BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

18 June 2014
Accessibility help
Text only

BBC Homepage

Contact Us

Like this page?
Send it to a friend!


High Andes

The source of the Amazon

The source of the Amazon is a trickle of water coming off a cliff high in the Peruvian Andes. Although it has been known for centuries that the Amazon springs from the Andes' high glacial regions, identifying the particular peak where it is born has baffled explorers and scientists and is the subject of continued debate. A National Geographic expedition in 2000 pinpointed the precise location of the source as a spring of a tributary on a slope of Nevado Mismi: a mountain that towers at an altitude of 5597 meters in southern Peru.

Bruce Parry at the source of the Amazon

View the source of the Amazon slideshow.

Although there are claims for other tributaries to be the source of the Amazon (depending upon which criteria are used to measure the likelihood), Mismi is now most widely accepted as location of the true source - hence the decision that Bruce and the crew should start their journey at this point. By the time its journey ends in the Atlantic Ocean, the Amazon has not only become the world's largest river by volume but possibly also by length, depending on which exact point the river is considered to end, and the ocean to begin.

The Andes and Cusco

The highest mountain in the Andes stands at a mighty 6768 metres, or over five times the size of Ben Nevis. There are around 20 million people living on the Andes mountains, and living here means that people avoid the malaria and other diseases associated with the lower Amazon. However, the people of the Andes do have to contend with natural hazards such as landslides and earthquakes, and the high altitude results in extremely cold temperatures. Sometimes people suffer from breathing difficulties and altitude sickness because you take in less oxygen for each breath, and this can particularly affect visitors such as Bruce and the team because they aren't acclimatised to the lack of oxygen.

Cusco is a city in the Andes that the Inca called the "centre of the universe". It was here that Bruce and the crew prepared their kit before setting off. Until it was captured by the Spanish, Cusco was the capital of the Inca Empire that flourished in Peru from 1200 - 1533.

The Incas

Like the native Americans of North America, groups of people also lived in South America before explorers from Europe came to the continent. One of these groups was the Inca, who formed a large powerful empire in South America, which began about 800 years ago. In this empire, many tribes were united under one king, who ruled an area that, at its peak, covered the western part of South America from what is now Colombia to Chile, and which is dominated by the Andes. The Inca built settlements near the tops of mountains, farming the nearby land by cutting terraces into the slopes. Higher up in the mountains, the Inca herded llamas and alpacas.

Inca Sacrifice

The Inca believed that nature was controlled by the divinity of gods and goddesses, and that the sun god was the father of man. They built temples of huge stones and held sacred ceremonies involving human sacrifice, which are thought to have often involved the child of a chief. The sacrificed child was thought of as a deity, ensuring a tie between the chief and the Inca emperor, who was considered a descendant of the sun god. The honour of sacrifice was bestowed not only on the family, but was forever immortalized in the mummified child. In some cases children are thought to have been walled into shaft tombs whilst still alive, and it is believed that the sacrificial children had to be perfect, without so much as a blemish or irregularity in their physical beauty.

The Day of the Dead

The Day of the Dead, which Bruce and the crew experienced with a Quechua community in the Andes, is a festival celebrated by people throughout Latin American countries and communities, usually on the 2nd November. Highland Peruvians generally mark the ceremony by attending Mass and then heading to the cemetery, bringing food to share symbolically with the souls of the dead.

Day of the Dead

The date in early November corresponds with the Catholic celebrations of All Saints Day and All Souls Day, but the date also roughly corresponds with pre-Hispanic corn festivals during which food from a plentiful harvest was shared with the deceased. As such, the ceremony witnessed by Bruce is an example of cultural syncretism, where the symbolism and beliefs of two different religions are combined and people participate in more than one cultural belief system simultaneously. In some ways, Day of the Dead is comparable with the celebration of Halloween in the UK. Both of the celebrations occur at the same time of year (at the time of the traditional harvest festivals), both have a symbolism representative of the dead and both mark a Christian ceremony.


Farmers in Peru have cultivated the coca leaf since pre-Incan times. Coca leaves have long been used as a stimulant by the people of the Andes and have been venerated in the religious ceremonies of many Andean peoples. Unprocessed coca remains legal and popular as a herbal tea with mild stimulant effects and chewed leaves are also used as a breathing aid to combat the effects of altitude sickness.

Zubin with a bag of coca

European and North American manufacturers use coca in many patents for medicine, cosmetics and food, but most famously for coca-cola. The coca leaf is also the main ingredient of cocaine and the value of coca has soared with the demand for cocaine in the global market. As a result, various United States governments have vocally opposed the unrestricted cultivation of coca in the Andes because the leaf can be refined into cocaine destined for the recreational drug market, which is illegal in most countries. In Peru cocaine export is illegal and carries a prison sentence.

Altitude Sickness

Bruce and the team are at altitudes of 4700 metres in the Andes, which is about three and a half times the height of Ben Nevis, and altitude sickness can affect people at half this altitude. Sickness happens because the muscles and organs in the body need an adequate supply of oxygen to function properly and as altitude increases, the percentage of oxygen in the air remains constant but the pressure decreases, which means the team will breathe fewer oxygen molecules with each breath.

Mild symptoms, which all the team have suffered with, are tiredness, headache, nausea, and unsteadiness. Severe symptoms, which may take a day or two to appear, include vomiting, chest pains and shortness of breath. Coughing up frothy sputum is a sign that fluid is collecting in the lungs, while clumsiness and difficulty walking can occur if the brain swells. As long as the person remains at the same altitude, the symptoms will usually disappear within one or two days. If severe cases of altitude sickness aren't treated, fits, confusion and coma may follow.

Bruce helps to herd llamas in the High Andes

Llama and Alpaca

Llama and alpaca belong to a family called 'lamoids' that include the vicuña and the guanaco. While guanaco and vicuña live in the wild, all llama and alpaca are domesticated. Both natives of South America, llama and alpaca are friendly and placid, but if you make them cross, they will hiss, kick and spit. Spitting is the normal way that both animals express agitation but if they are happy, they will hum. The word llama means 'flame' in Spanish and is perhaps used due to the burning sensation caused by the acidic nature of the creature's spittle.

Alpaca are primarily used to provide wool, whereas llama are generally used as pack animals. Around the world, llamas have also been used as golf caddies, as animals for children's rides and as guard animals to protect sheep from marauding hounds.

Girls in traditional Quechuan costumes

The Quechua

Quechua language and culture are thought to have originated in central Peru around 1000 years before the rise of the Incas, long before the language was adopted as the official language of the Inca Empire. With the arrival of the Spanish came the drastic effects of European diseases and conflict upon Quechuan peoples. The Inca did not submit easily to the Spanish and armed resistance continued for 50 years after the Spanish conquest, and flared up again in 1770 in the rebellion of Tupaq Amaru II (still remembered proudly by both the Quechua and a certain American rapper).

A Quechuan woman in the High Andes

View the Ran Ran festival slideshow.

Those who speak Quechua as their first language are referred to as Quechua. However, most speakers, prefer to identify themselves as 'Runa': 'the people'. Rodolfo and his family, in whose house Bruce stayed near the source of the Amazon, are Quechuan speakers who use farming practices and material culture (such as the woven poncho give to Bruce) typical of Quechua in the High Andes.

In Peru, around one quarter of the population speak Quechua, and about a third of the Quechua speakers speak no Spanish. Today, the Quechuan social system is often based on reciprocating favours and traditional religious practices include the ritual use of coca leaf, such as the coca leaf ceremony held for Bruce to bless his journey.


« June 2008

Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
8 9 10 11 12 13 14
15 16 17 18 19 20 21
22 23 24 25 26 27 28
29 30          

To protect the security of the crew, blogs are posted on the site three to five weeks after they are sent

Rob Sullivan says

Rob Sullivan

"We've done it. We've reached the port of Belem, the gateway of the Amazon..."

Read more

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy