THE FACE OF THE AUSANGATE
(LIFE IN PERU’S MOST BEAUTIFUL MOUNTAINS)
Today, I take you to one, if not my favorite place on Earth. A place where I spent a lot of time, because I guided many hikers there.
Somewhere high in the Andean mountains of the Cusco Region, there are valleys inhabited for centuries by Quechua people who have always lived in harmony and respect for the 6,000 meter mountains that surround them, which they believe to be gods. One of them is the Ausangate (6384m), the highest and the most sacred mountain in all Southern Peru.
This is a region where one can still witness authentic scenes of life, as if time had changed nothing. As if these people had a different notion of time. Here, we live with the sun. We get up early, because we go to bed early.
We get up early because it’s cold in the morning, at more than 4,500 meters high. It’s better to wake up and get active. On the photo above, a woman walked far away down the valley to get some grass for her alpacas, and for the guinea pigs that she grows in her house.
What better than a hot soup to start the day off right? This is the obligatory local breakfast to warm up well. Here is my friend Hernan, who always accompanies me on these hikes. He is my most loyal local partner for these mountain expeditions. He has mules that carry all the necessary equipment for such high altitude treks, which usually last about a week.
I may have been there more than 50 times, so I naturally got to know some people along the trail. I created bonds with some of them, like with Domingo, who’s always welcomed me in a warm way. Every time I came, alone or with a group, I stayed at his place to sleep. We were talking, eating together, sharing a beer… Unfortunately, the recent pandemic did not spare him. He died relatively young, he was about sixty years old. When I look at this image, that I took of him on a sunny morning, I have the impression that he says goodbye to this land which saw him live here, and especially to his friends who shared so many moments with him…
I was in Europe when I heard the news, so I was unable to attend the funeral. But I was still able to send the few photos that I have of him to his family. These are images that must be precious to people who’ve never owned a camera/phone and taken photos…
Domingo’s entire herd of alpacas returned to his brother-in-law Chucho, after his death, whom I had never met before. He is the one who lives here now, who replaces him. Since then, I also got to know him well.
For such expeditions, as I said, we hire the services of locals who lead mules to carry our equipment, or ride them from time to time. We always go with what we call a “security mule” that one can ride at any moment. We go to remote valleys, we walk through 5,000-meter passes, no one is safe from falling ill, having altitude sickness or twisting an ankle… Also, these men help us with setting up camp, so they always try to go as fast as possible and overtake us on the way for the comfort of the trekkers. On the image above is Mario, also a good friend of mine and working partner in the region.
The horse has become the preferred means of transport for the Quechuas of the region. It’s very common to see local riders on these trails now. They walk or ride at these altitudes to go from one valley to another, and they usually carry goods to trade.
Walking at these altitudes is very tiring, so we have to rest well and regain our strength at noon. On clear sunny days, we always stop to enjoy these views with a good lunch. That day, in particular, Aifran and Segundino, both about ten years old, had accompanied us. They dreamed of getting to know the work of Hernan and Mario, their fathers, and of exploring with us these mountain passes and valleys that were unknown to them until then. This is also how they gradually learn the profession of “arriero”. Tourism pays well, and every family would prefer that their children work in this sector, rather than tiring themselves out in the fields as their grandparents did.
More and more schools are being built in the region, even above 4,000 meters. So, seeing a father picking up his daughter from school is becoming a common sight these days. Some have to walk for hours because their community is much higher in the mountain.
However, it’s not easy to accept for every kid. This one for example, another son of Hernan, has an hour’s walk every day, and uphill, to reach school. Every late afternoon, he also has to come back down. At such a young age, it’s not easy. He often arrives very tired at home..
Home. Yes, some homes look like this one. What a surreal place to live ! When I was saying that some people live much higher in the mountain, that’s what their homes often look like. There is no village strictly speaking, but small houses scattered all over the valleys. They form a community. Everyone knows each other and everyone helps each other.
These communities, as you might guess, live mainly from their alpacas. From these animals, they get wool for handcrafts, yarn for clothing, transport for goods and food from their meat. Such sunsets are common in these mountains. Sometimes, we can even see a few Vizcachas showing up on rocks, which are native animals from South America from the family of Chinchillas…
Evenings are usually short. It gets cold very quickly, because there’s of course no wood at these altitudes to make a fire. Above, you can see a quite original image I think, of one of Hernan’s nephews. He was indeed dressed for a wedding, and was looking at photos that I had printed for the occasion and offered to the family. I loved the fact that so remote, and so high in these mountains, people have suits, even for kids. It’s interesting to see how quickly our western culture is interfering with theirs…
Mornings. Sometimes, mornings can be gloomy. If the weather is bad, it takes a lot of willpower to motivate oneself to get out and take the herd of alpacas higher up the mountain in search of pasture.
I remember well Domingo on this day. His eyes were telling everything. At the end of the dry season indeed, the grass is burnt, so he has to go higher and further to to find pasture. He also knew that a storm was coming.
Such scenes please our eyes, we foreigners, travelers, but they also testify to the difficult living conditions of the locals in this harsh environment.
What I particularly love about this region, it’s how remote and unspoiled some valleys can be, after walking for days. The nature is so incredibly unique! It is very colorful, and the Quechuas even seem to mirror these colors in their traditional clothes.
However, some valleys and colorful mountains have recently been victims of their originality and beauty. That’s the case of Vinicunca, the most famous Rainbow Mountain in all Peru.
This is how I saw it for the first time, still unknown to the public, untouched.
Nowadays, about 2,000 people visit it everyday. It has become Peru’s second most visted place after Machu Picchu. Don’t get me wrong please, I’m glad that such a nature beauty can be enjoyed by the majority, but the way mass tourism has been organized around it is, in my opinion, quite sad.
The business around it has created a lot of jealousy in the area between all the different communities, in addition to having also destroyed, aesthetically, the two neighboring valleys. Each of them has wanted, since the beginning, her portion of the cake, as every traveler has to pay 10 soles (2,5$) to get access to it, and another 10 soles to see a Red Valley nearby.
The other problem is that all the valleys next to these two neighboring ones also got jealous about the money they were making from this new tourist attraction. Now, when I trek in the region, even 30km away from the Rainbow Mountain, some locals stop me and ask to pay fees to enter their valley, as if the surrounding mountains and panoramas are their property.
The fact that tourism benefits the locals is good. But the fact that it is badly organized, that the money is not fairly redistributed, and that private companies are interfering and corrupting the local authorities to acquire land in order to take advantage of this new tourist windfall, it’s a pity and it’s really sad.
Sooner or later, this kind of tourism will destroy these communities as greed and jealousy spare no human being…
Back to the initial topic and to the question : “Why I love this part of the world so much?”. Well, for me, finding myself in such places with such dramatic weather conditions, as you can see on the image above, really makes me feel vulnerable but alive!
I feel even more alive and happy when I find myself witnessing the way of life of these people who were born here, and who learned how to survive in such a demanding nature.
And these landscapes, when lit in such dramatic light, literally take my breath away…
Somehow, I do understand why these societies change so much nowadays. Why the young generations, who are aware of how close the city is and how easier life would be down there, prefer to leave.
This life is not made for everyone. Older generations did not really have a choice, and many of them nowadays start to question this lifestyle.
However, some still really enjoy it. Julia is just the perfect example. She is so happy in her house at 4,800 meters above sea level with her alpacas! She is married and has a son, who is called Clever, but they both fled this mountain life, precisely for the education of Clever who can now go to school in a village located 3 hours walk below in the valley.
On the contrary, Maria feels a bit lonely. We had camped near her house. She was so happy to have company. We had invited her to eat dinner with us, in our tent. I remember that her earrings had left an impression on me. I was impressed by how much she was taking care of her appearance, while living alone up there…
She then went to bed in her little house, under the watchful eye of her faithful dog. A night like any other for her, under this starry sky…
Change is underway and these communities will not escape it, to the detriment, certainly, of part of their cultural identity and authenticity. Should we regret it? When you look at these smiles, what do you think? Any change comes with its own set of pros and cons.
Will we see all the kids literally escape these communities and choose a different life?
One day, we might see these alpacas and lamas live in freedom again, and regaining possession of these mountains, as in the time when humans were not there yet…
I have personally observed, over a period of ten years, that these mountains are slowly but surely getting more empty. I really meet fewer people than before. The current situation is in fact more complex than it appears. The seasons change, the climate as well. Glaciers are melting. The periods of drought are accentuated… Those who try to keep this lifestyle are facing real challenges.
That’s why I would not be surprised to see them all abandon their ancestral lands and their unique way of life in the near future, for more welcoming valleys lower in altitude, and closer to big cities…
A big thank you if you read the entire article, because it is quite long ! And it shows your real interest in my photography and my approach to it.
If by any chance, you think you could learn from me and would like to know how I make these images, I created a complete TRAVEL PHOTOGRAPHY GUIDE that you can find on my website.
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