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ANY statement regarding Peru implies a contrary statement equally valid. Contrast is its characteristic quality, true as to the general aspects of the country and ramifying through remote details. It is the obvious point of view from which to study Peru.
The three parts of this book — the desert, the mountains, the jungle — are the three natural divisions of the country. The shore is a long, narrow desert, much diversified. In a fertile valley intersecting it lies Lima, The City of the Kings. The river has come from the Andes, on whose lofty tablelands, called jalca in the north and puna in the south, flourished remote civilizations filled with mystery. Beyond the mountain barrier lies the jungle, geographically the largest portion of Peru, and like all other jungles a region of dread and fascination.
Peru is a low country lying under a mild sky; but above are the mighty Andes freezing under arctic blizzards. The desert is barren for lack of rain; beyond the mountains, the over-productive jungle is saturated with tropical downpours. Along the shore thunder-storms are unknown; up on the icy tablelands of the cordillera, whose volcanoes are sealed with snow, lightning rips open the mountainsides. Fire splits, and water smooths. Mists are strong enough to magnify and the sky is clear enough to do so. The puna is a land of brutal elements, yet there is found the little chinchilla, protected with softest fur.
On the coast, overhead calm is counterbalanced by subterranean fury. "All geological phenomena are still in active operation," the shore rising, earthquakes changing the face of the earth, and underground rivers dodging beneath a desert sterile for want of the water which they are hurrying off. The people who live in this country of volcanoes and earthquakes feed on red peppers.
If lack of water prevents the heat of the sun from making the desert productive, so cold prevents water upon the mountain plains from encouraging vegetation. In the jungle luxuriance of all growth conceals any single benefit. Nature erects barriers everywhere. She has surrounded her richest gifts with almost insurmountable difficulties. Fertilizers come from the desert, a realm of death. Mines of the Andes coldly hoard their riches under a life-sucking atmosphere. Agassiz said: "An empire might esteem itself rich in any one of the sources of industry which abound in the Amazon valley." But these are inaccessible from their very quantity, and they shut in beneath them a fever-laden air. Where there is most fertilizer, the land is most barren; where there are most precious metals, it is most incapable of supporting human life; where richest, it is most difficult to cultivate.
Such is Peru. Elements and forces contrast; each combats each, and all attack man. Nature wars against herself: tropic heat, arctic cold, heavy, poisonous jungle mists, thin air of the mountain-tops; scorching dryness, reeking wet.
Even obstacles contrast in Peru. Man is threatened everywhere by elements, by insects. He drowns here or dies of thirst there. He can even be overcome by cold or sunstroke in the same place.
Peru is a land of violent extremes. It has a range of mountains as great as any in the world. The towering peaks are too high to climb. Far above circles the condor, the largest bird in the world. Peru is the source of the world's greatest river system, whose luxuriant forests are too thick to penetrate. The only representatives of a lost geological age inhabit them, as well as the biggest snakes and the smallest birds. Peru has great mineral deposits in the mountains; it also has rubber in the forests. Wool is produced on the frozen plains, and chocolate in the deep gorges lost among them. And from the valleys intersecting the desert come cotton and sugar-cane.
All kinds of obscure substances are found in this versatile country, ipecac and cochineal, cocaine and vanadium. Not unlike the rest of the world, chill here produces fever, but quinine, the best remedy for the disease of contrast, comes also from the forests of Peru.
Although nature is a supreme fact, its natural history is not the whole of Peru. And contrast as a method of interpretation does not fail for its other aspects. Though man seems to play so small a part, he has lived here since antediluvian animals wandered among coal forests on the Andes. To the charm of limitless nature is added the mystery of great peoples destroyed before they were known. The riches of the Incas and of the glittering, vice-regal Spanish days, when continents were found, taken, and explored, contrast with present poverty. Consistently throughout, the riches of Peru have impoverished it...
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