Life and Death in the Andes: On the Trail of Bandits, Heroes, and Revolutionaries by Kim MacQuarrie

This mesmerizing history of the Andes Mountains smoothly brings colorful characters and outrageous stories to general readers.


Kim MacQuarrie (Last Days of the Incas) has long been fascinated by the vast region defined by the Andes Mountains. Having traveled and studied the length of these mountains, 4,500 miles of South America, he shares their stories in Life and Death in the Andes: On the Trail of Bandits, Heroes, and Revolutionaries.

Protagonists range over centuries and national borders, and include Pablo Escobar, the modern Colombian drug lord; Charles Darwin as an amateur naturalist in Ecuador’s Galápagos Islands; the 1980s Shining Path guerrilla movement in Peru; a teenaged girl sacrificed by the Incas in the 1400s; Che Guevara, making his final stand in Bolivia; and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, whose lives likewise end in Bolivia. MacQuarrie explores cultural conflicts with sensitivity, as in examining Hiram Bingham, the “discoverer” of the Machu Picchu ruins in Peru, who conveniently ignored earlier local knowledge of the site. Finally, MacQuarrie introduces the Yámana people of the southernmost points of Chile and Argentina, and meets with the last speaker of the Yámana language.

Life and Death in the Andes is captivating, its fascinating tales told with enthusiasm as well as careful research when dealing with relatively straightforward facts or with the story of “Juanita”–a young woman who lived in the 15th century–told as “an imaginative reconstruction based upon historical, ethnographic, forensic, and archaeological evidence.” This engaging history of dramatic stories and arresting characters is entertaining as well as informative, and its readability serves to recommend it widely.

This review originally ran in the December 22, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 8 coca leaves.

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