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Published on May 5th, 2015 | by SA Explorer

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In the Kingdom of clouds – by Corey Watts

Nick Stanziano is a tall, boisterous American in his mid-thirties who came to Peru a decade ago and never left.

On a chilly night in Cusco, the ancient centre of Inca civilization, over a cleansing ale at Paddy’s Irish pub, it becomes clear to me that Nick is passionate about his business. He is one of a new generation of savvy entrepreneurs who strive to meld profit with social justice. For SA Expeditions, the business he co-founded, tourism doesn’t consist of a circuit of surface level meet and greets between people from far off lands, but genuinely good moments that arise naturally from sharing laughs, stories and experience with excellent company.

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Stopping off en route to the trailhead in the village of Huilloc. Image: Corey Watts

He explains that the company has a strong relationship with people in the nearby Choquechaca valley, a few hours northwest of Cusco. This week they will be forging a new route, arriving to the Chouquechaca valley by way of Halancoma pass that Nick’s explains will be “awesome”. I’m invited, apparently. ‘If you don’t mind being a guinea pig,’ he laughs. I smile wryly. We both know what they do to guinea pigs in Peru.

I am not a religious man but I do believe that for all our modernity we’re preternatural creatures still. There is something in us that craves something outside of us, something bigger. Sadly, the word ‘awesome’ is now de rigueur for something like ‘gee, that’s nice’, but it’s truer, older meaning is that which inspires a mix of wonder, reverence, and fear. Love too, maybe. Mountains do that. So, yeah, I’m game.

The Andes are truly awesome: the longest mountain range on the planet, a continental spine stretching around 7,000 kilometres (4,200 miles) from one end of South America to the other. Forged by unimaginably powerful tectonic forces—uplifting, fracturing, and folding of the very rocks themselves—the cordilleras now sit as high as 7,000 metres (22,000 feet) above the nearby Pacific. And it is breathtaking to think that land so high was once at the bottom of the sea. In some places, limestone, the compressed remains of ancient marine life, can be seen just beneath topsoil. In others one doesn’t have to look too hard to find fossilized sea snails lying about.

Choquechaca Visit - March 2014

Waterfall along the trail to Choquechaca. Image: Andrew Dare

The Andes are evolving even as we mere mortals dare walk over them, our lives too butterfly short to sense the changes without a geologist’s toolkit. Perhaps it was auspicious then that our journey started the morning after Cusco’s faithful had packed the Plaza las Armas to pay homage to Señor de los Temblores, the Lord of the Tremors, the town veritably humming with syncretic spirituality.

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Stopping in on friends and extended family en route to the trailhead. Note cuy (guinea pig) on the house floor, center. This is livestock not  pet, but freer than the factory animals of the ‘developed’ world. Image: Corey Watts.

In the minivan, en route to the trailhead are old friends to see and gifts to give—principally coca leaves dished out liberally by Marco, a local guide who has worked with Nick for over five years. Cusqueño, born and bred, Marco Antonio Rondon Huanco displays a consistently cheery, gentle demeanour, matched only by his passion for this place and its people. To him, everybody is ‘my friend’ and you know it isn’t simply a figure of speech. Marco isn’t just a diplomat, he’s a born teacher; the entire landscape his classroom. Throughout the trek, he is always turning to me to explain this custom or that plant.

Locals spill out of their houses to greet Nick and Marco heartily. Nick has diligently established a good working relationship with particular families here. It isn’t just the business he brings, he displays a genuine affinity and affection for the community, and the feeling is clearly mutual. The handshakes and smiles are the genuine article.

Passing through the small tourist town of Ollantaytambo, site of the famous Temple of the Sun and Inca terraces, we see foreigners sipping morning lattes in modern cafés in the town square. Nick says, ‘You’ll see as we get higher how we go back in time.’ He explains some of the changes he’s seen in the ten year since he first came to work for a local NGO in defence of porters’ rights: Now the kids routinely tap into the Internet in town.’ It was only a few years ago, he says, that porters were unionized and the trade regulated to raise worker and animal safety.

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An hour or two out of the relatively modern burg of Ollantaytambo and the traditional way of life is right there. Stone houses are still very well used in many parts of rural Peru. Image: Corey Watts.

I’m not accustomed to servants. Like most Australians, I fancy myself an egalitarian. And, as a solo traveller, it takes a little getting used to the idea of beasts of burden lugging my, well, burden up a mountain, let alone having someone cook me meals served on silver platters. (Alright, stainless steel but they look silver.) I think perhaps it was the hot, sweet coffee delivered to my tent each morning that got me over that mental hurdle. Or maybe it was our chef Flavio’s piping hot soup and poached salmon and rice at the end of that first day. The point is I got over myself once I saw just how much pride these guys take in their work.

Flavio, our chef, trained in the best restaurants of Lima, demonstrates an unwavering professionalism as he prepares meals that make our mornings and nights. Image: Corey Watts.

To Nick, this is a little like coming home. He has, after all, been exploring this valley for the last ten years. ‘The first visitor I brought here was my dad,’ he says. It’s a place overflowing with sacred memories and relationships: deeper ones that belong to the Inca and their descendants and those shared by newcomers.

Nick describes what SA Expeditions does as a little like the buy-local movement in (he glowers slightly) ‘mall-ridden societies’, except that here the company works with particular families in particular valleys. It’s about as local as you can get. No longer is tradition something to be jettisoned in the rush to industrialization and a twenty-one-piece KFC meal. Instead, the Andean way of life endures—not pickled, but a living, breathing, dynamic culture—in part because people like you and I are curious, because we’re prepared to pay to satiate our curiosity.

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Adrian, master of the horses, eldest of the porters, father of Enrique and father-in-law to Nicolas, our porters. Image: Corey Watts.

We are met at the trailhead by Adrian, a proud-looking gentleman in his fifties: father to porter Enrique and father-in-law to his colleague Nicolas. One of three brothers that live in the valley with their families, Adrian’s colourful poncho and hat are working gear.

My instinctual, rather cynical reaction used to be that this costume is a gimmick for foreigners, which doubtless says more about me than anything else. Let me assure you, there’s nothing gimmicky about Adrian and Co. This is authentic, everyday garb and so are the people who take great pride in wearing it. Women in these parts frequently wear the beautiful bowl-like hat, often complete with fresh flowers, held on with an embroidered chinstrap. (If her hat sits level on her head, I learn from Marco, the woman is spoken for. If it’s tilted to one side she is yet to find her beau.) There are signs of change, however. As youngsters plug into global pop culture, the traditional dress may go the way of the other ‘folk’ costumes. Time will tell if the countervailing forces are enough.

For many of the locals their first, often only language is not Spanish but the native Quechua. Many older women, in particular, speak precious little Spanish (sometimes called Castilian or Castellano) at all, though that is changing as access to education improves.

It’s thought that, just before Columbus rocked up, uninvited, around 100 million irreplaceable human souls called the lands that became the Americas home. In the decades following 1492 at least nine our or ten million Indigenous people died in incomparable agony as wave after wave of imported disease swept across the continents, leading the Spaniards to delude themselves that it was divine intervention. The Inca and other native peoples had little to none of the Europeans’ defence against these ghastly maladies. Whole societies were sheared away. The scale of the dying that followed the Conquest is breathtaking and yet the culture endures, so that, today, Quechua and related languages are spoken by as many as 4.5 million in Peru alone. Daily, the conversations on the trek would ebb and flow in three languages, easily switching from one to another. Marco is skilled in all three.

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Llamas and alpacas are made for and by this high world. Image: Corey Watts.

It takes us a few hours to walk up the first leg of the valley, passing by stone houses, fields, and llama herds. We arrive to find Flavio, Nicolas, Adrian, and Enrique have set up camp on a rise overlooking a glassy chevron-shaped lake flanked by steep scraggy rock. The horses and mule are happily munching on juicy green grass, their shift done for the day.

The Gate Between Worlds

The next morning we walk through a deep valley ringed by mountains and continue up the side. We spy more llamas far below: tiny white and brown figures moving in a neat column.

On a ridge we reach a low stone wall, opening in the middle. It’s a ramshackle affair, clearly pummelled by time and the elements. Enrique dutifully adds some stones to the wall. The rest of us follow suit.

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‘How old is this wall?’ I ask. ‘Who knows?’ Enrique replies. A thousand years? Two? Still, a blink in time compared to the mountains themselves. Image: Corey Watts.

 

On the far side of the wall and the thin air (we’re well above 4,000 metres) has me going slowly. Nick points out that the weather up here can change in a heartbeat. No sooner has he spoken than a light snow starts to fall and for a few minutes we find ourselves in a whiteout. Still, when the fog clears, the view is… words fail me: craggy, sawtooth peaks loom all around as we walk perpendicular to the slope, a bewildering richness of mosses and flowering shrubs hunkering to the cold grey earth. (If ever they find life on Mars maybe it will be something like this, but nowhere near as lovely.) The air smells slightly peppery. Our path is marked by llama poo, which makes sense when you think about it. In one direction, streams spill from three lakes—black, yellow, turquoise—down into the valley where still more llamas do their thing. Most seem oblivious to the bipedal intruders but two or three watch us keenly, warily. Overhead, four Andean eagles—a mating pair and their fledglings—wheel and soar; the youngsters mucking, indifferent to the starkness and altitude.

Lake Cory

Through the gate: a landscape of green and grey, cold but full of life if you have the patience to see. Image: Corey Watts.

After a couple of kilometres this path peters out. While Marco and I take a break, Nick scales a slope to see if he can find a route over the ridge. At the same time, Enrique runs (runs!) ahead on the trail to see what he can see. Nada. And so we turn and head back to the gate where a fine feast of sweet biscuits, granola, and mandarins is polished off with coca leaves and a wee dram of Marco’s Anisado—a Peruvian aperitif. Spirits imbibed and renewed, we set off again.

At the gate, we turn right, hiking up over several ridges, the first of which Nick assures me is our ‘last significant up’. He’s lying through his teeth of course, a necessary deceit, but I choose to believe him and later glad I did.

Let me pause at this juncture to stress that what we were doing was trying to find a new path. This was yet to become a regular path for SA Expeditions travelers, and, as it turned out. Never will. Our adventure was an experiment. The horses, laden with our gear, had no such problems on their leisurely stroll about the mountains. They even got there before us! It’s their trail that you’ll follow if you come here. And let me assure you, you won’t miss a bit of the spectacle and wonder. There are oodles and oodles of spectacle and wonder in these mountains.

Now, Nick and Enrique are already scouting ahead, each perched on what looks to me like the edge of reality itself. Nick is whooping and hollering at what, apparently, is nice view. My latent acrophobia is kicking in and each ululation brings an urge to swear and curse. (My father, a former US marine, openly admits he gets ‘nosebleeds on a footstall’.) Yet, oddly, there is no place I would rather be, so I take raspy breath of thin air and plough on. My mother was born when all the pink bits on the map were British and I summon the spirits of Shackleton and Hillary (and not Scott of the Antarctic, who didn’t come home). Thankfully, Nick was right to shout—the view is astonishing. As incomprehensibly and as quickly as it appeared my anxiety evaporates, replaced by a profound sense of the numinous. Marco checks his wrist altimeter: just shy of 5,000 metres—the closest I’ve been to the edge of space outside of an aeroplane.

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Don’t forget, this is home for the people here. Image: Corey Watts.

As if on cue, Nick yells, ‘Condor!’ Two of these stately icons of the Andes are riding the wind over the valley almost eye-level with us. Our eagles join them a few seconds’ later. I fire off some photos then drop the camera and pause to let this privilege sink in.

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Andean Condors circle and glide over the valley, indifferent to the mortals below. Image: Corey Watts

It seems hard to believe that human beings could render big environmental changes this high up but that is exactly what we’re doing. Ahead of international climate change talks in Lima last December, scientists reviewed the state of glaciers in the tropical Andes. It ain’t good news: the rate of melting in the last fifty years is unprecedented in modern history. Like the globe as a whole, the central Andes have warmed by about 0.8 ºC in recent times, and are warming still. It may not sound like much but it’s enough to shrink the glaciers here by 30–50 per cent since the ‘70s. And because the low-altitude glaciers are thin, rarely over 40 metres, scientists warn they may disappear altogether in coming decades. This means Peru could be in for some enormous changes: water supplies, agriculture, tourism, local culture—all are in the balance. I pause to take a long look at the snow and ice on the mountains—trying to fix the image in my mind.

Glaciers in the Andes play a key role in the economy, food security, water supply, and culture of Peru but have diminished by as much as half since the ‘70s as the region warms and the global climate changes. Image: Corey Watts.

Now, each stride brings the valley of Choquechaca closer. Further down, we find ourselves immersed in a mossy native forest, bisected by a tumbling stream. These woods are actually one of several community-run conservation reserves in the area: locals can take a little firewood to meet their needs but otherwise treat the place as sacrosanct. They care well enough, but by welcoming outside visitors to the forests and the fiscal incentives that come along with it, are helping protect these precious remnants of Andean wildlife habitat.

Bright-green colds of moss, like rainforests in miniature, cover native woods in the valley’s private conservation reserves. Remnant forest is protected via partnerships between outsiders and locals, and the income those relationships bring to Choquechaca. Image: Corey Watts.

Arriving at the hamlet where Adrian and his brothers live and once again we find camp set. No sooner have we plonked our weary behinds down than hot soup is put in front of us. I think I cried a little.

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Food for the soul. Image: Corey Watts

Adrian’s young grandson, Maxwel, appears in a Nike hat and poncho. This kid has walked an hour-and-a-half in the rain to join us on this last night with the family. His grandfather gently chides him for taking so long. Though the empire lasted only a century or so before the Spanish broke it, the Inca were able to extend the highway system built by other Andeans such that the total length of the network would have encircled the very globe over and again. In many places in the Andes, the old roads are still used.

It’s the first anniversary of the partnership between SA Expeditions and the Choquechaca family. That night, everyone lets their hair down. Peruvian Pisco (grape liquor) is shared around, the porters blending work and pleasure. Adrian’s wife, Dorotea, joins us with another of Flavio’s hot meals as the moon rises over these embracing mountains.

 Pumamarca—a city of flowers.

The sun comes up but movement is understandably slower than usual. Still, Enrique, bless him, hands me hot coffee as I reach out from my sleeping bag. After breakfast, we’re invited to Adrian and Dorotea’s house where the young women proudly display a colourful array of local blankets, scarves, and such that they have skilfully woven.

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Foliage is colonizing the the ruins of Pumamarca—a reminder that all cities go back to nature, sooner or later. Image: Corey Watts.

The sales are part and parcel of what makes this whole endeavour so important for the family in the valley. The exchange of money for crafts is not only a source of income but also pride. These are proud people doing what they do well and making a good go of it. Without visitors to this high valley, no doubt these women would have to step up their salesmanship in town. Instead, we come to them, their place.

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Old and new: Pumamarca through Eucalyptus foliage; the native Australian trees, growing on old Inca terraces, are ubiquitous in the Andes, providing an important resource for housing and fuel. Image: Corey Watts.

Like many hereabouts, Dorotea and Adrian’s house consists of a single stone room, with a thatched roof supported by beams of eucalyptus. A single lightbulb hangs from the rafters, powered by a small solar panel set on a crooked pole outside. This is new, Marco says: a combination of government programmes and income from tourism has transformed their home and their lives. Brighter than candles and gas lanterns, the little bulb opens up the night to activities like reading. Reading opens worlds.

Nick explains his melancholic feelings as he sees the future changing the basic spaces that he encountered a decade ago when first arriving. “It’s condescending to desire the families to not incorporate modern items that improve their quality of life. When undertaking such an endeavor as SA Expeditions has done in Choquechaca, it’s critical to assess the community desires and alternative income opportunities they have. Essentially it’s about understanding where along the “indigenous spectrum” a particular community belongs. For example, on end of the spectrum you have indigenous communities in Peru that have never been contacted by outsiders. Bringing visitors to these communities would not only be illegal but also highly irresponsible. On the other end you have people that have retained an indigenous identity, yet live in the capital city of Lima and drive an SUV and live in a 10th floor apartment.  The families in Choquechaca are somewhere in the middle, but at a critical moment when ecological and cultural heritage is being undermined by the younger generation’s pursuit of financial resources and modernity in the cities and towns far away. Our goal is to unlock the financial value in their native homes and incentivize the community to preserve the ecology and culture of the place.”

Outside, Adrian proudly shows me his hoe, the same type (different materials: iron and eucalyptus) used by his pre-Conquest forebears. The community keeps a roster and all landowners must work to plant, harvest, and tend their neighbours’ fields. The tradition of communal labour goes back a long way—yet one more example of how pre-Conquest culture, though beaten, has never died.

Choquechaca Visit - March 2014

Gregoria, one of the Adrian and Dorotea’s daughters, weaving in the traditional manner. Gregoria is one a new generation of Andean women: learning Spanish in town, gaining greater access to the globe, but still proudly embodying her living heritage. Image: Andrew Dare

The family graciously answer my questions about what’s growing next to the house: potatoes and other tubers, chamomile, spring onions, lettuce. They routinely gather culinary and medicinal plants from the wild, too. There are several dozen sheep, llamas, and alpacas, all happily munching on green pasture. Young llamas play tag as older ones look on; no doubt rolling their llama eyes skywards as all adults do in the company of crazy kids. A cow and her calf stop to ponder us: she provides a regular supply of milk. Only on special occasions are the larger animals slaughtered. Chickens give eggs. Together with cuy (guinea pigs), now peeping and peeking out from under the bed inside, they provide the family with a steady supply of fresh meat.

Cuy is a staple throughout the Andes. It makes sense: the rodent requires very little maintenance, eats little, breeds quickly, and can be harvested as needed without having to go to the trouble of killing a larger animal and storing its carcase. Cuy poo fertilizes the crops, too. Oh, and if you’re wondering how the cuy gets its name, listen to guinea pigs squealing next time you’re in a pet shop, ‘Coooeeeeee!’ Quechua, Marco tells me, is a language brimming with onomatopoeia.

Saying goodbyes and thank-you’ s, we set off late morning, electing to follow an Inca irrigation channel that, Nick explains, connects the stream to the farms and settlement below. Irrigation has been practised in millennia but this one shows signs of recent repairs. There is a well-marked track but Nick and Marco say this is the more interesting option—the road less travelled by.

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A section of local irrigation channel, originally built in the 15th century and repaired in the late-20th, still in use in the dry season, and occasionally employed by intrepid trekkers. Image: Corey Watts.

As we make our sometimes-uneasy way along the channel, Nick ponders aloud. A key challenge, he says, is to spread the benefits SA Expeditions brings to the families as evenly as possible, to not inadvertently create disharmony between neighbours, as more and more become involved. It’s clear the company is doing well to honour its philosophy. Still, he admits, there is work to do. So, on the side of a mountain, on a warm sunny day, on a major piece of fifteenth-century irrigation infrastructure, he and Marco stop to discuss ideas and options. The future starts here.

In some places the channel is clear and deep as it hugs the mountainside. In others, it’s choked with vegetation and silt, and we’re forced to walk tightrope-like along the narrow outside wall. (Strangely, I get no jitters. Stupid ape brain!) As we push through the scrub myriad scents are released into the warm air. Birds and insects dart and buzz about as the valley unfolds.

We see two or three farms, spread like patchwork quilts on the opposite side of the valley. The guys explain that Adrian and his brothers use these to produce food in the winter. We see the faint outline of the high trail Maxwel walked the night before in the cold. And perched atop a cliff higher up are the remains of what was a small Inca observatory: a vantage point from which they, who ran a command-and-control economy, could assess goings-on in this quadrant of their realm, as well as see approaching messengers, not to mention foes.

And then: Pumamarca, literally ‘village of the puma’. Marco explains that the first rectangular buildings we come across were stores for maize, dried potato, quinoa, and much else. Walking into the complex I am struck by how empty the place is: where once a mighty empire surveyed its domain and performed rituals that kept the world turning, bright yellow flowers now grow in their thousands in the bright sunshine.

 

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Nick takes a break at Pumamarca, overlooking the valley that leads to Choquechaca. The city was part temple, part settlement, part fortress, part center of commerce. Image: Corey Watts.

I loved the morning I spent with throngs of people at Machu Picchu. The landscape is as magical and as beautiful as the tourist ads make out. Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail are not everything, however. Experience them, by all means, but don’t forget there is so much more to the Peruvian Andes: more nature, more archaeology, more culture, and often with far fewer people armed with far fewer selfie-sticks. (I’m not opposed to the occasional selfie per se but selfie-sticks cross a line, damnit!) To me, there is an authenticity here in the Choquechaca valley that was utterly lacking at Machu Picchu. There was an exchange between visitors and local that is hard to find elsewhere.

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The family stove. Image: Andrew Dare

Strolling down from Pumamarca, there are people, mostly women, at work in the fields: mixed plots of maize, quinoa, beans, peppers, and more. By the time the Spaniards arrived the Inca had exploited every ecological niche in the Andes to produce food from countless plants. Native Andeans systematically, and with a dedication that would astonish modern scientists, developed hundreds (maybe thousands of varieties of potato alone. Crops were adapted t0 myriad growing conditions such that the food security of the empire’s estimated 10 to 12 million people was assured. The women in the plots return our hellos cheerfully, children on their backs and at their feet.

The last lunch of the journey is a real treat, if that were possible after all the other treats. By now, we have arrived to first the first road in three days, (a very basic mountain road). With the sky so clear, Adrian and company have arranged the dining tables on the lawn. Flavio proudly serves Aji de Gallina—the delicious shredded chicken in creamy yellow pepper sauce that is a signature of Peruvian cuisine.

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None of it would have been possible without them. Image: Corey Watts

Full, exhausted, slightly tipsy, grateful—we gather for a group photo. Tips are issued to the crew, sweets are given to the kids, and heartfelt farewells said. These men have made a harsh landscape accessible to this visitor and I am sad to go.

 Looking back, looking forward.

I suppose I’m a reasonably experienced hiker. I have walked alone and in company along trails in the Australian high country, the Canadian Rockies, the Guatemalan highlands, the Sierra Nevada, the Adirondacks, New Zealand’s South Island… Each of these places is special beyond compare, yet I’ve never quite felt like this. Here there is an interplay between past and present, nature and culture that takes you out of yourself.

Good experiences shape us in ways most material things cannot. I want the Andes to shape me and make me a better person. I want to spend my money making a difference. It seems to me that the trade is a good one. I get to experience a wonder of the world in extraordinary comfort with a truly hospitable family. For their part, the family gets financial resource so that their young people needn’t ditch their traditions and relocate to rough edges of the cities far away.

It’s hardly surprising that the Inca revered the mountains as deities. The massif is for, all intents and purposes, everlasting. These mountains are apt to give the most hardened unbeliever, like me, pause for thought. The Andes and their people are humbling.

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Choquechaca: the kind of scenery that demands applause. Image: Andrew Dare.

 

“In the Kingdom of the clouds” was written in its entirety by Corey Watts, and is republished here with his permission. All images were taken by Corey Watts and Andrew Dare and are credited accordingly. The feature image for this blog was taken by Corey Watts.

Corey Watts: A freelance sustainability consultant and storyteller of science, environment, food, history, and wine, Corey hails from Melbourne. He’s travelled widely, leaving pieces of his heart in New Zealand, the United States, Britain, Peru, and Mexico, but he still calls Australia home. You can follow him @BrightWaterSci.”

 

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    In short, it was the best trip we have experienced and we look forward to many more!

    Thanks so much for creating a truly memorable experience…we only regret we did not get to meet you in Lima!

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    SA Qhapaq Ñan

    The third and final preparation trek has come to a close, before the big trek begins in April 2017…

    Qhapaq Ñan – Day 8

    *Versión en español abajo*

    In the end, we made the 170 miles walk from Jauja to Antioquia in seven days, two day less than planned. The improved management and behavior of

    In parallel with sharing the historical, ecological and cultural marvels, we aim to place the Qhapaq Ñan alongside the great long distance walking trails on the planet . The 2000 miles path from Cuenca, Ecuador to Cusco, Peru can become a vein of economic activity through tourism. A feat that will require persistence and common vision from local and national governments alongside private industry. The Pacific Crest Trail going from Mexico to Canada along the spine of the Sierra Nevada’s and Cascade ranges was a vision began in 1932 by Clinton C. Clark, which took 60 years to be considered complete and with a network of “trail angels” overseeing its maintenance.

    Although the Qhapaq Ñan has already been a contiguous stone trail along the spine of the Andean since the 1400’s at the height of the Inca Empire and the traditional communal work structure of the Andes, which road maintenance was a part of, is a cultural practice already in place that can be organized and directed just like the “trail angels” of the Pacific Crest Trail. This is not even mentioning that the Qhapaq Ñan is one of the greatest public works of ancient man, with millennial cultures still along its route.
    It will become one of the great long distance hiking trails in the world, and our explorations and stories along the way we hope will serve for generations of walkers who come after us.

    Nick Stanziano
    Chief Explorer
    SA Expeditions

    ________________

    Qhapaq Ñan – Día 8

    Culminamos con la expedición de 320 kilómetros desde Jauja a Antioquia en solo siete días, dos días menos de lo planeado. El progreso en el manejo y control de nuestras llamas en esta caminata significó poder dedicar unas horas extras al día explorando en lugar de re-ordenar la carga o tener otros retrasos que se producen con un equipo menos entrenado. Durante siete días caminamos en promedio alrededor de 40 kilómetros por día, distancia que equivale a la caminata de cuatro días en el tradicional camino inca desde el Valle Sagrado hacia Machu Picchu – 41 kilómetros en total.
    Si buscamos un punto de comparación podemos decir que caminar estos 40 kilómetros cada día por el Pacific Crest Trail desde Sierra Nevada hasta los andes Cascade en Estados Unidos es la misma distancia que caminaremos por día en la expedición que realizaremos por el Qhapaq Ñan en nuestro gran proyecto durante cuatro meses en Abril del próximo año,

    No solo queremos compartir las maravillas históricas, ecológicas y culturales del Qhapaq Ñan, si no también queremos establecer a este gran camino inca a la par de grandes caminos de larga distancia en el mundo . El tramo de 3,200 kilómetros de Cuenca, Ecuador hacia Cusco, Perú puede convertirse en una principal actividad económica a través del turismo. Una hazaña que requerirá persistencia y trabajo de la mano de los gobiernos locales y nacionales junto con la industria privada. El Pacific Crest Trail que va de México a Canadá a lo largo de las cordilleras de Sierra Nevada y Cascade fue una visión que Clinton C. Clark tuvo en 1932, la misma que tomó 60 años para ser considerada completa y con una red de trabajo de personales responsables que se encargan del mantenimiento de la misma.

    Desde el año 1400, el Qhapaq Ñan fue un camino de piedra del Imperio Inca construido a lo largo de la cordillera, su tradicional estructura y el mantenimiento vial era realizada con trabajo en conjunto de las personas de los andes. Esta práctica cultural era organizada y dirigida por los “ángeles del rastro” del Pacific Crest Trail. El Qhapaq Ñan es una de las mayores obras públicas del hombre antiguo, con culturas milenarias que existen aún a lo largo de la ruta.

    Se convertirá en uno de los grandes senderos de larga distancia en el mundo, y esperamos que nuestras exploraciones e historias a lo largo del camino sirvan para las generaciones de caminantes que vienen después de nosotros.

    Nick Stanziano
    Jefe Explorador
    SA Expeditions See more

    3 months ago

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    SA Qhapaq Ñan

    The journey continues…

    *Versión en español abajo*

    Qhapaq Ñan – Day 1

    The team departed this morning from Jauja with 12 llamas heading along a transversal Qhapaq Ñan towards Pachacamac, 200 miles west, near the

    In three days by foot west, we’ll arrive to the great Inca stairway in the shadows of the great Apu Pariacaca (mountain deity). The set of 1800 steps will be the entry to another three days on some of the most spectacular Qhapaq Ñan anywhere on the 25,000 mile network. Ten days from now, we should arrive to our finish point at Antioquia, where the Qhapaq Ñan starts to disappear closer to the coast. The terrain for most of our trek will float between 11,000 and 16,000 feet above sea level, perfect for the llamas with plenty of Ichu grass along the way.

    Our first day on the route covered 15 miles and with better behaved llamas and more efficient llameros (llama handlers). Our llameros, Flavio, Nicolas and Valentine are getting better at their craft. We also have two local llameros, Tito and Antonia, the latter being our first female llamero in 500 miles of Qhapaq Ñan we’ve trekked thus far and adds an interesting dose of female energy into the group. She’s probably the most able llamero of the group and it’s her animals were working with while in the region. The majority female team at SA Expeditions might find this amusing that even on the Qhapaq Ñan I find myself collaborating with strong and talented women.

    Nick Stanziano
    Chief Explorer
    SA Expeditions
    ___________________
    Qhapaq Ñan – Día 1

    Desde Jauja, esta mañana el equipo inició la expedición junto a doce llamas a lo largo de una transversal del Qhapaq Ñan en dirección hacia Pachacamac, 320 kilómetros al oeste, cerca de la costa sur peruana en el Océano Pacifico.

    Hace 600 años, en la cima del reinado del Inca, Jauja fue un importante centro de administración que apoyó la expansión del imperio hacia el norte desde su capital, a 770 kilómetros al sur, en Cusco.

    Pachacamac, fue un importante centro religioso que se remonta a dos milenios e influyó en las siguientes culturas incas. Tiene sentido que el camino que une estos dos centros antiguos haya contado con tal planificación y grandeza. Es un ejemplo que se suma a la lista de obras extraordinarias a gran escala del imperio.
    Luego de tres días de caminata en dirección al oeste, estaremos llegando a la gran escalera Inca localizada en las sombras del gran Apu Pariacaca. El conjunto de mil ochocientos escalones será la entrada durante tres días a uno de los lugares más espectaculares de todos los 40,200 kilómetros que conforman el Qhapaq Ñan. En estos diez días de expedición llegaremos finalmente a Antioquia, más cerca a la costa donde el Qhapaq Ñan comienza a desaparecer. La mayor parte de nuestra caminata se realizará en alturas que van desde los 3,350 y 4,900 m.s.n.m, lo que es perfecto para las llamas ya que encontraremos abundante hierba de Ichu a lo largo del camino.

    En el primer día de ruta se ha cubierto 25 kilómetros. Las llamas se han comportado mejor y los encargados de ellas, los “llameros”, están realizando su trabajo de manera más eficiente. Flavio, Nicolás y Valentín están mejorando en su labor. A ellos se han sumado dos llameros locales, Tito y Antonia, siendo esta última la primera mujer en acompañarnos luego de 800 kilómetros de expediciones por el Qhapaq Ñan. Ella añade una interesante dosis de energía femenina al grupo y debo mencionar que, probablemente, es la cuidadora con más capacidad dentro del grupo.

    La mayor parte del equipo de SA Expeditions, conformado por mujeres, encontrara divertido que incluso en el Qhapaq Ñan me halle trabajando de la mano con mujeres fuertes y con mucho talento.

    Nick Stanziano
    Jefe Explorador
    SA Expeditions See more

    3 months ago

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    Photos from SA Expeditions’s post

    Qhapaq Ñan – Day 8

    Today we’ve arrived to the town of Hospicio after the pass at Apacheta Chico, the highest point of this expedition at 16,000 feet. In the 12 years since I arrived to Peru with

    Getting to Hospicio took us 8 hours of walking through remote Andean puna on a Qhapaq Ñan preserved by cold dry air and almost no people. We passed dozens of native flocks of Vicuña, a rare and prized Andean camelid, and a stunning virgin landscape of Queñua forests. I had my doubts that in 2016 such an Andean world still exists, but I am now a believer and more humbled by my complete vulnerability to the mountains and the local inhabitants of this place.

    Also an important note for anyone interested in exploring the remote sections of the Qhapaq Ñan by foot…Do not take the venture lightly. Be absolutely sure that you are with native Quechua speakers and either yourself or someone else on your team has deep experience in the Andes. Had our team not spent many months planning for all eventualities, our arrival to Hospicio could have been a much more serious had things got lost in translation. We had maps of our route, letters of introduction, native Quechua speakers and a team with decades of experience in similar situations. This is the moment in the story when I say…Don’t try this at home! Unless of course your adventurous soul is accompanied by a strong sense of preparation.

    Nick Stanziano
    Chief Explorer
    SA Expeditions

    _________________

    Qhapaq Ñan – Día 8

    Hoy llegamos a la ciudad de Hospicio después de atravesar el pase de Apacheta Chico a una altura de casi 4,900 m.s.n.m., el punto más alto de esta expedición
    Hace doce años llegué a Perú con una mochila y después de haber explorado gran parte del país, puedo decir que Hospicio es el pueblo más desconectado del mundo exterior que conocí. Los locales solo hablan quechua y solo las personas que son autoridades del pueblo tienen un nivel de español muy básico. La explicación del por qué llegamos de entre las montañas con diez llamas escapa de toda lógica en este lugar. De alguna manera logramos convencer a la supersticiosa población de que no tenemos intensiones siniestras como un pishtaco (alguien que roba órganos humanos) o ladrones. Luego de esto, nos brindaron un pequeño espacio de tierra en donde pudimos acampar con un poco de pastizales decentes para nuestras llamas.

    Llegar a Hospicio nos tomó ocho horas, caminando a través de una remota puna andina sobre una parte del Qhapaq Ñan muy bien conservado por el frio aire seco y por la escasa presencia de personas. Pasamos junto a decenas de rebaños de vicuña, un camélido andino muy apreciado, además de poder contemplar un paisaje impresionante de los bosques vírgenes de queñua. Tenía mis dudas de que en este 2016 todavía existiera un mundo tan “andino”, pero puedo confirmar que ahora soy aún más creyente y además me siento vulnerable contra estas montañas y los locales de este lugar.

    Para cualquier persona interesada en la exploración de las secciones remotas del Qhapaq Ñan a pie, tengan en cuenta la siguiente nota… no tomen el riesgo a la ligera. Deben ser capaces de comunicarse con los locales de cada lugar, tener en cuenta que deben estar acompañados con quechua hablantes o nativos y expertos que tengan amplia experiencia en temas relacionados con los andes. Al no haber tenido muchos meses para planificar todas las posibles eventualidades que se podían presentar, nuestra llegada a Hospicio podría haber sido más grave si no hubiéramos sido capaces de conversar y poder explicar los motivos de nuestra presencia. Sin embargo, teníamos con nosotros mapas de la ruta que estábamos tomando, cartas de presentación, quechua hablantes nativos y un equipo con décadas de experiencia en situaciones similares. Este es el momento en la historia que digo… ¡no intenten esto en casa!, a menos que, por supuesto, su alma aventurera vaya acompañada de una fuerte preparación.

    Nick Stanziano
    Jefe Explorador
    SA Expeditions See more

    5 months ago

    Shopping for souvenirs in Buenos Aires, Argentina

    Heading to Argentina? You’ll want to see this…

    Argentina is a shopper’s paradise – If you know what to look out for and where to find it. This blog gives you the inside scoop on three quintessentially Argentinean gifts

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    SA Qhapaq Ñan

    Tune in daily for captivating updates from SA Expeditions’ Chief Explorer, Nick Stanziano, and his team as they set out on their second ambitious expedition along the Great Inca Road, Qhapaq Ñan, See more

    Our Second Expedition Begins…

    Qhapaq Ñan – Day 1

    After 14 hours of traversing treacherous Andean roads, in route from Cusco towards Ayacucho, we arrived to Vilcashuamán. Vilcashuamán was a

    Being in the Andes, we will also be supported by our team of 12 llamas which arrived by truck after two days on the highway from Northern Peru. While llamas are an iconic Andean symbol, their use and familiarity has been declining since the Spanish introduced hooved animals as the principal beast of burden. Although the llama, in its elegance and native familiarity in the high Andes, give it certain advantages on long distance travel here. We want to understand and rely again, as the Inca’s did before us, on how to use of the llama as a pack animal.

    Today though, in our efforts just to get them loaded, we were reminded we were no Incas…The circus that ensued brought more than a 100 townsfolk and gawking tourists to watch us chase llamas around the archeological park in town that is the tallest ushnu (raised ceremonial platform) in the whole Inca empire. We had gangs of young children, in an amazing display of ability skipping across the terraced Andes, pursuing llamas that were on the loose escaping their load.

    Half the town must have been in some way part of the llamas’ presence and our ragtag team of 3 Cusqueños and two gringos, as we chased them down. In the end, we found one of the llamas so ornery and with a zeal to run, that we decided to sell it for 300 soles (90 dollars) to the man who also played dressed as the Inca king to take pictures with tourists. We declined his first offer, but soon found it a convenient way to find it a home that wasn’t part of our expedition. In the end, we decided to camp another night and think about things and find some more clarity on how this is all going to work out.

    I’ll close this first post with optimism and braced for the 200 miles of adventure ahead on the great Qhapaq Ñan.

    Nick Stanziano
    Chief Explorer
    SA Expeditions

    _________________

    Qhapaq Ñan – Día 1. Comenzando la segunda expedición..

    Luego de catorce horas de atravesar dificultosos caminos andinos, desde Cusco hacia Ayacucho, llegamos a Vilcashuamán. Vilcashuamán fue el centro del Imperio Inca durante el siglo XV, siendo el punto medio geográfico del mundo Inca que iba desde el norte de Argentina hasta el sur de Colombia a lo largo de la costa occidental de América del Sur. Se dice que Vilcashuamán fue la casa de retiro de Pachacutec, el gran inca rey que muchos creen construyó Machu Picchu. Vilcashuamán toma aproximadamente cuatro semanas a pie o en llama en el gran camino del Inca, el Qhapaq Ñan, trayecto que estaremos haciendo el año que viene. Pero esta visita comienza con otra expedición a lo largo del Qhapaq Ñan por una distancia de 320 kilómetros en ruta hacia el Pacífico a un oasis en el desierto cerca de la moderna ciudad de Ica, a donde llegaremos a finales de octubre.

    Estando en los Andes, también recibimos el apoyo de nuestro equipo de doce llamas que llegaron en camión después de dos días de viaje por la carretera desde el norte de Perú. Mientras que las llamas son un símbolo icono de los Andes, su uso y la familiaridad ha ido disminuyendo desde que los españoles introdujeron otros animales principales de carga. Sin embargo, la llama, con elegancia y familiaridad nativa de los Andes, tiene ciertas ventajas en viajes de larga distancia en este terreno. Queremos entender y confiar de nuevo, como lo hicieron los incas antes que nosotros, los contextos de uso de la llama como animal de carga.

    Sin embargo, hoy en nuestro esfuerzo de alistar a las llamas, recordamos que no somos Incas… lo que a continuación pasó fue un circo que logró que más de cien ciudadanos y turistas nos observen en una persecución de llamas por el parque arqueológico de la ciudad que es el más alto ushnu (elevada plataforma ceremonial) en todo el imperio Inca. Tuvimos bandas de niños pequeños, dándonos una impresionante muestra de la capacidad de saltar al otro lado de las terrazas andinas, persiguiendo llamas que estaban a punto de escapar de su carga.

    La mitad de la ciudad fue partícipe de la organización de las llamas, junto a nuestro equipo de tres Cusqueños y dos gringos. Al final, encontramos una de las llamas tan intratables y con un afán de correr, que decidimos venderla por 300 soles (90 dólares) al hombre que estando ahí vestido como un Inca aprovechó en tomarse unas fotos con los turistas. Inicialmente rechazamos una primera oferta, pero pronto pareció una manera conveniente de encontrarle una casa a esta llama. Al final, decidimos acampar otra noche y pensar en las cosas y encontrar algo más de claridad sobre cómo todo esto va a funcionar.

    Voy a cerrar este primer post con optimismo y preparándome para los 320 kilómetros de aventura por delante en el gran Qhapaq Ñan.

    Nick Stanziano
    Jefe explorador
    SA Expeditions See more

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