Arica and the Andean World

(Many pictures and some articles by the same author are available at

By Dr. Renato Aguirre-Bianchi


Although Arica belongs to the Republic of Chile since 1929, it is geologically isolated from the country by hundreds of miles of the most barren desert of the world, and, most of all, by a deep cultural misalignment. Therefore, in order to understand the city itself, its valleys, sierra, altiplano and its people, one must go beyond actual boundaries and integrate them with the events of their cultural center: the area around lake Titicaca. In no other place along the Chilean territory the word "Andean" has such a strong meaning as in Arica and its surrounding territory.

The Andean Man

Ten thousand years before present (BP), at the beginning of the Holocene (the last geological period of our planet) hunters-gatherers arrived to the altiplano following their prey: big mastodons, megaterium, sable-toothed tigers and american horses. The climate was changing, becoming drier, and those animals eventually extinguished, leaving humans with no other prey but hunting the ancestors of today's auchenids: guanacos, llamas, vicuñas and alpacas. These animals show seasonal migrations from higher to lower altitudes, and humans re-designed their way of life to follow their prey, which was eventually domesticated more than 4,000 years BP, when a semi-nomadic way of life had already been adopted.

Although agriculture was introduced much latter, at altitudes above 3.800m it is limited to a few species such as potato, quinua (a grain rich in protein, with leaves that can be eaten if cooked), haba (a bean) and barley, but following the auchenids to lower altitudes during winter allowed the primitive Andean humans to enrich their supply of agricultural products from the upper valleys, mainly corn and species of squash. Humans were thus "domesticated" by auchenids, taught a new way of living while auchenids became protected, cared for, fed and respected by humans. That is called symbiosis. That peculiar symbiosis defined the customs, ethics, religion and cosmovision of this new breed of human being: the Andean Man.

Other groups, which we will identify as yungas (people from low altitude places), to simplify a complex ethnic spectrum, occupied the coast and made a living out of the abundant sea resources, forming small communities that became sedentary 8,000 years BP, 5,000 years before learning to take advantage of agriculture. The most conspicuous of those groups, forming the chinchorro cultural complex, lived in the beaches of Arica and began mummifying their dead 3,000 years before the Egyptians.

When agriculture was adopted, beginning with species of squash, the lower valleys were gradually occupied and a rich and pacific interaction was eventually established with the expanding altiplanic ethnic groups.

The cultural center of the many ethnic groups occupying this multilevel territory with so many different ecological niches was the Titicaca lake, whose surrounding lands, at an altitude above 4,000m, offered ample space and many facilities to keep herds of auchenids, with the additional advantage of a limited supply of fresh-water fish. The subsequent increase of the human and auchenid population lead to a more elaborated social organization and encouraged the exploration of other areas, including the lower valleys, where the Andean man interacted pacifically with the yungas, establishing geographically isolated "colonies" exploited by people from the altiplano instead the usual western style of conquering and forcing the locals to work for them. For the intensive transportation to and from the altiplano, llama caravans were used until they were very recently replaced by trucks.

Their semi-nomadic background (induced and at the same time made possible by llamas) and the peculiar geographic conditions, led  the circumtiticaca Andeans to avoid big urban centers and kept them from having to conquest their neighbors to make them work for the dominant group. Instead, the many altiplanic nuclei cared for their animals and grew potatoes and quinua in the highlands, while some of its people grew maize, squash, chili pepper and other vegetables in their island-like possessions in the lowlands at both sides of the Andes, where they traded their products for sea fish and any other goods the western coastal and the eastern Amazonian people could offer.

The circum-Titicaca "country" (collasuyo for the Incas)

About 1700 years ago, while Rome was being pillaged and Attila plundered much of the western, the Tiwanaku people gained control of the circum-Titicaca territory. They pacifically expanded their influence and culture, defining what we -citizens of Arica beyond any “official” citizenship we may have- could call "our country", giving a strong impulse to the development of the "provinces" of Arica and San Pedro de Atacama,  while dealing in many ways with the centralized, urbanized and despotic Wari empire in northern Perú.

The great pre-incaic cultures of central and northern Perú developed from the Wari, retaining the urban style of organization. On the contrary, circumtiticaca people (including Arica) maintained the multi-ethnic, multi-ecological niche, multi-geological level of economy and bland domination we described previously, even after the Tiwanaku rule collapsed and even when the Inca dominated the collasuyo (the Inca name for our "country").

The Tiwanaku collapsed 4 centuries before the Incas conquered and reunited our "country". During that time, our "yunga provinces" organized itself in the form of local landlords that confederated to resist the attempts of the various altiplanic kingdoms that replaced the Tiwanaku hegemony. They needed our products and we yungas needed theirs and both sides were willing to trade with the other, but we built fortified villages (pukaras) along hundreds of miles to keep their power away from our lands.

The Inca domination turned local attempts towards independency back into an integrated socio-economical system. When the first Spaniards were given unfair rights (“encomiendas”) upon local indians and their possessions, they found a complex territorial system based on neighboring fragmented territories in the form of overlapping archipelagoes, obeying local landlords that were tributaries of bigger lords living in the high valleys,  which in turn obeyed the authority of a central, altiplano-centered ethnic group, once tributary to the Inca Empire.

The Andean World is forced to hide

The Andean people had a very special way of understanding the world, a paradigm often referred to as "cosmovision", that may be very hard to understand for people raised in the individuality and profit-oriented western culture. It may be described as the ethics of opposing complements: nothing is good or bad, because the opposing concepts must interact if a state of equilibrium is to be reached. Thus, in order to allow for the existence of a real world, all things are both good and bad. The Andean man is the manifestation of that equilibrium and must obey its rules, such as giving to others only what is correct to ask others for. Unbelievable as it may seem to “civilized” people, no one would have wanted, much less be allowed to sublimate above its destiny by becoming an angel or becoming much wealthier that its peers by some lucky event such as winning the lottery prize. An angel would have been viewed as an idle, weak, selfish and useless individual, and a wealthy commoner would have disturbed the system on which depended the survival of the community under the extremely adverse conditions of the Andes.

The arrival of the Spaniards produced a major and cruel catastrophe, the last pachacuti (a reality-changing event occurring every 500 years and produced by the inversion of the polarity of the world), a "big fire" (Pablo Neruda) that destroyed the Andean Civilization.

The ruthless behavior and hypocrite ethics of the new owners of the only world known to the Andean people, and the dull and infamous attempts to christianize the indians, caused millions of deaths, destroyed their social organization and the pride of many of them. Faced to the abuse, ruthlessness and falseness of the Spaniards, the Andean people obeyed one of their maxims "it is not good to lie, but you may do it if that gives happiness to another" also phrased as "it is not good to lie, but it may be safer to hide the truth". As an ethnic group, they have never been really converted to Christianity: they just adopted the imposed God as yet another God among their many others.

The last rebellion, a bloody disturb lead by José Gabriel Condorcanqui (Tupac Amaru II) in 1790, spread all over the central Andes and lasted for 3 years. After that,  all signs of indian resistance had apparently disappeared. Yet 3 years after Condorcanqui's execution, the Viceroy of Perú, don Agustín de Jáuregui, received a gift of cherries, a fruit that he much liked. After eating a couple of them, he dropped dead. As Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda wrote, "the dead Kingdom is alive". Right now, radical groups in Bolivia prepare themselves for the coming pachacuti that will bring back the Inca from the underworld to let him finish his hegemonic task. It will soon be 500 years since the Spaniards turned the Andean World upside-down by executing Atahualpa.

Arica and its "country"

Although there were Spaniards living in Arica since 1536, the city was founded in 1541. In 1545, the most generous silver deposit ever known was found in the Andes (Potosí), and for 150 years the Arica Region became part of one of the mayor financial enterprises of the pre-industrial world, serving as a gate towards the Potosí silver and as a provider of food, wine, alfalfa, olive oil and other goods to Potosí, a thriving city which housed 160.000 souls by 1611, the biggest and richest city of the New World at that time.

Initially, the cargo was carried by means of caravans of llamas, eventually replaced by mules. By 1700, there were about 200,000 mules in service to or from Arica. At that time, the mine's production decreased, there was a prolonged drought, malaria became a mayor sanitary problem in Arica and the silver embarkment  moved east, to the Atlantic Ocean. Eventually, the peruvian administration left Arica to its fate and a long period of decadence ensued, which lasted until 1850.

The Independence of Bolivia after the final defeat of Spanish troops in 1825, brought a new prosperity to the altiplano. Water was abundant again in Arica, and malaria morbidity had decreased. The railroad from Arica to Tacna was built and caravan traffic towards Bolivia was intense. The catastrophic earthquake and destructive tsunami of 1868 destroyed a beautiful and prosperous Arica  The city recovered soon, only to be struck by another big earthquake and tsunami 9 years later, in 1877.

Arica becomes Chilean (well, almost..)

Arica had belonged to Peru since it's foundation. But in 1879, war began between Chile and the allied forces of Perú and Bolivia. Arica was invaded by the Chileans in 1880. The war ended with Chile transitorily keeping Tacna and Arica until a definitive agreement could be reached, but in 1929 Tacna was returned to Perú.

A major crisis ensued as a consequence of the new nationality of Arica. The city was abruptly severed from its sierra highlands, which were literally abandoned, until the need to create a sense of being Chilean in our population became important for the centralized Republic of Chile. Priests serving the rural regions of Arica were expelled from the country in 1910 since they were all Peruvians, and there has never again been a stable priest living in the surroundings of Arica.

In 1917, less than 30% of the population of Arica was Chilean. A major effort to impose the sense of being Chilean upon the aymaras was made by the government and the Military Vicarship, which partially succeeded thanks to the installation of schools and the effects of mandatory military conscription.

Ever since, Arica has tried hard to be Chilean, although knowing that its roots are elsewhere. Despite strong chauvinism in all non-aymara social strata, there remains a feeling similar to that of a war orphan adopted by a conqueror:

Where is the rest of the family?