Juanita in Arequipa

I have been in Peru a week! I can’t believe it! In some ways it seems much longer and in others it is going by so fast! I’m currently in Puno, my fourth town in a week. Tomorrow, we will tour the floating islands of Lake Titicaca.

The last two days were spent in Arequipa, a relatively small town in the Southern Highlands. In the middle of the city is the beautiful Plaza de Armas filled with Palm Trees and lined by a large cathedral on one side. We spent both nights dining on the balcony above the plaza.

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My favorite thing about Arequipa, however, was Juanita.

Juanita is a 650 year-old body frozen in time. Given as an offering to the Inca gods somewhere between the ages of 10-12, she stayed buried in the frozen ground atop one of Arequipa’s highest peaks until the late ’90s. At that time, a nearby volcanic eruption melted the ground around her. She fell into a crater with her face exposed to the sun for about 9 days before archeologists found her. Her face is, therefore, dehydrated, but the rest of her body and hair were kept nearly perfectly in tact. She now sits in a refrigerated glass case in the Museo Santuarios Andinos, where I met her.

Before we met Juanita, we watched a video about what human sacrifice meant to the Incan people. They explained how children were chosen because of their innocence and how she probably felt proud to be picked for this task. She would have also found comfort, the video said, in knowing she would now go live with the gods.

The video concluded by pointing out that, Inca gods aside, Juanita did do a great deed for her people by embodying and preserving the Incan history and story, and that she did have something she should feel extremely proud of.

A few minutes later as I looked at the shriveled little girl in the box, I couldn’t help feeling conflicted and sorry for her. As someone who has struggled with “perfection” and trying to live up to others’ expectations, I knew she had no choice, no matter how the video framed it. She was told that her entire people’s salvation depended on her death. A death that included hiking to freezing cold and extremely thin air, drinking intoxicating drugs, and receiving a deathly blow to the head. She had to do it.

She would have died knowing that her parents and people were proud of her. And that may have been enough. I wish she could have known that she would continue to impact people, including me, a half century later.

Thank you for your sacrifice, Juanita, although I wish you hadn’t had to do it.

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Pictures weren’t allowed in the museum, but here is a picture I found of her online.

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