<< 16: A Bolívar Letter || 18: A Pilgrimage to Ayacucho >>
Bolívar's victory at Junín took place on August 6, 1824, on a high plateau of the Peruvian Andes, at an altitude of
over 13,500 feet. This decisive battle in the wars of independence in Spanish America was fought with lances and
sabers by mounted troops-not a single shot was fired.
Scarcely four months after Junín, on December 9, 1824, Bolívar's army, under his most able lieutenant,
General Sucre, again defeated the Spaniards at the Battle of Ayacucho, which liberated Perú, and consummated the
independence of all the South American colonies. One hundred years later, on the occasion of the celebration by
Perú of the Centennial of the Battle of Ayacucho, Dr. Vicente Lecuna and I were invited, as special guests of the
Peruvian Government, to visit the battlefields of Junín and Ayacucho. This narration concerns only the trip to
We left Lima by train at six o'clock in the morning bound for the village of La Oroya 130 miles away and
perched 12,300 feet high in the Peruvian Andes, where Cerro de Pasco Copper Corp. (now Cerro Corp.) operated a
smelter. We arrived eleven hours later.
During our journey we marveled as much at the magnificence of the forbidding mountain scenery as at the
prodigious engineering of the line, the highest standard gauge railroad in the world, which climbs within a few
hours from sea level to cross the Andes at an altitude of over 16,000 feet.
At La Oroya we transferred to a mining train and headed north for Cerro de Pasco, 80 miles away, and
our destination for the night. The village of Cerro de Pasco, site of the mining company's operations, is situated at
an altitude of 14,300 feet on a "knot" of the Andes where three branches of the mountains converge, to separate
again into two ranges further south.
Upon our arrival we were greeted by a-delegation headed by the Mayor, and escorted to a small building,
where a reception and a delightful dinner in our honor awaited us on the second floor. It must be admitted that the
sudden change from sea level to the rarefied atmosphere of 14,000 feet, as well as the long train trip, had
thoroughly exhausted us, and we were gasping for breath as we climbed the steep steps of the rickety wooden stairs
to the second floor. However, the warm welcome of our hosts, the champagne toasts and the excellent dinner soon
dispelled, our discomfort, and after the last toast we were shown to our quarters for the night. These consisted of a
large bedroom which, to counteract the frigid temperatures at that altitude, had an installation similar to that of a
Turkish bath, its four walls being covered almost from floor to ceiling with horizontal pipes carrying hot water.
In spite of the comfortable beds and the well-heated room we enjoyed no rest that night, because Dr.
Lecuna suffered an acute attack of Soroche.(1) In my efforts to alleviate the anguish of my companion, I was unaware
that a snowstorm was raging outside, propelled by a 50-mile an hour gale which piled snow drifts several feet high
against our lodgings. On leaving our quarters early the next morning, we were amazed to discover a native soldier
outside our door, sleeping soundly wrapped in a blanket and almost completely covered by snowdrifts. Apparently,
as we were official guests of the Government, the local authorities had provided us with a sentry.
After the events of the past twelve hours at Cerro de Pasco, our admiration for the Liberator knew no
bounds. This village had been chosen by Bolívar as the meeting point of his armies, which, coming from the
coastal ranges and from Trujillo, some 600 miles away, had to traverse the Andean passes along three different
routes. We could not help being amazed at the herculean effort and remarkable organization which had been
required to transport unscathed nearly 8,000 troops, with their mule trains of foodstuffs and heavy impedimenta,
over the most inhospitable and rugged mountain terrain in the world, at altitudes of over 15,000 feet. After an early
train ride (of about 40 miles south of Cerro), we reached Junín that morning, an enormous bleak plateau, (13,500
feet high), destitute of trees and vegetation. It is covered on one side by a lagoon, to the south of which the battle
took place, and bordered by distant hills covered with patches of snow. That it had been possible, with the
primitive mule trains of a century ago, to transport an army to this deserted plateau and, moreover, to fight a
victorious battle in the rarefied atmosphere, was to us an incredible feat.
As our main purpose in visiting Junín was to try to reconstruct in situ the various stages of the battle, as
well as the positions occupied by the contending cavalry squadrons, we had brought with us the various accounts
written by participants in the combat. But the immense size of the plain and the lack of identifying topographical
features, except for the lagoon, made our task difficult, if not actually guesswork.
Because of the brief nature of this chronicle, we will give only a short description of the events that led to
the meeting of the contending armies at the battle of Junín.
In 1824 there were some 20,000 Spanish troops in Perú, of which about 4,000 were garrisoned in the
cities; "about 4,000 were in Cuzco with the Viceroy; 5,000 had been sent
by the Viceroy to Upper Perú (Bolivia) to quell a revolt; and the balance of about 7,000, under General Canterac,
were quartered in Jauja, about 100 miles south of Cerro de Pasco.
A few days before the battle, General Canterac had moved his troops from the high tableland north of
Junín to Carhuamayo (a village about 25 miles south of Cerro de Pasco). On the 5th of August, the day before the
battle, leaving the major part of his army behind, he advanced toward Pasco with his cavalry, to obtain information
on Bolívar's movements. Arriving there the same day, and finding that the patriot army had vanished, Canterac
hastily retraced his steps in an endeavor to elude Bolívar and seek shelter farther south.
Meanwhile, on the 3rd of August, Bolívar's army had left Pasco, marching southwest toward the small
town of Yaulí, through hilly country parallel to the plains of Junín to cut off the Spanish retreat. At four o'clock in
the afternoon, when his vanguard reached the crest of the hills overlooking Junín, the enemy was seen to be some
six miles away, in full retreat toward the south. An hour later Bolívar's riders reached the plain, with the sun
already low on the horizon.
General Canterac, seeing the cavalry squadrons of Bolívar, 900 strong, rushing down the hills through a
narrow defile and in a difficult position, instructed his own cavalry of 1,300 to attack the patriots before they had
time to form lines of battle on the plain. In less than one hour, until darkness fell, the Bolívar llaneros, ably
seconded by a Peruvian cavalry squadron, armed with lances ten to eleven feet long (the Spanish lances measured
only six to seven feet), decided the battle in favor of the patriots and destroyed the careful formation of the enemy
squadrons, cutting them to pieces.
The enemy losses were 12 officers and 245 soldiers killed, a great number wounded, and many desertions;
while Bolívar's army suffered only 45 dead and 99 wounded. Very few of the wounded on either side survived the
freezing temperatures of that night.(2) The patriots collected an enormous booty in arms and impedimenta, as well as
80 prisoners and 400 saddled horses. The enemy cavalry was reduced by one-third, and its infantry suffered a great
number of desertions, with much equipment being abandoned in flight.
After his victory Bolívar issued the following proclamation, dated at Huancayo, August 15, 1824:
Peruvians!.... The Canterac Army has received a mortal blow at Junín, having lost one-third of
its forces and all of its moral strength ....
"Peruvians!.... Soon we will visit the cradle of the Peruvian Empire and the Temple of the Sun.
On the first day of its liberty Cuzco will have more joy and glory than under the golden rule
of the Incas!
Upon leaving the battlefield of Junín, we called to mind the inspiring words of the poet:
Hail, Sacred Plain!
Harbinger of the Freedom
Of a Continent!
1. Soroche is a mountain sickness similar in some respects to seasickness in that one
experiences discomfort and severe nausea. But it is worse because of two added symptoms: an
excruciating headache and a feeling of suffocation because of the rarefied air.
2. After the battle, as the baggage had not yet arrived, Bolívar and his officers had to
sleep on the bare ground in a corner of the plain at the foot of the hills; his army did likewise,
spending the night on the pampa next to the battlefield.
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