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Published: October 2007

Through the Eyes of the Condor

Latin America Feature

Through the Eyes of the Condor

An Aerial Vision of Latin America

By Marie Arana
Photograph by Robert B. Haas
Since the age of the Inca, we have believed that we spring from the soil as surely as seeds—that life in this volatile home holds the promise of plenty or the shock of seismic upheaval. The earth can feed us. Or destroy us. We are at once the blessed and cursed inheritors of a fierce and bountiful land.

Perhaps that is why the Inca so loved the sun and the Maya built stairs to the skies, and conquistadores clambered up hills to thrust crucifixes into high ground. We want to be free of the earth's embrace. Sprout wings. Fly. We long to see through the eyes of the condor.

Imagine then, this native Peruvian, whose feet are most comfortable on terra firma, joining a photographer's expedition to survey her home from the air. That was the position in which I found myself one autumn day, as I hung on for dear life in the rear of a Pilatus Porter, the breast of our tiny craft beating against the current.

We flew over the Callejón de Huaylas, a verdant canyon that cuts through two mountain ranges—the majestic, snow-peaked Cordillera Blanca and the rippling, brown spine of the Cordillera Negra. This is the cradle of one of the earliest known civilizations of Peru, the Chavín, whose highly developed notions of agriculture informed the later genius of the Moche and Inca cultures. (Qosqo, the Inca would later call their perch in the Andes: umbilical of the world.) The Callejón is also in the stretch of mountain that boasts one of the highest peaks in all of South America, the spectacular Nevado Huascarán, whose 22,205-foot (6,768 meters) summit lords over the valley, and whose ice and snows have alternately nurtured and extinguished all life below.

Latin America is full of such paradoxes. We leap to tell visitors that our countries hold a smorgasbord of landforms—coastline, desert, jungle, mountain, marshland, archipelago—all in defined geographic spaces, and often in dramatic contiguity. The white promontories of the Andes are not far from the impenetrable canopy of the Amazon, where every November the jungle floor is deluged by floodwaters, and jaguars are forced to swim with the pink dolphins. Not until I was flying 5,000 feet (1,500 meters) above the earth did I see how close and interdependent those landforms truly are. A few minutes in the air can take you from the vernal cliffs of Lima's seaside suburbs to the windblown desert of Chan Chan, the once grand citadel of the Chimú; or from the unforgiving rock over which the conquistadores labored to the green vales of Cajamarca. All of it, interconnected. One.

For all the history that has spooled below, for all the suffering that still plagues the region, the view from above is calm and neutral—and the terrain it reveals, seamless and whole. It is, I can't help but think, Latin America as the Great Liberator Simón Bolívar dreamed it, a vast land made one by the spine of its cordillera, by the intricate vascular system that flows from its dark Amazon heart. There are no borders in this America. No nationalities. One zone merges into another, towns and cities come and go, valleys yield to mountains, and high snows trickle down to feed an emerald forest.
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