South America is a continent of geographic extremes. There we find the largest tropical rain forest on the planet and the driest desert, and on its west an entire coastline, from Patagonia to the shores of the Caribbean, is dominated by the uninterrupted and spectacular drama of the cordillera of the Andes.

To say that this is the longest cordillera on earth doesn’t convey its true dimensions. But when we realize that if we lay its 8,500 kilometers along other latitudes and parallels it would stretch from San Francisco to London, from Paris to Beijing, or from Melbourne to Tokyo, we begin to appreciate its grandeur.


Because of the chain's extraordinary length, a large portion of the inhabitants of Spanish America lives in its shadow or on its slopes. In short, many of South America's diverse peoples live by the grace of, or despite, the Andes.

When I began my journey on January 1, 1995, I planned to travel the cordillera from south to north, to learn its caprices, its generosity, its harshness. I wanted to experience in all its dimensions the childhood companion that had opened horizons to my imagination.

More than a journey undertaken for adventure, this was a quest for identity, something that is a major concern for many of us Latin Americans. We are not European, but neither are we all indigenous, and our countries have not yet had time to amalgamate in any definitive way the cultural diversity bequeathed us by history. Which is why the geographical excesses of our continent often are transformed into a point of reference, and our very identity derived from them.

I was born in the Andes, in the colonial city of Cuenca, Ecuador. The mountains have been my lifelong companions, and I still make my home at their feet. To those of us who are their children, they are alive. We listen to them, learn to read their moods and respect their power. Sometimes they welcome us with their solid embrace. Other times they shake with fury and we know to stay away. Still sacred to some, they speak to the souls of all, reminding us how vulnerable we are. There are millions of us, brown, white, mestizo and mulatto, and we have all labored to help build this continent of sadness, magic, and irrepressible hope.

Pablo Corral Vega

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