The Discovery of Juanita, the Ampato Maiden

The mummy of the teenage Inca maiden, now christened Juanita, is one of the most important archaeological finds of the last few decades in the Americas. The first frozen female found from the pre-Columbian era in the Andes, her body, packed in ice and thus not desiccated like most mummies, preserved a wealth of information about her culture and life.

Juanita was discovered at the summit of the Ampato volcano in September 1995 by the American anthropologist Dr. Johan Reinhard, the National Geographic explorer-in-residence. She immediately became news around the world. Reinhard, who had spent 2 decades looking for clues in the volcanoes of the western Andes near Arequipa, was working on a project co-sponsored by Arequipa's Catholic University of Santa María and was accompanied by Carlos Zárate, a locally famous mountaineer who for years has run one of the best mountain-climbing-expedition tour companies in Peru. Juanita had been remarkably preserved in ice for more than 500 years, but hot ashes from the eruption of the nearby Mount Sabancaya volcano melted the snowcap on Ampato and collapsed the summit ridge, exposing what had been hidden for centuries. Reinhard and Zárate at first saw only the feathers of a ceremonial Inca headdress. It took the two men 2 days to descend the peak with the 80-pound mummy, fighting against time to conserve her frozen body and get her back to Arequipa and the Catholic University labs.

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Juanita was selected by Inca priests to be sacrificed as an appeasement to Ampato, whose dominion was water supply and harvests. The offering was almost certainly a desperate plea to stave off drought and starvation. Reinhard and his team later discovered two additional mummies, a girl and a boy, several thousand feet below the summit -- probably companion sacrifices leading to the more important sacrifice of the princess on Ampato's summit.

The mummy's incredibly well-preserved corpse allows scientists to examine her skin, hair, blood, and internal organs, and even the contents of her stomach. Her DNA makeup is being studied. Juanita was dressed in superior textiles from Cusco, clues to her probable nobility. Incredibly important was the fact that the ceremonial site was undisturbed, with all ritual elements in place, allowing anthropologists to essentially re-create the ceremony.

The peak of Apu Ampato was sacred to the Incas, and only priests were allowed to ascend to it. It is most extraordinary that the Incas were able to climb 6,000m (20,000-ft.) peaks without the assistance of oxygen or other modern climbing equipment. Juanita's transfer and sacrifice there, at the age of 13, was part of an elaborate ritual. Having first met with the Inca emperor in Cusco, she must have known her fate: an imminent journey to meet the mountain gods so revered by the Incas. Sacrifice was the greatest honor bestowed upon an individual. Led up the frozen summit by priests, in sandals and surely exhausted, she was probably made to fast and might have been given drugs or an intoxicating beverage before she was killed by a swift blow to her right temple. Scientists at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore examined the mummy with a CT scan that revealed a crack in the skull, just above the right eye, and internal bleeding.

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More than 100 sacred Inca ceremonial sites have been found on dozens of Andes peaks, although no mummies have been uncovered in the frozen condition of Juanita. Anthropologists believe that hundreds of Inca children might be entombed in ice graves on the highest peaks in South America from central Chile to southern Peru. The Incas believed that they could approach Inti, the sun god, by ascending the highest summits of the Andes. The mountain deities they believed to live there were considered protectors of the Inca people. Sacrifices were frequently responses to cataclysmic events: earthquakes, eclipses, and droughts.

Juanita and many of the ritualistic elements found at the ceremonial site are now exhibited at the Museo Santuarios Andinos. More information about the Mount Ampato expedition can be found at www.nationalgeographic.com.

Plaza de Armas 

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Arequipa's grand Plaza de Armas, an elegant and symmetrical square of gardens and a central fountain lined by arcaded buildings on three sides, is the focus of urban life. Dominated by the massive, 17th-century neoclassical Catedral, it is perhaps the loveliest main square in Peru, even though its profile suffered considerable damage when the great earthquake of 2001 felled one of the cathedral's two towers and whittled the other to a delicate pedestal. The cathedral, previously devastated by fire and other earthquakes, has now been fully restored to its original grandeur and you'd never know an earthquake struck. The interior is peach and white, with carved arches and a massive pipe organ. The cathedral is open Monday to Saturday from 7 to 11:30am and 5 to 7:30pm, Sunday from 7am to 1pm and 5 to 7pm.

La Compañía, just off the plaza at the corner of Alvarez Thomas and General Morán, opposite the cathedral, is a splendid 17th-century Jesuit church with an elaborate (Plateresque) facade carved of sillar stone. The magnificent portal, one of the finest in Peru, shows the end date of the church's construction, 1698 -- more than a century after work began on it. The interior holds a handsome carved-cedar main altar, bathed in gold leaf, and two impressive chapels: the Capilla de San Ignacio, which has a remarkable painted cupola, and the Capilla Real, or Royal Chapel. Painted murals in the sacristy feature a jungle motif in brilliant colors. Next door to the church are the stately Jesuit cloisters, of stark sillar construction, now housing upscale boutiques (enter on Calle Morán). Climb to the top for good views of the city's rooftops and distant volcanoes. The church is open Monday through Saturday from 9 to 11am and 3 to 6pm; admission is free.

On the east side of the plaza at Portal de Flores 136 is the Casona Flores del Campo (tel. 054/244-150), the oldest house in Arequipa. Begun in the late 1500s but not finished until 1779, today it is in deplorable condition, having suffered through earthquakes and a lack of funds that have left it barely standing, and is now closed to the public for safety considerations.

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Photo Op: Yanahuara

One of the best views in Arequipa is from the elevated mirador (lookout point) in the tranquil suburb of Yanahuara just across Puente Grau. Next to the delightful Plaza de Yanahuara, with its tall palm trees and lovely gardens, a series of sillar stone arches beautifully frames the volcanic peaks of El Misti and Chachani. Across from the mirador is the Iglesia de Yanahuara, also built of sillar in the mid-18th century and featuring a splendid baroque carved facade and bell tower. The Plaza de Yanahuara, about a 25-minute walk up to Avenida del Ejército from downtown Arequipa, makes a very pleasant place to duck out of Arequipa's intense sun. A bar-restaurant on one side of the square, Tinto & Asado, Calle Cuesta del Olivo 318 (tel. 054/272-380), has a relaxing terrace with superlative views of El Misti and happy-hour drinks. Or visit the mirador after lunch at Sol de Mayo, just a few blocks south.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.