IT WAS NO SECRET that Bolívar wanted to take his war to the rest of South America. He had said as much in a promise to the New Granadans published months before. But time was slipping away; the rainy season was beginning and the skies were issuing a steady drizzle, miring the plains in mud. If the Spaniards had thought Bolívar would try to fulfill his promise, they certainly did not think he would do it now. Only a fool would attempt that journey when rivers became seas, valleys disappeared under lakes, and the Andes grew slick with ice, impassable. He confided his plan to two of his most trusted generals—those he considered essential to the enterprise—José Antonio Páez and Francisco de Paula Santander. He swore them to secrecy, insisting that the element of surprise was critical. “This is for your eyes and your eyes only,” he wrote Santander.
Ascending to 13,000 feet, slipping and sliding over the wet, icy rock, the army kept moving, knowing that to stop and lie down at those bone-chilling heights was to give up and die
Bolívar and his infantry were soon making their way west along the Apure River in what is today southwestern Venezuela. On May 23, he called his officers to a council of war. They met in a ramshackle hut in the deserted little village of Setenta. There was no table at which to sit, no chairs. They perched instead on the skulls of cattle—picked over by condors, bleached white by the sun. Although the officers, in fact the entire patriot army, had assumed they would be wintering close by, the Liberator explained that it would be foolish to remain during the rains, when food would be scant, malaria and yellow fever rampant. He confided his plan to take the army over the Andes, surprise the enemy on the New Granadan side, and astound the world by springing his campaign from one theater of war to another.
Bolívar started toward the mountains on May 26, just as the rains began to pelt down in earnest. The rank-and-file soldiers had not been told where they were headed—to keep the operation secret but also because Bolívar feared they would desert if they knew the perilous direction of their march. Bolívar’s tight force of 2,100—four infantry battalions and three cavalry squadrons (including a British legion), accompanied by medics, auxiliary forces, women, children, and a herd of cattle—was now poised to undertake one of the most remarkable feats in military history.
On June 4, Bolívar’s army crossed the Arauca River and passed into the plains of Casanare (in modern Colombia), where the rains were torrential, savannahs flooded, and creatures were adrift as far as the eye could see. His soldiers constructed boats of cowhide to transport the ordnance and keep it as dry as possible. They marched with mud sucking at their feet and waded, even swam, when floods rose. Men with families used their threadbare blankets to shield women from the cold and damp; others used them to protect guns and ammunition.
Hungry, weary, drenched to the skin, they traversed a landscape such as they’d never seen. Men on horseback were no better off than those on the ground. Hooves grew soft in the bog and swamp, rendering animals lame. Feet swelled to such tender misshape that riders could no longer use their stirrups. The army carried on anyway, marching for more than a month, lured by trees that floated like promises of dry earth in those vast inland waterways. The frail were soon sick; the rugged, wounded; the unfortunate, at the mercy of tiny flesh-eating fish that could strip limbs to bone in seconds. Horses and cattle fell into deep water, never to rise again. Cargo became too heavy to carry; reins too shriveled to use. At night, they camped wherever they could—sleeping in standing water, or on their horses—only to be set upon by mosquitoes, sand flies, and stinging gnats.
At long last, they reached hard land at Tame, just east of the Andes, where the army of liberation gained a measure of relief in dry beds, salt and bananas, potatoes and barley. In the distance, whenever a wind cleared away the clouds, they could see the tangle of green forest lining the lower cliffs of the towering Andes.
After a week’s rest, on July 1, they were off again, headed for that mighty cordillera—a snowbound, airless barrier of rock and cliff. The patriots, bolstered by Bolívar’s enthusiasm, staggered up those slopes, with nothing but dreams of glory. As they rose into thinner air, the icy wind numbed some minds, clarified others: Many of Páez’s horsemen, who had slogged unhesitatingly 20 miles a day through mud and flood, decided the vertiginous heights and unstable rock were too punishing for their horses. Some gave up, deserting the revolution in favor of their afflicted animals. Few beasts would survive the five days’ march over the dizzying mountain pass of Páramo de Pisba.
The rain was ceaseless, the cold unrelenting. Within a few days, the remaining livestock were gone; a string of carcasses marked their trail. “The harshness of the peaks we have crossed would be staggering to anyone who hasn’t experienced it,” Bolívar reported to his vice president. “There’s hardly a day or night it doesn’t rain….Our only comfort is the thought that we’ve seen the worst, and that we are nearing the end of the journey.” Often, the streams they crossed were swift and fierce, and the army and its followers had to negotiate them in stolid lines, moving hand in hand, until every last person had been dragged through the white water. To traverse ravines, they lassoed trees on either side, then pulled travelers on leather ropes, over the plummeting abyss, suspended in improvised hammocks.
BOLÍVAR HIMSELF sometimes carried soldiers—or women who had dutifully followed them—who were too weak to stand. “He was,” according to one British observer, “invariably humane in his attentions to the sick and wounded.” Slipping and sliding over the wet, icy rock, the army kept moving, ascending to 13,000 feet, knowing that to stop and lie down at those bone-chilling heights was to give up and die. By the time they had scaled the Páramo de Pisba, their shoes had no soles, their clothes were in shreds; hundreds had died of hypothermia. Many of the surviving officers, a witness later wrote, “had no trousers, and were glad to cover themselves with pieces of blanket, or whatever they could procure.” A full quarter of the British contingent perished in that crossing.
Yet there were scenes of extraordinary strength and courage. The patriot women, mistresses or wives, were indispensable medics: tending wounds, giving hope to the ill, evincing an admirable fortitude. Some proved even sturdier than the men. On the night of July 3, as the army huddled at the very heights of the crossing, Bolívar’s aide-de-camp was told that a soldier’s wife was there among them, giving birth. The next day he saw her marching along behind her husband’s battalion, a strapping newborn in her arms.
On July 6, survivors began to straggle down the other side of the mountain. Weak, famished, in tatters, it was all they could do to pick their way down the steep escarpments. At the town of Socha, jubilant New Granadans rushed out to meet them with food and drink, horses and weapons. The village women, filled with sympathy for the half-naked soldiers, set to work, making them shirts, trousers, underwear, and jackets—sewn from their own clothes. Bolívar had chosen the route well, for there was no one to challenge the patriot presence. The Spaniards had dismissed the Páramo de Pisba as too difficult a crossing: There were no guards in the area, no enemy garrisons for miles. The expedition would have precious time to recover.
Over the next few days, while the army rested, Bolívar busied himself organizing supplies, raising troops, making sure the sick were minded and the hungry fed, as well as gathering intelligence on royalist movements. New Granadans, who had suffered three years of harsh rule under their tyrannical viceroy, now rushed to enlist in Bolívar’s effort, as one village after another welcomed him with open arms. The young general Santander later wrote of his efforts: “Here is where this man distinguishes himself above all the rest, exhibiting extraordinary resolve and energy. In three days, he remounts and arms the cavalry, musters ammunition, reassembles the army; then sends out patrols, energizes the citizens, and plans an all-out attack.”
The liberation of New Granada came to a head only days after the last of Bolívar’s soldiers descended the snowy heights of Pisba. It was a measure of Bolívar’s genius that his army had met with no resistance; the test now would be to spring that army into a winning war. At dawn on July 25, one day after Bolívar’s 36th birthday, his soldiers met the Spaniards in a battle at Pantano de Vargas, a hill-rimmed swampland about 120 miles northeast of Bogotá. General José María Barreiro and his royalists had all the advantages: higher ground, more troops, better arms and training.
But just when all seemed lost for the patriots—a blistering fire on all sides—Bolívar shouted to the horseman Juan José Rondón, “Colonel! Save the republic!”
The fearless cowboy led his plainsmen in a furious charge up the hill Barreiro had taken, and, swinging machetes and spears, they managed to drive out the Spaniards. The patriots, elated, now fought with renewed zeal. Rattled by this reversal, the royalists shrank in alarm, then rushed to withdraw as rain began to spill from the darkening heavens.
Santander would later say that the battle at Pantano de Vargas was won by the horsemen’s intensity and a British calm, and because Bolívar, like some mythic war god, seemed to appear everywhere at once. In truth, the patriots had more advantages than that: The core of Bolívar’s troops—seasoned, challenged, culled to an able few—were a well-honed fighting force now. The Spaniards, terrified by the Liberator, by his promises of war to the death, by his startling appearance on their side of the Andes, simply lost their nerve. Barreiro’s army may have had the numbers, the equipment, the spangled uniforms, and the training from European wars, but, as Bolívar quickly understood, they had a distinct—and crushing—disadvantage: They were afraid.
The determining Battle of Boyacá was fought nearly two weeks later, on August 7, but by then the entire balance of power had shifted. It was no longer the Spaniards who were trying to block Bolívar from marching to the New Granadan capital of Bogotá; it was Bolívar trying to block the Spaniards from reuniting with their viceroy and collecting badly needed reinforcements.
BY MIDMORNING, the Liberator’s army had taken a position near the bridge at Boyacá, on a hill that oversaw the road to the capital. At 2 o’clock in the afternoon, the royalist army appeared. General Barreiro sent out a vanguard, assuming that the row of patriots he saw on the far bluff was merely a band of observers. He ordered his second in command, Colonel Francisco Jiménez, to scare them off so that the main body of his troops—3,000 strong—could pass. But Bolívar accelerated the patriot march, and, before long, his entire army coursed over the hill, wave after wave of roaring soldiers. Rondón’s horsemen, in galloping charge, plunged into the royalists’ tidy formation, dispersing them like a flock of sheep. General José Antonio Anzoátegui then fell upon the same soldiers with his hardened veterans; Santander flew after their vanguard and overtook them.
By 4 o’clock, it was done. The Spanish general, in desperation, tried to retreat to a hillside to regroup, but by then his army had been devastated—200 lay dead in the open meadow, the rest were in disarray. When Anzoátegui’s cavalry charged up that hill with bloodied lances, the Spaniards quickly laid down their arms. Sixteen hundred royalists were taken prisoner that afternoon. The battle had lasted all of two hours.
With the road to the capital completely open now, Bolívar and a small squadron set out for Bogotá. As one of his officers wrote, “A lightning bolt doesn’t fall from the sky as swiftly as General Bolívar descended on the capital.” He rode, ragged and shirtless, his coat fluttering against bare skin, for all 70 miles of the journey. As he raced through the humid countryside—his wild, long hair riding the wind—he hardly looked like a general who had vanquished a king’s army. But it was so. The Spaniards in Bogotá fled with little more than the clothes on their backs, abandoning houses, businesses, and the entire vice-regal treasury to the patriot army. Viceroy Juan José de Sámano, author of so many atrocities against the New Granadans, had no time to worry about the fate of his people now. He saved himself, stealing away in the guise of a lowly Indian.
The official celebration of Bolívar’s victory was held on September 18, and all Bogotá turned out for the festivities. Church bells pealed, 20 young beauties in pristine white dresses came forward gamely to bestow crowns of laurels, and Bolívar marched alongside Santander and Anzoátegui in a victory procession. But even with all the joy and high spirits, few New Granadans understood how momentous their victory truly was. In 75 days, in a wholly improvised maneuver, Bolívar had freed New Granada and opened the way for the liberation of much of Spanish America. His march over the cordillera had a great deal in common with Hannibal’s over the Alps, except that terrain and climate were harsher in the Andes, and Hannibal had taken years to prepare for the challenge. Bolívar’s genius was to achieve the feat as an improvisation, fashioning his strategy on the fly. As one historian put it, he had fulfilled all of Napoleon’s maxims—destroy the army, capture the capital, conquer the country—but he had realized them in one sweeping motion. As Bolívar himself had written prophetically four years before: “A weak man requires a long fight in order to win. A strong one delivers a single blow and an empire vanishes.”
Marie Arana, a native of Peru, is the author of the acclaimed memoir American Chica. This story is adapted from Bolívar: American Liberator (Simon and Schuster). Copyright © 2013 by Marie Arana.