EXPLORATION IN THE ANDES
(PHOTO DIARY OF A SPONTANEOUS TREKKING IN AUTONOMY IN A REMOTE AND UNEXPLORED VALLEY IN THE REGION OF CUSCO)
Today I’d like to share with you the story of an unexpected “exploration” in Peru that I did last year (2019) with two friends of mine.
One of these friends has already lived and worked for about a year in Cusco so he knew very well the region. His name is Glenn. We had met on a trekking around the Ausangate mountain, which is by the way incredible… So we’ve always wanted to come back to this region to discover other parts of it and more remote valleys.
We met each other in Cusco again, and we discussed about where we could go. We were looking at maps, and trying to find as much information as possible about certain valleys of the region… and the closest reachable village to start the hike.
We finally found an interesting valley which has a lot of lagoons and which looked reachable even though there was a high pass on the way… It seemed to be rocky, but doable.
The first challenge was to go to the closest village. It is far away from Cusco and we had no idea how to reach it. So we first took a bus to Sicuani, that was the starting town before going remote higher in the Andes…
Once there, we happened to know that there is only one bus leaving everyday from Sicuani to that village. And it’s at 6am! It was way too late when we arrived so we missed it. But after an hour or so asking the locals how we could go there, we finally found a very nice driver who accepted to take us for this long ride. He charged us the equivalent of 50 USD, which was quite cheap considering the fact that we were three guys.
The adventure began!
We were feeling very excited and we even bought a few beers for the ride! It was a dirt-road all the way to the village and we passed by amazing remote valleys. The weather was with us, so was the light.
We did a few stops in this kind of village to buy some snacks and rest from the car. It was also a good occasion to see what the local life looked like…
Some people, like this lady, were around the shops and they were usually very surprised to see three “gringos” in their village. Overall, we saw very few people during the entire journey, but still sometimes, we passed by beautiful scenes on the road…
If I remember well, it took us around 7 hours to reach the village. We were tired and Thibault (the other friend), was feeling a little bit bad because of the altitude. He was not acclimatized at all but he accepted to come with us, knowing the risks of the altitude mountain sickness. We were supposed to hike up to a 5,400 meters pass! But he was ready to make it and suffer if it was needed…
We finally made it to our destination. And we were at 4,600 meters above the sea level already.
The village itself has nothing special, except the fact that it’s located on the foot of the second largest glaciated area in the tropics! The Quelccaya glacier is 21,5km long and has been traversed by 4 alpinists for the first time in June 2019.
For us, this village was the starting point of our exploration – in a totally different valley – and also an opportunity to find someone who would accept to come with us with a horse to carry our food and tents. We all had around 20 kilos on our backpacks, so we hoped that we could lighten them a bit to enjoy more the hike…
We met David, the mayor of the village, and he agreed on going with us for this trip! He had never been to the valley that we were hoping to find, so he was also excited to discover more his own region. He was extremely nice! He helped us find a place to sleep for the night and gave us some food in his modest restaurant. Finally, he advised us to go to the top of a hill so that we could enjoy a beautiful panorama at sunset. We did not hesitate a second, and we started going up!
The light was slowly turning golden on the way up… We were eager to discover what was behind that hill, but we still had to hike up to 5000 meters high! It was tough but… What a reward!
This was amazing! That light, and these mountains in the background… That was our destination! We could actually see from that hill where we would have to go for the next day. We would have to walk by the lake and try to camp somewhere behind that big black mountain. Then, we would see behind what it looks like and where to go next.
On the right side, we could also see other mountains and that light again… It made the landscape look simply magical! I really like the next image that I took!
Again, we witnessed another beautiful game of light and shadows and I shot this…
However, it started to be really cold at this altitude and we had to go down before dark. So we left, so excited again because we knew where we would have to walk the day after. The descent was easy and the sunset amazing!
It’s been a long and tiring day but what a nice beginning! We were happy that we had made it to the village and found a local man with a horse to join us… We needed some good rest to be in a good shape for the rest of the adventure… to the unknown!
After a very good but cold night, we woke up and had a little walk in the streets. The weather was good, that was a good news. The streets were almost empty, so the atmosphere was very peaceful. The air was cool, but we could feel the heat of the first sun rays…
The village started to come alive and there were beautiful street scenes to capture with this soft morning light.
We saw mainly kids. I guess they were on their way to school…
Some of them were curious about us. We were happy to have small conversations with them. This one was playing with a dog and he was really funny!
The village was full of dogs by the way and guess what… We met this little guy, that we called “Chocolate”. I can’t tell you how affectionate it was and how much energy it had. Look at its face! So funny! We immediately adopted it.
We played a lot together. It was following us absolutely everywhere and we could not resist to give him a little bit of our breakfast… At this moment of the day, we were far from imagining that it was actually going to follow us and accompany us throughout the entire duration of the trek! We did not even imagine that it could be able to walk as much because of its very small size. After the first hours of the hike, we were thinking that it would give up and come back to the village, but he never did! So we were 5 guys now for this expedition, and we loved it!
So after a rich breakfast, it was time to get prepared and leave for the adventure! We were going to the unknown, a little bit stressed, but with full determination and enthusiasm!
The beginning was not so hard and we knew in which direction we had to go. We had to follow the lake anyway, because we had planned to camp at the end of it. There were also few people living in the area so there was even a trail.
The first person we met on the way was this Quechua man. He was walking alone. David (the person who was accompanying us with the horse, if you remember…) had a little talk with him in Quechua language. We obviously understood nothing because we only speak Spanish… But we could easily photograph him. He didn’t mind at all.
His look and the expression on his face really touched me. It expresses weariness. Was he tired of life? Or maybe just from the walk and his work… Impossible to know. But his look was somehow absent.
If you wonder why his lips have a dark greenish color, it’s because he was chewing coca leaves. It is consumed a lot in the Andes, the native people use it as a stimulant. It prevents them from tiredness, headaches… and allows them not to feel too hungry nor thirsty. It is also very important culturally as its consider to be a sacred plant.
We kept walking and behind us, the sky started to get heavy with clouds! We were worried that it would come in our direction.
A little bit later, it was now raining on the other side of the lake, so we accelerated the pace…
But it never came to us and the weather remained stable until the end of the day. We were walking in the right direction!
The sky was still heavy but sometimes, the light was going through the clouds. We met another local man who seemed to enjoy it. And for us, it was always a good occasion to ask how far we were from the end of the lake and if it was suitable for camping there.
Last ascent of the day. David was walking first with the horse. I joined him so that we could quickly find a nice place to camp. We were still afraid of the rain. And Thibault was not feeling so well… So it was better if we could set up the camp by the time he would arrive.
We always try to find a place near a river because we need water to cook and refill the bottles. It’s very important to be well hydrated at such altitudes. Glenn and I also had time to look at the mountains around and guess where we would have to go for the next morning. It looked quite obvious actually. We would have to go up by a big scree, on its left side… And then we would have the surprise. However, we knew that the 5,400 meters pass was somewhere higher. So the next day was the big day!
Again, the weather was good in the morning! We woke up, cooked breakfast, packed everything… And we left. Everyone was going at his own pace. It was going up and at this altitude, we were short of breath. But we were all going slowly…. Once higher, we started to have a nice view on the lake behind us. Thibault was feeling okay and was enjoying it!
Then we kept going up, and up, and up… We were surprised how long the pass was. We couldn’t see the end of it! But for Chocolate, it was more than easy… It was such a good company!
Finally, we all made it, and the landscape was really impressive!
That’s what I call a glacier! It was huge! It was actually looking like a big ice cream… But the terrain now was rough, very rocky. And sometimes, it was not that easy to find the path. Then on the way down, the horse started to dislike it… Horses have no problem going up, but it’s more difficult for them to go down on this kind of terrain. I guess they don’t have a good balance on this kind of rocks. So David was struggling to make it move forward. Besides, the more we walked, the more the weather got worse. The sky got heavy of clouds, again!
The descent was long, we were not seeing any place to camp, and we were still very high. We had to at least go down to 5000 meters so that Thibault could spend a relatively “good” night. We also needed to be close to a river… So we continued. We continued and… BOOOM!
What a surprise, and what a reward ! We had arrived in a little paradise ! All what we were dreaming of… Flat terrain for the tents, plenty of water and an amazing landscape to contemplate! But what I loved the most was this light. It was bursting out from behind the clouds and gave this amazing moody dark and contrasted atmosphere. I just loved it!
It was still early in the afternoon so we could take our time and enjoy this moment. We had still suffered to get there. Climbing a pass at 5400m without knowing the route, it’s not nothing… So that was the best reward of that trip so far!
After few photos like these ones… we decided to keep going. We went down and then followed one of the rivers that was ending in those lakes.
We finally made it to the last lagoon. Glenn seemed to be happy there as he was chilling. The light was still incredible!
We set the camp and relaxed. Glenn and I were hoping to have an incredible sunset with these clouds so we went up again with our tripods this time. Unfortunately, nothing happened. I still took a shot to show you how small our tent was in this stunning environment!
Then back in the tent, we started cooking and noticed that we didn’t have gas anymore! That was a bad news because we had no idea how many kilometers we still had to walk to reach “civilization”… So we were a little bit stressed, but we knew that we would normally be able to do it in one day anyway (from what we had seen on the map). We still managed to cook all the pastas we had, so that we could have enough to eat in the morning for us, and for Chocolate! We all fell asleep and had a relatively good night…
We woke up in the clouds! It was very foggy! But little by little, things were moving. So after packing, we started walking and the clouds were literally dancing around the mountains.
We had a misty weather again. I always love this kind of atmosphere as long as it doesn’t rain too much, There is a mood at least in every scene… And we, photographers, are always hoping for something special or unusual.
A bit later in the morning, once the clouds had partially moved, we came across another incredible scenery that was just unexpected! For us, it was the ultimate reward of this trip and we were already more than satisfied with what we had seen and experienced so far !
Other turquoise lagoons again… This valley is definitely a jewel in this mountain range! I was also feeling that we had been lucky to have had these weather conditions, because I just love them! I much prefer that than a boring blue sky. With these low clouds as well, we had this feeling of coming from somewhere very high… So we could really appreciate the height of this pass that we had already climbed.
Another moment of contemplation and some beautiful shots in the memory card… Here, Glenn is posing with Chocolate, which was surprisingly still with us!
From here as well, we could easily guess where our final destination was. We would have to walk until the end of the valley and we were sure now that we would make it to a road, or to at least a village… So we kept walking down, trying to save as much energy as possible because we still had some distance to cover and very little left to eat.
There is now a little anecdote that I’d like to share with you, because I find it quite funny. So we were here, in the valley that you can see below.
And there, we decided to split in two groups. David and Thibault took a high path, which was going to the left side of the valley, while we, Glenn and I, preferred to continue straight, right in the middle of it. We were also slower than them because we were taking a lot of photos. Suddenly, while they were far away from us, we started to hear them shouting and trying to tell us something. They were really too far so we had no idea what was going on and why they were doing this. We were also seeing them moving their arms or something… It was weird.
So we kept moving and kept shooting. The nature was incredibly beautiful here…
But finally, we met up again, maybe an hour later. And you won’t guess what they told us… “A puma was just behind you !!!”
We said : “WHAT? No f****** way!”
How could have we missed it? Well, the most important thing was that he did not attack us… But we would have loved to see it! We still dream of meeting the puma of the Andes. It’s so emblematic of the Andean mythology. And to see a wild one, in its natural environment, it must be something powerful…
But it wasn’t for this time, unfortunately.
Anyway, we were slowly getting close to the end of this valley, so to the end of this trip. We could already see an asphalted road… The last thing we had to do was to find a car that would take us to Mahuayani village so that we could take a bus back to Cusco. David also wanted to go to Mahuayani because he had to buy all the necessary things to come back to his village. He had indeed to walk all what we had done in the opposite way… But we couldn’t take Chocolate with us in the car. So the idea was to attach him somewhere so that David could take it with him on the way back.
By chance, we met a old lonely woman in a village who was looking after her herd of alpacas…
She kindly accepted to keep an eye on it during David’s absence.
But the separation with Chocolate has been extremely hard and sad. It couldn’t bare to be attached and to see us leaving. It was barking and “crying” a lot. And for us, it was heartbreaking. We hugged it during a long time but we had to go. And even from the road, while hitchhiking, we could hear it screaming. It’s been a tough and heartbreaking moment, really… But the good news is that we kept contact with David who told us that he safely went back home with Chocolate. So they’re both in the village and we hope to see them again if we have an occasion to come back!
Ciao amigo y muchas gracias!!!
Voilà. End of this amazing Andean exploration! We still struggled to catch a car because very few people were driving on this road. But we made it anyway.
I hope you enjoyed the article and the entire story. Every photo has been carefully chosen here to tell as well as possible how I’ve experienced this journey… I try to improve more and more my story-telling as I find photography the best tool for me to express my feelings on how I live these travels. I’d be curious and grateful to have some feedbacks from you if you took the time to read the full article!
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Thank you for your time and your support! My next article will be from our experience in Varanasi, so stay tuned!