The Day the Town of Yungay Disappeared

On May 31, 1970, when the most of the world was watching the Mexico–Soviet Union FIFA World Cup opening match, a nearly 8.0 magnitude earthquake jolted the Peruvian departments of Ancash and La Libertad. The 45-second shake turned an 83-sq-km area into a disaster zone, but it was the loosening of an estimated 50 million cubic meters of rock, ice and snow that broke away from the north face of Mt Huascarán that caused the most cataclysmic disaster in Andean history. The resulting aluvión (debris avalanche) barreled 15km down the mountainside at average speeds between 280km/h and 335km/h, burying the entire town of Yungay and nearly all of its inhabitants by the time it came to rest. An entire town, gone in three minutes.

The site of old Yungay (Yungay Viejo), Campo Santo is overseen by a towering white statue of Christ standing on a knoll above the town’s original, Swiss-designed cemetery, from where he overlooks the path of the aluvión. Ironically, it was this very cemetery that helped save the lives of 92 of the town’s residents, who had just enough time to charge up its steps and elevate themselves out of the path of the aluvión. Those, along with some 300 residents attending a circus at the town stadium, were the only survivors out of an estimated 25,000 residents.

Flower-filled gardens follow the solemn pathway of the aluvión, with occasional gravestones and monuments commemorating the thousands of people who lie buried beneath. At the old Plaza de Armas, you can just see the remains of the cathedral tower, what’s left of a crushed Expreso Ancash bus and four palm-trees that survived the onslaught (one of them remarkably still alive). A replica of the cathedral’s facade has been built in honor of the dead. Nearly every Yungayano born before 1955 is buried here in a grave dug by Mother Nature.

Vendors at the entrance draw your attention to a slew of before and after photos, which are well worth a look to gain some context of the absolute destruction of this disaster. The entire site has been declared a national cemetery and excavations of any kind are prohibited.