The moving story of Juanita, the mountain-top mummy

The teenage girl’s remains were discovered near the summit of a 6,300m volcano.

She is thought to have been sacrificed by the Incas as an offering to bring rains and bountiful harvests.

There are many reasons to visit Arequipa, Peru’s picturesque third city, in the southern Andes. But perhaps the most haunting is Juanita, the young teenage mummy on display in a sealed, climate-controlled glass box at the Museum of Andean Sanctuaries (Museo Santuarios Andinos) there, and the incredible, moving tale of how she came to perish atop a 6,300m volcano. Thought to be between 11 and 15 years old, Juanita appears to have been killed by a massive blow to the head, an Inca sacrifice intended to bring rains and bountiful harvests.

Juanita was discovered in 1995 by Johan Reinhard, an archaeologist from Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, as he explored Ampato, a huge, dormant volcano some 60km from Arequipa. Frozen and exceptionally well preserved, her tomb had tumbled from the summit into the crater. She was in such a good state that scientists have even been able to discover that she had a last meal of vegetables between six and eight hours before her death. Her red and white Lliclla, or shawl, is now regarded as one of the finest examples of Inca textiles ever discovered. Subsequent searches of the area uncovered two more mummies, another teenage girl and a young boy. The latter’s remains had been badly charred by a lightning strike.

Human sacrifice was relatively rare among the Incas. When it was carried out, it was typically for a specific reason, such as to allay an intense drought — a far cry from the bloodthirsty Aztecs of Mesoamerica, or what is today Mexico, who routinely sacrificed slaves and prisoners of war, including even hundreds at a time. Of course, that won’t have made Juanita’s premature demise any less terrifying for her.

Equally, it is easy to understand why the Incas regarded the massive Andean mountains below which they lived as deities; and without understanding the effects of altitude, it also makes sense why the Incas would have regarded heading up a 6,000m summit as a trip into the supernatural, a place where it becomes impossible to even catch your breathe. Indeed, for the Incas to have summited such high peaks, without any of the modern specialist clothing or equipment used by mountaineers today, is an impressive feat. It also leaves us with a haunting question; what was Juanita thinking as she trudged up Ampato, ever higher and ever closer to the world of Inca deities, knowing that she was going to be joining them?

To visit Arequipa as part of your unique, individually tailored itinerary, contact the Peru Empire Company at or on +51-1-700-5100 or, if you are in the US, 347-713-7030/34.

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