After reading Kim MacQuarrie’s Life and Death in the Andes: On the Trail of Bandits, Heroes, and Revolutionaries, I’m ready to pack my bags for South America. Or at least Peru. But not Colombia . . . definitely not Colombia. From the Incas to Pablo Escobar, from Charles Darwin to the Shining Path, from Che Guevara to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the western coast of South America plays host as MacQuarrie, a documentary filmmaker as well as writer, takes us on a thumping trip down the length of the Andes.
Little did MacQuarrie know, as a young kid growing up in Nevada, that the authors he read to escape the heat, namely and among others, Edgar Rice Burroughs and an adventurous dude named William Willis, would inform his later years and lead him to spend much time living in, exploring, writing about and filming South America and the Andes in particular. It was Willis’ account of his successful jaunt across the Pacific on a balsa-wood raft that led MacQuarrie to volunteer in Peru for a subsequent, but unrelated, raft expedition. He didn’t get the gig, but the failed application did lead to a chance encounter with an even-bigger transoceanic rafting celebrity, Thor Heyerdahl, who invited him along on an inland Peruvian excavation project. Talk about your good timing!
The trip starts in Colombia and I quickly learn that it’s been a damned violent place, as if I didn’t already know that. We’ve all heard, at least peripherally, about Pablo Escobar and the Medellin cartel, and MacQuarrie makes a great study of the drug kingpin’s rise to the lofty heights of the Forbes’ billionaire list (who knew Forbes was so undiscriminating?) and his inevitable plummet and death. What I had lesser knowledge of was Colombia’s bloody history of political violence and civil war in the hundred or so years prior to Escobar. It’s made clear though, that despite the fallout from political upheaval and drug wars, Colombia’s culture has also contributed greatly to international art and literature. It’s a country that has given the world Medellin artist Fernando Botero, whose famous sculptures can only be described by me as bulbous. Another Colombian native you may just have heard of in the realm of great contributions to literature: the late Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose novels are shot through with the brutal echoes of Colombia’s past.
Next up on the itinerary is Ecuador, or more specifically the Galapagos Islands. It’s here that I learn that Darwin was actually a rank amateur in the scientific department when he arrived in the Galapagos aboard the HMS Beagle. I had always dwelt under the assumption that Darwin was a seasoned naturalist and that the expedition was planned by and for him, but au contraire! The Beagle’s mission was to finish surveying Patagonia and its captain was looking to hire an “educated companion” and naturalist, whose job would be to collect specimens but not analyze them. That was to be left to the trained scientists back in Merry Old England. Darwin, at 22 and newly graduated from Cambridge with an eye towards becoming a minister, seemed hardly qualified. In fact, he was so inept at collecting that he failed to bring back even one adult tortoise from the expedition, although four juvenile specimens were returned to England. And here’s your crazy factoid for the day: Upon arriving in England, Darwin soon realized that the climate there was far from primo for his young tortoises so he prevailed upon a colleague who was retiring to Australia to take them there. The last living one of the original four, a female named Harriet, died in 2006 at Steve Irwin’s Australia Zoo, a whopping 176 years after she sailed to England with Darwin.
Peru merits several chapters, presumably because MacQuarrie spent far more time in that locale than the other Andean countries, but also because it seems to have just so many damn interesting things going on there. MacQuarrie chronicles the Shining Path guerrilla movement of the 1980s and early ‘90s (still mildly active today), hikes to Machu Picchu and gives us the dirty low-down on its smarmy “discoverer” Hiram Bingham, and waxes rhapsodic about the Ice Maiden, a 15th-century mummy of a young girl sacrificed as an offering to the Incan gods. Juanita, as she was called after her discovery on Mount Amparo, was found wearing perfectly preserved garments made of the finest, most intricate weavings. From here, MacQuarrie deftly segues into a lengthy discussion of the preservation of traditional weaving practices in Peru today. As part of his trip to a cooperative market where the Peruvian weavers hawk their wares, he was treated to a typical native lunch: guinea pigs “served on a plate roasted and splayed, with their arms and legs stretching out, looking like road kill.” Thanks, Kim. You just killed my appetite and tempted me to hit PETA up for a Save the Guinea Pigs campaign.
Travelling a little further south to Lake Titicaca (a name that always inspired the giggles in my 8-year-old self), straddling the border of Peru and Bolivia, MacQuarrie then introduces me, his by now fascinated reader, to Los Uros, floating islands made of reeds that house and sustain an entire population. Everything there, the residences, the boats, the furniture, the food – you name it – is made entirely from the reeds, called totora, that grow naturally on Lake Titicaca.
And have I rambled on long enough? I should at least give you something to anticipate and leave off telling you chapter and verse about everything this Andean chronicle has to offer. I must be coming off like the movie trailer that shows all the best scenes and doesn’t leave you anything but filler. Don’t fret. There’s a heap of adventure left and you’ll keep moving south into Bolivia and Chile: Che Guevara, the ruins of Tiahuanaco (Ancient Aliens and Giorgio Tsoukalos’ electrified hair are not in evidence, thank God!), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and the Yamana Indians of Tierra del Fuego are waiting. And Darwin makes a second but final appearance!
I guess it’s apparent by now that I was quite enamored with this book and, as such, I give it a healthy 4.5 stars out of 5. My one quibble however is with the ending. I’ll just say that MacQuarrie ends his journey very abruptly. So abruptly, in fact, that I questioned whether my advance reading copy was missing its ending. While I normally wouldn’t even comment on this as typos are common with ARCs and come with the territory, my particular electronic copy had an inordinate number of editing goofs which couldn’t help but make me wonder about that ending. Life and Death in the Andes has since been released so I’m sorely tempted to buy a copy to satisfy my curiosity.
To me, reading is all about learning and adventure, whether you’re traveling in your armchair with words or making your reading-inspired dreams a reality, the latter being exactly what MacQuarrie has done. The Willis books spurred the failed volunteer opportunity which led to his meeting with Heyerdahl. The Heyerdahl dig, as well as six months spent living with the primitive Yora tribe in Peru’s Upper Amazon, gave MacQuarrie the idea to travel the length of the Andes, chronicling its troubled history and colorful personages along the way.
Full Disclosure: A review copy of this book was provided to me by Simon & Schuster via NetGalley. All quotes herein are from the review copy and may appear differently in the final print version. I would like to thank the publisher for providing me this opportunity. All opinions expressed herein are my own.