Yungay, City Lost

The cemetery in Old Yungay was a refuge for 92 survivors

The cemetery in Old Yungay was a refuge for 92 survivors

Visit the mountain town of Yungay, nestled against the highest mountains of Peru, and you will be hard pressed to find any elderly folk who can tell you of the town’s history.  That’s because none of them are left.  Nearly every Yungayano born before 1955 is buried in the shadow of Mt. Huascaran, where the old city used to be.  On May 31, 1970, Yungay fell victim to perhaps the most incredible mountain disaster in world history.  A magnitude 7.8 earthquake just off the coast of Peru induced a glacier collapse on the east slopes of Huascaran, some 1 mile wide and 3,000 feet tall.  The avalanche traveled up to 200 miles per hour, picking up rocks and mud, as it made its way toward unprotected Yungay, just 11 miles away.
Visit the mountain town of Yungay, nestled against the highest mountains of Peru, and you will be hard pressed to find any elderly folk who can tell you of the town’s history.  That’s because none of them are left.  Nearly every Yungayano born before 1955 is buried in the shadow of Mt. Huascaran, where the old city used to be.  On May 31, 1970, Yungay fell victim to perhaps the most incredible mountain disaster in world history.  A magnitude 7.8 earthquake just off the coast of Peru induced a glacier collapse on the east slopes of Huascaran, some 1 mile wide and 3,000 feet tall.  The avalanche traveled up to 200 miles per hour, picking up rocks and mud, as it made its way toward unprotected Yungay, just 11 miles away.
Old Yungay with Huascaran in the background (not my photo).  The avalanche descended from the rocky bands of the peak on the left.

Old Yungay with Huascaran in the background (not my photo). The avalanche descended from the rocky bands of the peak on the left.

Up until the incident it was a pleasant Sunday afternoon in Yungay.  Most of the town’s 22,000 people were at home listening to the first game of the World Cup on the radio, while some 300 children had packed the local stadium to watch the circus.  The 45-second quake was likely frightening, but the thunderous noise from the ensuing slide must have been horrifying.  The wall of ice, mud, and rock arrived just minutes later, burying everything in its path.  The only survivors were the 92 visitors at the elevated cemetery and the 300 children, who were at the stadium and outside of the avalanche’s path.  300 instantly orphaned children emerged from the disaster only to see miles of unsettled debris in their former town.  Their families and homes were now buried some 20 feet below.  Many survivors were trapped in mud, and earthquake damage prevented any outside help for several days to come.

Just four palm trees survived the devastating landslide

Just four palm trees survived the devastating landslide

A quick visit to present-day Yungay, and you might not even realize that such a tragedy took place here.  But probe around a bit, and you will soon realize that this town and surrounding communities still feel the effects of the avalanche of 40 years ago.  I met many of the surviving “children” who lost everything, some of them willing to share stories, others understandably standoffish.  My tour guide in the old town, a 15-year old historian, who was full of facts passed down from him, was giving tours because his surviving mother, could bear to share the first-hand stories herself.  While New Yungay has moved a few kilometers out of view of Huascaran, they still live and work in the avalanche’s path, and I wonder how she sleeps at night.

A bus surfaced after the 20 feet of mud settled

A bus surfaced after the 20 feet of mud settled

A visit to where Yungay used to be is an eerie experience, as you are walking above an accidental graveyard, with the most stunning views of scary Huascaran above.  Few structures survived, but you can still see the remnants of a bus, the edges of the church which traveled 100 meters, and four sturdy palm trees, which instantly lost 20 feet of stature.  Travel back to New Yungay, just a few kilometers away, but protected by an intervening mountain ridge, and you will find a pleasant town that exists just as any other in the High Andes.

My good friend to the right was just 10 years old when he was at the Yungay circus, and within three minutes of the earthquake, he was orphaned along with 300 other children

My good friend to the right was just 10 years old when he was at the Yungay circus, and within three minutes of the earthquake, he was orphaned along with 300 other children.

Children returned to place graves where they "think" their houses used to be, buried under 20 feet of sediment

Children returned to place graves where they "think" their houses used to be, buried under 20 feet of sediment

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7 responses to “Yungay, City Lost

  1. Jeff, That’s an amazing story of an unknown tragedy. How did the “children” survive?? Living in the mountains is both a beautiful and hazardous experience. We have a tale of an family swept away in an avalanche in the shadow of Mt. Washington in NH. They heard it coming and fled their home only to be swept away as the avalanche split, leaving their house untouched. Thanks for your stories of SA and its environment and people. I look forward to the book.

  2. who!!! que bonitas fotos tienes nos bemos hasta la proxima

  3. Te olvidastes mi nombre plop!!!

    • jaja. si no quiero usar tu nombre verdadero, pero yo puedo si quieres. Si, nos vemos pronto!

    • Hola Cristian. Hay un muchacho quien estan escribiendo un libro sobre los disastres y tal vez quiere tener una entrevista contigo si sea posible.

  4. I’m writing a book about disasters, and never knew that 300 kids survived at the circus, but I found a reference to it at Wikipedia too. How DID those kids survive. It sounds like an amazing story. The circus folk must have survived too.

    • Hi Graeme, Sorry about the late reply. I’ve been traveling in the last month without much access to internet. The circus was in a stadium, just outside of the avalanche’s path. The stadium is still intact. Cristian, a youth who is in this thread, was my guide and his mother was one of the survivors. I can’t figure out how to contact him. I believe he has my email, but I don’t have his! Cheers and good luck on your book.

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