a specific part of Peruvian history on a Thursday of course. Enjoy – I hope ya’ll learn something new.
The woman who works at my local post office and I
struck up a conversation about homesickness one day. I was in there to retrieve a card my aunt had sent me and she told me that she felt empathy for the Peace Corps Volunteers in the area because although she is Peruvian, she is not from Amazonas. She’s from Ancash – a beautiful region of Andean Peru. Culturally, its significantly different than the quasi-jungle town we both live in. She said, “Si me siento raro aqui, no puedo imaginar como sientes,” meaning “If I feel strange here, I can’t imagine how you feel.”
The conversation went on and I learned that she is from a province in Ancash called Yungay. I had actually visited the provincial capital (also called Yungay) during training. When she said that one thing popped into my mind – Huascarán. If there is one thing I remember about Yungay, its that mountain. Nevado Huascarán was named after an Incan emperor and is the highest mountain in Peru and the fourth highest in the Western Hemisphere. Additionally, at its summit, Husacaran has the smallest gravitational force on earth. It is beautiful beyond describing but like with a lot of beautiful things in nature it is also extremely deadly.
I knew about one particular time when Huascarán turned on the people of Yungay in 1970
and because the lady who works at the post office looks like she could have been alive at that time I asked, “What do you remember about Huascarán?” She told me that she was young when it happened and that she doesn’t remember much but that her house was destroyed in the event. She talked generally about how drastically it changed lives and how her family had to rebuild. So naturally I wanted to make this Throwback Thursday about the events regarding Huascarán. Here’s what went down:
On May 31, 1970, The Great Peruvian Earthquake happened. It was an unimaginably long 45 second underwater quake off the coast of Ancash. The Nazca Plate and the South American plate slid together to create a 8.0 magnitude earthquake that destroyed an area larger than Belgium and the Netherlands combined causing immeasurable amounts of death and destruction.
As if the quake itself didn’t cause enough damage, it destabilized a glacier on Huscaran and acted as a catalyst for a deadly avalanche. By the time it reached Yungay and a small town called Ranrahirca (both of which are home to PCVs now), the avalanche was
travelling at 120 mph and had an estimated 3,000 ft wide with 80 million cubic meters of ice, rocks, and mud. Most of the 25,000 people living in the area did not survive the avalanche with only about 350 people surviving – 300 of which were children who were
visiting the circus that day. Today crosses and tombs bearing the names of those never found mark where houses once stood. The area is currently a national cemetery and the government has forbidden any excavation of the area in remembrance of the thousands who lost their lives that day.
And although both Yungay and Ranrahirca have been rebuilt and resettled a few miles away from their original locations, the Peruvian people and government have not forgotten the deadliest earthquake in Latin American history. May 31st in Peru is now Natural Disaster Education and Reflection Day.
If you’re a Spanish speaker, here is a little documentary I found on YouTube about the devastating natural disaster. It contains a recount of that day and interviews with survivors of the earthquake.
If you’re a history buff like me and want to read more Throwback Thursday posts, click here.