Published on December 9th, 2016 | by Nick Dall


Pariacaca in literature…Of gods, engineers and doctors

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.”


A section of Qhapaq Nhan on the altiplano near Jauja.

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.”


Does it get better than this?


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.”


No landscape was too treacherous for the Inca road builders.

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About the Author

Nick is a nomadic freelance writer with a particular passion for Latin America. He has lived in Argentina and Bolivia and traveled just about everywhere else. He gets excited about wine, language, literature, trout and cheese.

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    Qhapaq Ñan – Day 8

    *Versión en español abajo*

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    It will become one of the great long distance hiking trails in the world, and our explorations and stories along the way we hope will serve for generations of walkers who come after us.

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    Qhapaq Ñan – Día 8

    Culminamos con la expedición de 320 kilómetros desde Jauja a Antioquia en solo siete días, dos días menos de lo planeado. El progreso en el manejo y control de nuestras llamas en esta caminata significó poder dedicar unas horas extras al día explorando en lugar de re-ordenar la carga o tener otros retrasos que se producen con un equipo menos entrenado. Durante siete días caminamos en promedio alrededor de 40 kilómetros por día, distancia que equivale a la caminata de cuatro días en el tradicional camino inca desde el Valle Sagrado hacia Machu Picchu – 41 kilómetros en total.
    Si buscamos un punto de comparación podemos decir que caminar estos 40 kilómetros cada día por el Pacific Crest Trail desde Sierra Nevada hasta los andes Cascade en Estados Unidos es la misma distancia que caminaremos por día en la expedición que realizaremos por el Qhapaq Ñan en nuestro gran proyecto durante cuatro meses en Abril del próximo año,

    No solo queremos compartir las maravillas históricas, ecológicas y culturales del Qhapaq Ñan, si no también queremos establecer a este gran camino inca a la par de grandes caminos de larga distancia en el mundo . El tramo de 3,200 kilómetros de Cuenca, Ecuador hacia Cusco, Perú puede convertirse en una principal actividad económica a través del turismo. Una hazaña que requerirá persistencia y trabajo de la mano de los gobiernos locales y nacionales junto con la industria privada. El Pacific Crest Trail que va de México a Canadá a lo largo de las cordilleras de Sierra Nevada y Cascade fue una visión que Clinton C. Clark tuvo en 1932, la misma que tomó 60 años para ser considerada completa y con una red de trabajo de personales responsables que se encargan del mantenimiento de la misma.

    Desde el año 1400, el Qhapaq Ñan fue un camino de piedra del Imperio Inca construido a lo largo de la cordillera, su tradicional estructura y el mantenimiento vial era realizada con trabajo en conjunto de las personas de los andes. Esta práctica cultural era organizada y dirigida por los “ángeles del rastro” del Pacific Crest Trail. El Qhapaq Ñan es una de las mayores obras públicas del hombre antiguo, con culturas milenarias que existen aún a lo largo de la ruta.

    Se convertirá en uno de los grandes senderos de larga distancia en el mundo, y esperamos que nuestras exploraciones e historias a lo largo del camino sirvan para las generaciones de caminantes que vienen después de nosotros.

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    Jefe Explorador
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    SA Qhapaq Ñan

    The journey continues…

    *Versión en español abajo*

    Qhapaq Ñan – Day 1

    The team departed this morning from Jauja with 12 llamas heading along a transversal Qhapaq Ñan towards Pachacamac, 200 miles west, near the

    In three days by foot west, we’ll arrive to the great Inca stairway in the shadows of the great Apu Pariacaca (mountain deity). The set of 1800 steps will be the entry to another three days on some of the most spectacular Qhapaq Ñan anywhere on the 25,000 mile network. Ten days from now, we should arrive to our finish point at Antioquia, where the Qhapaq Ñan starts to disappear closer to the coast. The terrain for most of our trek will float between 11,000 and 16,000 feet above sea level, perfect for the llamas with plenty of Ichu grass along the way.

    Our first day on the route covered 15 miles and with better behaved llamas and more efficient llameros (llama handlers). Our llameros, Flavio, Nicolas and Valentine are getting better at their craft. We also have two local llameros, Tito and Antonia, the latter being our first female llamero in 500 miles of Qhapaq Ñan we’ve trekked thus far and adds an interesting dose of female energy into the group. She’s probably the most able llamero of the group and it’s her animals were working with while in the region. The majority female team at SA Expeditions might find this amusing that even on the Qhapaq Ñan I find myself collaborating with strong and talented women.

    Nick Stanziano
    Chief Explorer
    SA Expeditions
    Qhapaq Ñan – Día 1

    Desde Jauja, esta mañana el equipo inició la expedición junto a doce llamas a lo largo de una transversal del Qhapaq Ñan en dirección hacia Pachacamac, 320 kilómetros al oeste, cerca de la costa sur peruana en el Océano Pacifico.

    Hace 600 años, en la cima del reinado del Inca, Jauja fue un importante centro de administración que apoyó la expansión del imperio hacia el norte desde su capital, a 770 kilómetros al sur, en Cusco.

    Pachacamac, fue un importante centro religioso que se remonta a dos milenios e influyó en las siguientes culturas incas. Tiene sentido que el camino que une estos dos centros antiguos haya contado con tal planificación y grandeza. Es un ejemplo que se suma a la lista de obras extraordinarias a gran escala del imperio.
    Luego de tres días de caminata en dirección al oeste, estaremos llegando a la gran escalera Inca localizada en las sombras del gran Apu Pariacaca. El conjunto de mil ochocientos escalones será la entrada durante tres días a uno de los lugares más espectaculares de todos los 40,200 kilómetros que conforman el Qhapaq Ñan. En estos diez días de expedición llegaremos finalmente a Antioquia, más cerca a la costa donde el Qhapaq Ñan comienza a desaparecer. La mayor parte de nuestra caminata se realizará en alturas que van desde los 3,350 y 4,900 m.s.n.m, lo que es perfecto para las llamas ya que encontraremos abundante hierba de Ichu a lo largo del camino.

    En el primer día de ruta se ha cubierto 25 kilómetros. Las llamas se han comportado mejor y los encargados de ellas, los “llameros”, están realizando su trabajo de manera más eficiente. Flavio, Nicolás y Valentín están mejorando en su labor. A ellos se han sumado dos llameros locales, Tito y Antonia, siendo esta última la primera mujer en acompañarnos luego de 800 kilómetros de expediciones por el Qhapaq Ñan. Ella añade una interesante dosis de energía femenina al grupo y debo mencionar que, probablemente, es la cuidadora con más capacidad dentro del grupo.

    La mayor parte del equipo de SA Expeditions, conformado por mujeres, encontrara divertido que incluso en el Qhapaq Ñan me halle trabajando de la mano con mujeres fuertes y con mucho talento.

    Nick Stanziano
    Jefe Explorador
    SA Expeditions See more

    4 months ago

    SA Qhapaq Ñan

    Follow founder Nick Stanziano as he hikes 2,000 miles.

    Get ready for more Qhapaq Ñan!

    4 months ago

    Timeline Photos

    The Galapagos giant tortoise is the largest living species of tortoise, weighing up to 900 lbs. Galapagos tortoises are native to seven of the Galápagos Islands, the volcanic archipelago 620 miles See more

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