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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”