The Surreal Killer

The Surreal Killer
Machu Picchu. Peru

Friday, July 12, 2013


One of the things we never learned about when I went to school was the history of South America before the Spanish Conquest.  There was (and still is) a rich history, much of which we know about in some detail, culminating with the ascendency of the Incan Empire in the 15th Century.  One of the benefits of wandering through Argentina, Chile, Peru, and Ecuador is getting exposed to this rich and fascinating history of pre-Colombian South America.

We’ve visited several museums in Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Peru, and Ecuador.  The question arises in all of these countries why the dominant cultures (Incan and pre-Columbian) chose to live uphill, high in the Andes, rather than downhill, in the flatlands where the vast majority of the current population lives in these countries.  Isn’t life easier at sea level where the food literally grows on trees and the physical demands on the body are much less?  The exhibits in the archeological museums suggest that the trade-off of low oxygen and limited water and vegetation uphill was more than balanced by the abundant migrating camelids that were hunted for food, the defensible positions to protect the mountain dwellers from more warlike inhabitants of the lowlands, and protection from vector-borne diseases like malaria in the drier climates at higher altitudes.  It is likely that all of these benefits encouraged migration to and through the Andean altiplano in ancient times, but my best guess would be that escape from malaria and other tropical diseases was the major impetus.

            If my guess is correct, it begs the question of why the official U.S. government advice to visitors in the region from the State Department stresses the high risk of exposure to malaria in Andean Northwest Argentina and parts of Peru where there are few, if any, mosquitos and therefore little chance of contracting malaria or other mosquito-borne infectious diseases.  All of the State Department’s propaganda I’ve been given on my visits to Salta and Chile’s Atacama Desert warns me of the risk I’m taking being there.  Nobody there knows anyone who has malaria, or at least they deny any such friends exist when asked.

            Peru was a dangerous place for North American visitors in 1982 due to the ultra-left wing guerrilla movement known as “Shining Path” (“Sendero Luminoso”), which killed or kidnapped a lot of people during their well-publicized reign of terror beginning in 1980.  An estimated 69,000 people were left dead or missing in Peru during the conflict between Shining Path and the Peruvian military authorities.  Ultimately, the Peruvian army under President Fujimori killed or captured enough of the terrorists to effectively destroy the movement in the 1990s.  I wonder if the alleged malaria threat was/is a politically expedient excuse to prevent, or at least discourage, U.S. citizens from putting themselves at risk in Peru and the surrounding countries during the decades of Shining Path’s existence as a threat.  And I wonder if the malaria threat will be decreased with the news that a Peruvian military court sentenced one of the last surviving leaders of Shining Path, “Comrade Artemio”, to life in prison on June 8, 2013.

            Another interesting place we visited is Santa Rosa de Tastil, high in the Andes above Salta in Northwest Argentina.  This huge area of about 600 AD-1300 AD (plus or minus a few years) ruins is an obscure archeological treasure that nobody goes to because it’s so hard to get to.  It’s accessible by car, but a long way uphill and far from anything else.  There’s a museum on site, with some fascinating indigenous mummies and other interesting artifacts recovered from the site, which sprawls over a hilltop a couple of thousand feet above a river.  Fragments of pottery litter the site, with enough remaining of the walls to see the outlines of a large pre-Columbian city etched out of the landscape.   Apparently this city was one of the larger communities of its time, dominating a major transit and trade route along the high Andes (at an elevation of about three thousand, five hundred meters), and collecting tolls from passing groups and individuals.  In the thin, dry air at this altitude, vector-borne diseases were almost certainly not a concern.   For those of you who are interested in learning more about the ruins of Santa Rosa de Tastil, Roger and Suzanne visit the site in Chapter 6 of The Empanada Affair, a painless ($0.99) way of visiting several of the fascinating indigenous cities of the Northwest Argentinian Andes.

            Also well worth doing is visiting the more elaborate museums in San Pedro de Atacama, in Chile’s Atacama Desert directly on the other side of the Andes from Salta, Argentina.  The anthropology of the hunter-gatherers who migrated in the high Andes in search of llamas and guanacos for food and wool is presented in much more detail here, and it’s a fascinating glimpse into a history we don’t learn in the U.S. school systems.  The early inhabitants roamed Andean South America from Colombia to Chile, actually emulating the route that would be used by the Incas and the Spanish Conquistadores many centuries later.

            Incan Museums in Peru and Ecuador are frequent and elegant.  They also tend to have a lot of priceless statues and gold jewelry.  Roger and Suzanne visit (and describe) a couple of these museums in Lima and Cuzco in The Surreal Killer, and they will visit another Incan museum in Quito, Ecuador in an upcoming book in this series when they solve a murder or two in The Galapagos Islands.  Hopefully, the new novel will be published late this year or early in 2014.   But first I have to publish "The Deadly Dog Show", hopefully some time in July.

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