A Place Near the Sky

First-time visitors often make the same comment about the landscape: the sky seems to be so much closer than usual. This isn’t surprising. In Cotabambas province in Apurímac, there are peaks that exceed 4,000 and sometimes even 5,000 metres above sea level. Cotabambas has some of the most breathtaking mountain landscapes in Peru.

There, Peruvians revere to this day the apus - sacred mountains - whose traditions predate the arrival of Europeans. The snowy and imposing Mallmanya mountain, for example, located in neighbouring Grau province, but visible from Cotabambas, “is considered ‘Father’ and ‘Lord’ by local inhabitants,” according to Máximo Quispe Gallegos, from the Progreso district in Grau. “People traditionally go to the mountain to ask for rain, sacrificing black guinea pigs in sites especially selected by each village.”

In ancient times, Mallmanya was a place used to forecast the weather. From the snowy peak, people observed the constellation they called Qoto - known in western culture as Pleiades - to determine whether it would be a good year for crops.

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La Despensa is a place where agricultural rituals are performed. Anthropologist Josafat Roel notes that La Despensa is located in the Haquira district. “In August, people plant seeds of all known food plants in the region and … by observing their growth, know which plants give the highest yields and the quantity. Observers also determine how many freezes will occur during the year, and which of the three planting seasons are most appropriate.”

In a region with such difficult geographic conditions, this knowledge is most important. The vast majority of agriculture here is subsistence farming that families depend on for food.

Observed since ancient times, rituals and practices like these are key to understanding the multifaceted nature of Cotabambas and its surroundings.

Mining is another important activity in the region. In fact, long before the Incan Empire, which emerged in the thirteenth century and flourished in much of what is now Peru and South America during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, local natives extracted ores and worked copper, silver, gold and tin. Gold was taken “from the river and also from the mines” notes historian Franklin Pease. “The other metals commonly used in the Andes … came from digging mines, exploring caves … and from surface deposits, too.”

The word ‘Cotabambas’ itself means “pasture of mills” in Quechua. History tells us that minerals were milled here to extract gold and silver. Explaining the significance of the name, Cotabambas, Jorge Salas Peña, from the community of Ccalla, says, “In the old days, there was a mine. They processed gold here, and they milled corn. That’s why it is called Kutaq Pampa - and how it evolved into Cotabambas in Spanish.” No consensus exists, however, on the etymology of the name ‘Cotabambas’. The Aymara meaning is “pasture of lakes.”

Algunos hitos de la historia cotabambina

The most influential pre-Hispanic people of the region belonged to the Yanawara culture. In large part, they defined the Cotabambas culture, and their influence can still be seen today. Historian Víctor Angles says that the Quechua word ‘yanawara’ “comes from ‘yana’ and means ‘black’ and can also mean ‘lover’. And ‘wara’ is something a man would wear, like a triangular loincloth … Young men wore these to cover their private parts … The wara was given to young boys in a ceremony known as Warachikuy, which celebrated their transition from child to adult — and signified they were ready for war. … So ‘yanawara’ means … ‘black loincloth’.”

Researcher and musician Fred Arredondo says that this black loincloth is no longer used and today the typical dress of Cotabambas men looks more like sixteenth century Spanish military uniforms. Some oral histories, such as those collected by researcher Edmundo Montes Ataucuri, argue that this traditional dress, composed of natural coloured pants and a black jacket, is related to this myth: at the end of the sixteenth century, a Yanawara chief who had been charged with treason for attempting to reinvoke the pre-Hispanic gods and customs, escaped from captivity by transforming himself into a bird known as alccamari or caracara andino (Phalcoboenus megalopterus - an Andean falcon), whose adult plumage is white on the bottom and black on top.

The Language
of Cotabambas

There is precious little information about how the natives lived or what they believed. Peruvian history leaves that conversation pending. What is known, however, is that the ancient people of Cotabambas maintained ties, both through intermarriage and trade, with the Aymara people, with whom they bartered. They exchanged corn and medicinal plants for dried llama meat (charqui, or jerky), dried and processed potatoes (moraya) and grains known as cañihua. This was in the eleventh century, some 500 years before these Peruvians first saw a horse.

One day, the Yanawaras left their farms (chacras) along the ravines and climbed the hills and slopes to guard against attacks from the fierce Chanca warriors, a tribe that flourished in the region between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, according to historian Angles. High in the mountains, the Yanawara built entire towns such as the stone city of Markansaya in the Haquira district. They worshipped various gods, and their sacred animals were the snake, the condor and the puma. From there, “they worshipped their ‘apus’ and considered Mallmanya their guardian god,” says researcher Edmundo Montes Ataucuri in his Historia de Cotabambas (History of Cotabambas).

The sacred mountains - the apus - such as Mallmanya are considered supernatural beings. Perhaps the most prestigious in the region is Coropuna, located in Condesuyos province in the Arequipa region. Since ancient days, this mountain was the place where souls went after death. There, inside the snow-covered slopes, was “the village of the afterlife,” according to anthropologists, Ricardo Valderrama and Carmen Escalante, in their article, “Apu Qorpuna.” Getting to Coropuna was an odyssey for these souls. They had to go through villages of dogs, cats, chickens, guinea pigs and even cooking pots. They had to deal with the denunciation of the animals and the objects. The souls that reached their destination could then live in eternal peace, in a happy place free from the hardships of earthly life.

Practiced even in recent times, ancient rituals call for a “shepherd of souls” (a widower from the community, usually an older male) who is in charge of conducting funeral rites and checking that the soul of the dead reaches its destination within the mountain. For guidance, the shepherd reads the stars. Valderrama and Escalante recorded this account: “If the star goes quietly toward the west, the soul has reached Qorpuna [Coropuna].” The body is buried in one of the cemeteries that are distinguished by cairns, monuments of sacred stones that grow with the contributions of passers-by. “Our headstones are the cairns. Four or five paths will cross there, and the souls, while still there, accept the prayers of those who pass by,” says another testimony quoted by the authors.

Some Milestones in the History of Cotabambas


View from the Qaqa Cárcel jail, a seventeenth century prison located in the Rock of Soqyaqasa in the city of Haquira.


Circular chullpas are a part of the landscape in Markansaya.


A wind instrument in the shape of a bull, Challhuahuacho district.


Spirituality is an intrinsic part of village life in the area, as the stunning natural scenery that surrounds the villagers is their view of the world. In 1948, Cotabambas scholar, Edmundo Delgado Vivanco, said that, “it is the living apu in the landscape that gives life to the community, multiplies itself, and takes on maternal qualities that nurture the inhabitants.”

In this region, precious metals are associated with the mountains. There is a gold mine in Qochasaywas that was operated by the ancient peoples of the area. When the Incan Empire reached its heyday, it had already become a major collection centre for gold. Qochasaywas is in Grau province, specifically in the Progreso district, and is linked historically and culturally with Cotabambas. Even today, one can see infrastructure in the Progreso district from the beginning of the twentieth century (a mineral processing plant, for example) that affirms the abundance of riches in the area. This is also the area where Chabuca Granda, one of the greatest Latin American singers/songwriters of the twentieth century, was born. She used to poetically refer to her childhood as “between veins of gold.”

Lake-filled landscapes in Cotabambas, where pumas, condors and vicuñas reside. Huarccoy community protects the vicuñas. From time to time, they herd the animals into a chaku, a traditional, and harmless, wool-shearing ceremony. They shear the vicuñas, and then return them to the wild.


The Pasture of Lakes

The ancient province of Cotabambas had no less than 94 lakes; so it’s no surprise that in the Aymara language the name means “pasture of lakes.” Cotabambas is located between the High Andean Zone (4,000 to 5,000 metres above sea level) and, to a lesser extent, the Meso-Andean Zone (2,000 to 4,000 metres) and the Lower Andean Zone (1,000 to 2,000 metres). In the highlands, the vegetation is predominantly grassland.

Amongst the wildlife of the region are vizcachas (Lagidium peruanum - a type of chinchilla), various rodents as well as some predators such as the puma (Puma concolor - mountain lion) and the Pampas Cat (Leopardus colocolo). There are also partridges and pigeons and the occasional Andean Condor (Vultur gryphus).

A story collected a few years ago illustrates again how the Mallmanya mountain infuses the vitality of magical beliefs in the Peruvian Andes. In the story, a mythical figure appears: a bull, an animal brought to these lands by the Spaniards that became a symbol of prosperity. The story recounts a bull made entirely of gold escaping from Qochasaywas lake, next to the mine. He makes his way to the apu Mallmanya, the guardian god. Rodolfo Sánchez Garrafa, a researcher in the area, said, “It is certain that the bull escaped from the Qochasaywas lake … and they tried to catch him … but they couldn’t stop him, and the bull turned towards Mallmanya. He sparkled, the golden bull, and people saw him.”

Interestingly, the bull - not native to these lands - was immediately incorporated into Andean culture. (Cattle arrived in Peru in 1539 and the first bullfight on Peruvian soil was held in 1540.) For the people of these times, the bull represented “the personality of an ancient, revered being - the Amaru,” according to Valderrama and Escalante. Dictionary researcher Phillip Jacobs says that ‘amaru’ signifies, “Snake, a huge serpent, an anaconda.”

Some Milestones in the History of Cotabambas

Another resident of the area, also cited by Sánchez Garrafa, recalls the following:

Es interesante anotar que, pese a no ser natural de estas tierras, el toro fueinmediatamente asimilado por la cultura andina (el ganado vacuno llegó alPerú en 1539 y la primera corrida de toros en suelo peruano se realizó en1540). Para los habitantes de ese tiempo, el toro representaba “la personalidadde un ser anterior a él y venerado, ‘el Amaru’”, como indican Valderramay Escalante. Según el diccionario compilado por Philip Jacobs, amaru significa“culebra; serpiente; serpiente grande; anaconda”.

Mallmanya is rich, much more so since the bull from the Qochasaywas gold mines came to the lakes, to Suyruqocha and Waskhaqocha. … They say that a miner threw a crowbar at the giant bull … and it broke off one of his horns, and that horn alone weighed two or three quintales (a quintal is about 100 kilograms). When the villagers tracked the bull by following his hoof prints, they found that his excrement was also gold. Many died trying to follow the bull.

This mythical creature is related not only to prosperous mining but also to success in livestock breeding, another activity that has taken place in the area for many centuries.

Potatoes and Chuño

The supernatural aspect of these stories resides not only in the bull, of course, but also in the lakes. Indeed, many Andean villagers believe that a lake could be either “male” or “female”. One lake could, in fact, be “married” to another. For example, the lake in Qochasaywas is “female” and is “married” to Qaqansa lake in neighbouring Chumbivilcas in the Cusco region. The exchange of water between the married lakes causes one of the most anticipated events in the lives of all farmers: the rainy season, which begins in this area in November or December and lasts until April.

During the rainy season, the rivers rise. In April or May, the rains end and the dry season begins. This is when area farmers begin their harvests because between June and August, freezing cold begins in earnest. Temperatures during one day can fluctuate up to 15 degrees Celsius. It is an extreme climate. Winter, however, is the time when locals take advantage of the cold to produce an essential food ingredient: chuño (a type of freeze-dried potato product).

If a visitor to Cotabambas finds himself along the banks of a lake or river in the winter when the sun goes down, he may hear someone preparing chuño and singing a song in an Andean musical genre known as huayno. Huaynos can be happy but are frequently melancholic, and the lyrics often include references to the rivers. One of the traditional songs from the area says:

Apurímac River
abundant river
ccanmari casccanki
noccacc uchai pacacc.

Apurímac River
abundant river
you have been
the one who hides my sins.

There are twenty-six rivers in Cotabambas. Among the most important are the Ñahuinlla and the Challhuahuacho. “Along the northern boundary of Cotabambas is another major river, the Apurímac, which is full of wonderful fish,” writes Germán Stiglich in his book on Peruvian geography Geografía comentada del Perú (A Commentary on Peruvian Geography). In 1942, Peruvian writer José María Arguedas described the Apurímac (in Quechua, “the powerful one who speaks”) as having a voice “that can be heard everywhere. It flows along the bottoms of the deepest gorges imaginable … From the peaks, it looks like a white streak, twisting and turning, fixed and silent. But its deep sounds rise from the bottom of the immense ravine; it’s never quiet, and it’s like the song from the deepest abyss, born in the snow and ending in the jungle. … At times, the river is unseen, but the deep, eternal song it sings is always heard.”

The Andean Baroque

The first Catholic missionaries to arrive in Cotabambas were Augustinians who founded he Convent of Saint Augustine in 1570. It was the centre of Catholic evangelical work in the area. Nearly a century later, the “Andean Baroque” style of architecture began to flourish. It is a European architectural style with native-influenced decorations. “Andean Baroque” defined the appearance of the churches in southern Peru from the late seventeenth century until the last few decades of the eighteenth (from Arequipa in southern Peru to Potosi in Bolivia, including the Collao plateau). The Saint John the Baptist church in San Juan de Llac-Hua, in the Haquira district, is a clear example of this type of baroque style. The remodelling it underwent in 1778 included Andean Baroque elements. The church of Saint Peter of Haquira is also in this district. It was built at the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth century and then later remodelled using elements of the Andean Baroque style. The churches of Saint Martin of Tours, now in ruins; Saint Michael the Archangel in the Ccocha community; and the Apostle Saint James in the Patawasi community are other notable examples of this style of architecture and decoration, and testify to the importance of this religious centre under Spanish rule.


Carved inscription in the temple of San Pedro in Haquira that attests to the completion of construction in 1708, when the building was dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Construction began in 1671, in the baroque style, then popular in the southern Andes.

It’s no surprise, then, that in his book El río en el folklore (The River in local folklore), scholar Edmundo Delgado Vivanco has described the rivers as not simply necessary for Peruvians farming the highlands, but as “the music of their environment.” In the same book, he confirms that there are huaynos for the snow, the rain, the springs, the lakes and the rivers, and that many of them describe the same scene: a pair of lovers tries to cross the river, but one of them “tragically disappears in the rapids.” The following song, from the Tambobamba district and made famous by Arguedas, is a beautiful example:

The river of blood has brought
a lover from Tambobamba
only his tinya (a small hand-held drum made of leather) is floating,
only his quena (the traditional flute of the Andes) is floating …
and the woman who loved him
his beloved young woman
crying and crying
searching from the riverbank
only the tinya is floating
only the quena is floating.

One theory regarding why Andean music is frequently so melancholy is mentioned by Delgado Vivanco. According to this theory, in the olden days, the Incan government ordered the mobilisation and displacement of many villagers, including those in Cotabambas and the surrounding areas, creating a sense of displacement and alienation, a sense of being rootless. “The sickness caused by absence, the sadness, the pain all began in those horrible displacements that the rulers of the Tawantinsuyo, the Quechua word for the Incan Empire - forced on the villagers. … It seems that in general, this regime gave birth to this temperament that tore at the souls of the villagers.” Even in colonial times, when Peru was a part of the Kingdom of Spain, the people in these areas were grouped together into what came to be known as “Indian Reductions.” During the War of the Pacific, which pitted Peru against Chile in the late nineteenth century, many long-time residents of the area were forced to leave their homelands in order to fight on the battlefields.

The sadness of huayno can invoke great beauty. Arguedas, himself born in Apurímac and widely considered to be the greatest indigenous Peruvian writer, called huayno “throughout all of history, the voice and the most legitimate expression of native and mestizo Peruvians.” The Incan Empire played a significant role in the region, which is obvious in the sensitivity and spirituality of the inhabitants.

“In Inca times, Cotabambas, as the birthplace of minerals, was the socioeconomic base of the Empire,” said researcher Montes Ataucuri. The ancestors of the current inhabitants were absolute experts regarding metals. In addition to the Yanawara, there were also the Cotapampas or Kutaqpampa, who were probably the most experienced in extracting gold, silver and copper from the earth.

Around the region, there are still remains of batanes (large grinding stones) where recently extracted minerals were ground. There is also evidence of earthen stoves called wayras whose walls, said Ataucuri, “were vented so that air could get in to fan the fires. The fires used either coal or llama dung as fuel.” In his sixteenth century Crónica del Perú (Chronicle of Peru), Spanish chronicler Pedro Cieza de León wrote the following about the Kutaqpampa: “The Incas recognised the value of the work the goldsmiths were doing, and moved the very best of them to Cuzco and other important centres.”

The history of pre-Hispanic Peru is a story of war and submission, and the ancestors of the Cotabambinos were a part of it all. The Yanawara kingdom, for example, by “subjecting neighbouring tribes to war and submission, consolidated their stranglehold on much of what is now Cotabambas,” said Montes Ataucuri.

Arequipa writer César Vásquez Chávez, in his Historia del Perú (History of Peru), said, “The Yanawara, in their march from Cotabambas (Apurímac) towards the coast, left their mark not only through the route that exists even today, but mainly through the colonies or enclaves they left on their way to the ocean … in present-day Caylloma province in Arequipa, behind the Chachani volcano.” That is, the ancient inhabitants of the area swept through the region that today we call Arequipa, in southern Peru.

Montes Ataucuri says that before the Yanawaras, the Pucarás came to Cotabambas seeking access to resources they lacked in their homeland on the Collao plateau (in modern-day Puno). This occurred in the so-called “Early Horizon” period, between 500 BC and 300 AD, long before the Inca Empire. “The Lords of Collao came because they had always experienced times of famine and drought. They would have come for … products, [and] medicinal plants,” said Emiliano García, a professor in Haquira in Cotabambas.

The pre-Hispanic panorama of the area, however, is not yet complete. “Since I am a rather logical person,” said professor García, “I have wondered who we are. They always used to tell us, ‘We are Chancas’ ... but the truth is, we aren’t. We are Yanawaras.”

The Chancas reached their peak between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries and settled, at least in part, in Apurímac. Historian María Rostworowski says the Chancas increased their geographical reach faster than even the Incas in Cusco. “Chanca expansion was on an upward path, and it inevitably had to clash with the interests of the Incas,” she wrote in her Historia del Tahuantinsuyu (History of the Inca Realm). And in this conflict the people of Cotabambas would play a central role, as will be seen.

The Incas were interested in expanding their dominance over lands they called Contisuyo (The Western Region). It was an extensive area that covered modern-day Cotabambas and its surrounding villages and more.

It’s the fourteenth century. Mayta Capac, the Incan ruler, has just died. Capac Yupanqui, his eldest son, has taken the throne. After the celebratory feasts and songs, the new ruler and Son of the Sun decided to travel to Huanacaure Mountain in Cusco. He wants to make a sacrifice, and Huanacaure is the apu and oracle. Aware of his trip, the Contisuyo kingdoms decide to intercept the new ruler and start a war. They know that the Incas are, in time, determined to conquer them; but Capac Yupanqui has been advised of the situation. And so he waits.

Huáscar and Atahualpa in Cotabambas

In the last days of the Inca Empire, there was a major battle in Cotabambas that Spanish chronicler, Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa, recorded lasting from dawn until dusk. Huáscar and Atahualpa, brothers who fought to the death for the throne, led their troops against each other at the Cotabambas River bank. Finding themselves in a weak position, Atahualpa’s troops retreated across the river. Huáscar, pleased with his apparent victory, made a mistake that would ultimately cost him dearly: he decided against pursuing Atahualpa. The very next day, Atahualpa and his men attacked.
Sarmiento de Gamboa reported that Atahualpa’s troops began to slaughter Huáscar’s warriors, finally reaching a narrow suspension bridge. Many of Huáscar’s men decided they preferred to leap into the water below and drown.
Another version tells it differently: during the retreat, Atahualpa’s men cut down the bridge! In this way, they forced their enemies to change their route of withdrawal, leaving them open to an ambush.
The Chaka P’iti (in Quechua, ‘broken bridge’) was one of the most famous suspension bridges in Cotabambas and was fabricated of fibres from the agave plant. There were also wooden and stone bridges in the area. Garcilaso de la Vega mentioned a suspension bridge made of agave crossing over the Apurímac River that was “the longest of them all, 200 steps long … I saw many Spaniards as they rode by on horseback.”

“And before too long, the clashes and the battles began, and they went on for a very long time, and they fought bravely,” wrote chronicler Cieza de León, adding, “But at last, the Contisuyo were conquered and suffered many deaths amongst them.” The remaining Contisuyo warriors, meanwhile, returned to Cotabambas to regroup. They sought revenge. Cieza de León added, “Even though the Contisuyo fought valiantly until they could fight no more, they were defeated a second time and suffered some six thousand deaths. Those who escaped fled to their homelands.”

Capac Yupanqui pursued those who fled and attacked them relentlessly. Like many other peoples in the region, they were finally forced to recognise him as Lord. Although there were new uprisings in the following decades, the lands that are now Cotabambas and the surrounding areas were incorporated into the Incan Empire.

Even today in Cotabambas, there are vestiges of the network of roads called ‘Qhapaq Ñan’ - the Inca Trail. According to professor Montes Ataucuri, the roads are found near the town of Ccarancca and also between Cusco and Qochasaywas. Jorge Merino, former minister of Energy and Mines of Peru, says that one of the roads passed through Tambobamba, the current capital of Cotabambas, and that a shelter for travellers and messengers - a ‘tambo’ - had been built there.

Some Milestones
in the History of Cotabambas

Some time after the events described above, many ancient Cotabambas residents, already part of the Incan Empire, fought side by side with the Incas - against the fearsome Chanca warriors.

As mentioned before, the Chancas were able to hinder expansion of the Incan Empire. Around 1438, some 20,000 Contisuyo warriors joined the Inca in a final confrontation with the Chanca warriors. After the victory, the site of the battle - now in present-day Cusco - would come to be called Yawarpampa or “pampa of blood” in Quechua.

The encounter between Europe and the Americas in the sixteenth century brought about the disappearance of the Tawantinsuyo and resulted in major changes for the inhabitants of the area. Montes Ataucuri affirmed that starting in 1571, more than a hundred pre-Hispanic settlements from Cotabambas were organised in fifteen colonial reductions.

Precious metals were one of the primary interests of the Spaniards. “The first years of the conquest were a greedy scramble for the riches of the Inca Empire,” says the scholar, Mario Samamé Boggio, in his book, El Perú Minero (Mining Peru). “Only when the plundering of the temples, the palaces and the tombs began to show signs of exhaustion did the Spaniards begin to consider the mines.” It was the beginning of colonial mining in Peru.

The previously mentioned gold mine at Qochasaywas, for example, was linked via the Inca Trail to Cusco during the Inca Empire era. Its exploitation continued. By 1640, it was being worked by Portuguese miners, but in 1642, the Lima tribunal of the Inquisition expelled them from Peru. The mine fell into neglect. Almost 250 years later, it was “rediscovered” by another Portuguese man named Rodríguez. In the early twentieth century, the Cotabambas Auraria company was managing mine operations and used the flat plain at Huanacopampa, in modern-day Challhuahuacho in Cotabambas, as an airstrip, turning the plain into one of the first air fields in Peru.

The previously mentioned gold mine at Qochasaywas, for example, was linked via the Inca Trail to Cusco during the Inca Empire era. Its exploitation continued. By 1640, it was being worked by Portuguese miners, but in 1642, the Lima tribunal of the Inquisition expelled them from Peru. The mine fell into neglect. Almost 250 years later, it was “rediscovered” by another Portuguese man named Rodríguez. In the early twentieth century, the Cotabambas Auraria company was managing mine operations and used the flat plain at Huanacopampa, in modern-day Challhuahuacho in Cotabambas, as an airstrip, turning the plain into one of the first air fields in Peru.

During the colonial era, Spanish authorities used the same term as the Incas for a periodical compulsory system of mining work: ‘mita’. Cotabambas, for example, sent manual labourers to quicksilver mines (or mercury mines). Many Cotabambinos worked in the Santa Barbara mine in the Huancavelica region. A document from 1796 confirms this practice, listing “55 Indians that will work in the Royal Quicksilver Mine in the town of Huancavelica on behalf of Cotabambas.” The colonial mines were unsafe and dangerous. Professor Emiliano García said that many Cotabambinos left the area to avoid working in the mines; others paid to be excused from the mita.

It would be several centuries before the word “mining” began to have positive associations.

In 1821, Peru declared its independence from Spain, beginning the Republican Period. In 1824, in Ayacucho in the central highlands of Peru, the battle marking the end of Spanish colonial rule occurred. According to researcher Fred Arredondo, in the battle of Ayacucho, there was a battalion of Cotabambas residents. “Those [Cotabambinos] who returned victorious held bullfights and huge parties.”

Some Milestones
in the History of Cotabambas

History, however, did not remain quiet.

Declaring war on Peru in 1879, southern neighbour Chile began “The War of the Pacific.” During the conflict, many Cotabambas residents fought on distant battlefields, and many were recognised for their heroic efforts and bravery. This reinforced an idea that even today makes its inhabitants proud: Cotabambas is one of the most patriotic provinces in all of Peru. One of these Cotabambas men was Sergeant Antonio Ccasani, who fought in the ground campaign alongside the courageous “Wizard of the Andes,” General Andrés Avelino Cáceres, whose brave army was armed with sticks instead of cannons and rifles. Wrote Edmundo Montes Ataucuri:

They say that in the patriot squads, they got used to moving behind llamas, which were placed ahead of them as a shield … Using the animals as a barrier, the men fighting with Cáceres would march behind. This strategy helped them defeat the enemy.

Additionally, various communities in the area formed their own units and joined the “Zepita” battalion, formed by residents of Cusco. There is a reason for this: until 1873, Cotabambas was part of the Cusco region, and was much larger then than it is now. As will be seen, the political history of the area has had its ups and downs.

Cotabambas province was founded in 1825 by the government of General Simón Bolívar. In 1873, it was transferred from the Cusco region to the Apurímac region. A few years later, however, the province of Cotabambas disappeared. The name Cotabambas was eliminated in 1919 by the regime of then-president Augusto B. Leguía. The province was renamed ‘Grau’, inanswer to the assassination of Rafael Grau, which had happened two years earlier. Rafael Grau was the son of Admiral Miguel Grau, Peruvian hero of the War of the Pacific. Rafael was seeking re-election as governor of Cotabambas. In his book, Grau o Montesinos en la Historia (Grau or Montesinos in History), Professor Waldo Valenzuela Zea tells the story of how Cotabambas was made to “disappear”:

It was Rafael Grau’s project to change the capital from Tambobamba (capital of modern-day Cotabambas) to the city of Chuquibambilla. His political rival was Santiago Montesinos, who wielded great personal and familial influence in Tambobamba. When Grau announced his visit to Apurímac, the Montesinos family armed people it trusted. … The Montesinos group then intercepted Grau in Palccaro and there followed a gunfight, resulting in the death of Rafael Grau … The news … caused a shockwave throughout Lima and Cuzco.

After Grau’s death, the Leguía government paid tribute to the fallen politician by renaming the region in his honour. Cotabambas province became Grau province. This situation lasted until 1960, when Cotabambas reappeared with its current borders and Grau became an adjoining province with its capital in Chuquibambilla.

Santiago Montesinos, Grau’s political rival, belonged to a family in Cotabambas that owned huge estates such as Pamputa, Ollabamba and Matalla. The Montesinos family, together with other families, were part of the phenomenon called Gamonalism (a Peruvianism coined in the nineteenth century). Partly the result of illegal and abusive activities, Gamonalism swept through Peru in the second half of the nineteenth century, leading to the concentration of lands, wealth and power in a small group of families. In some cases, they even “came to have their own armies,” as described by Gisselle Meza and Gonzalo Valderrama in their academic paper entitled Turupukllay: la corrida del señor gobernador (Turupukllay: The Lord Governor’s Bullfight).


Examples of traditional millstones from the Alarcon family in Arcospampa-Congota, Mara district. Until a few years ago, wheat and barley were milled here to make bread.

At La Despensa, August of 2015, ritual agricultural forecasting begins.


Workers using the chakitaklla, or footplow, an indispensable pre-Hispanic tool that is still used for farm work. Challhuahuacho district, 2007.

These so-called gamonales, however, were also engines of commerce and proponents of livestock culture. For example, the Orqontaki Hacienda, belonging to the Arredondo family of Haquira, at its peak consisted of seventeen thousand hectares of land where they raised some twelve thousand alpacas. One curious fact: in the 1940s and 1950s, raising white alpacas was encouraged in Orqontaki as sweaters made of alpaca wool had become fashionable - partly because U.S. singer and actor Frank Sinatra wore them regularly.

The Montesinos were “guitarists and were regarded as famous lovers, Don Juans of the region,” writes Valenzuela Zea. In Cotabambas and the surrounding areas, people still remember the parties the family used to throw. Several family members, especially siblings Aurelio (“Aulico”) and Alejandrino (“Alancho”) are today considered colourful characters, and have even become romantic legends in popular imagination. In their book Las elites cusqueñas (The Cusco Elites), José Tamayo Herrera and Eduardo Zegarra confirm that “Alancho was a bandit and romantic mountaineer.”

The Montesinos and other influential families were also involved in cattle rustling, although it was often understood as sort of a “sport.” Cotabambas professor Felipe Roldán says that many times they “did not steal out of necessity but as a hobby.” All of this contributed to the idea, in the early twentieth century, that the areas of Chumbivilcas, Grau and Antabamba were “wild lands.” There was a high level of violence associated with cattle rustling, which became a major problem. By 1988, when the terrorist group Sendero Luminoso (The Shining Path) appeared in the province, the situation looked bleak.

This, fortunately, did not last long.

Researcher Froilán Arredondo says that although there are still descendants of the gamonales in Cotabambas, the majority of the population votes for community residents or their offspring to be in positions of authority. “The last four mayors have been commoners,” he says. This empowerment is a growing trend and is important for a region that, until the latter part of the nineteenth century, saw most of its people mired in poverty. Professor Zenón Arredondo says that in those days, the majority of Cotabambas residents could not read or write. Until a few years ago, Cotabambas was an enclave of poverty. This is changing, little by little.

Ángel Villafuerte, journalist and resident of Cotabambas, says that compared to the other provinces in Apurímac, most locals remain on their lands and don’t necessarily think about migrating to larger cities. Since 2005, another factor has contributed to preventing migration. “Cotabambas appears to be a main player in the regional and national context with the presence of the Las Bambas mining project,” said Villafuerte. A new story is beginning to unfold.

After this tour of the area and a walk through the history of Cotabambas and its surroundings, visitors are likely to finish their trip and look back at it from that particular element of the Andean landscape, the mountain pass, which cuts through the mountain range. “The mountain pass is the last place from which you can see the beloved village and the winding streets, searching anxiously and in vain for the lover left behind,” writes Edmundo Delgado Vivanco. This is also mentioned in this beautiful folk song from Cotabambas:

Look for me then with your lovely little eyes
the mountain pass through which I have to go
and when finally you cannot find me
you’ll say that I’ve gone because you made me suffer.

In the mountain pass through which I’ll go
the ferns are growing
why would they have grown
to pull me away now.

The view towards Tambobamba from Porotopampa, site of the t’ikapallana festival. In the distance is the capital of Cotabambas.


“To see our village from a mountain pass, from a summit where there are stone saywas (tall columns of stones built by an Andean priest to represent his power) and play the quena (Andean flute) or the charango (a stringed instrument, much like a lute), perhaps even the rondin (a wind instrument), to play a huayno upon arrival. To see our village from above, to see her white limestone tower, to watch the red roofs of the houses on the hillside, in the mountain or in the valley, the roofs shine with their broad stripes of limestone; to see the heavens over the village, the black hawks and killinchos (falcons), sometimes even the condor who spreads his massive wings to the wind, to hear the crowing of the roosters and the dogs barking as they guard the corrals. And to sit for a while at the summit to sing for joy.”
Yawar Fiesta by José María Arguedas,
writer from Apurímac.

Chabuca Granda

María Isabel Granda y Larco was born on 3 September 1920, in a gold mining settlement near Qochasaywas lake in Grau province, formerly a part of Cotabambas. Known as Chabuca Granda, she is widely recognised as one of the greatest Latin American singer-songwriters. About her birth, she said: “I have seen the light so close to the Incan sun, at 9:30 on a sunny morning, between veins of gold, love and sacrifice. ... There was I born, and so I am, then, a proud sister of the condors, born so high that I used to wash my face with the stars ...” Her father, Eduardo Antonio Granda San Bartolomé, was a mining engineer. Chabuca Granda moved to Lima at three years of age, where she began her musical career. Her compositions such as “La Flor de la Canela” or “Fina Estampa” are considered essential compositions in the Latin American songbook. Her song “El Dueño Ausente” is dedicated to Aurelia Canchari, a fellow native of the area where she herself was born.


Chabuca Granda in her early childhood with her parents, Eduardo and Isabel Larco, along the edge of Qochasaywas lake in Progreso district. Teresa Fuller, her daughter, says her mother spoke Quechua with her childhood friends and was completely at home in the high Andes.