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Why we're planting Queñua trees in the Choquechaca Valley

The seed of our reforestation mission was sown way back in 2005 when our founder first hiked into the rural Andean community of Choquechaca and established a lifelong friendship with the Sinchi family. Since then, our ongoing relationship with the people of Choquechaca has helped us to refine our business model and discover our company purpose. Now, our tree planting program gives us a chance to leave a legacy in the Choquechaca Valley that will endure for generations to come.

SA Expeditions founder Nick Stanziano visiting with the Sinchi Family and visitors.

The highlands of Peru, Bolivia, and Chile were once carpeted with highly-specialized Queñua (also spelled Queuña) trees. Centuries of deforestation, coupled with the proliferation of faster growing but extremely thirsty Australian eucalyptus, pose a real threat to places like Choquechaca. By planting thousands of Queñua trees over the years to come, we hope to contribute to a brighter future for both Choquechaca and the planet as a whole.

A stand of Queñuas. (Photo: ECOAN)

The seed is sown

In 2015, as part of our deep-seated belief that “a company’s economic engine can create a force towards societal improvement as part of its structural DNA,” we added a business element to our relationship with the people of Choquechaca by bringing our first group of travelers to the valley. The travelers enjoyed a spectacular hike into Choquechaca, an intimate introduction to the customs, history and social structure of the village, the opportunity to explore the Queñua forests for themselves, and a homegrown mountain lunch.

You can visit your guides' ancestral village and meet their families at Choquechaca. 

These visits were an instant success. The sincere cultural exchange benefited travelers and locals alike, and the economic injection enabled the people of Choquechaca to envisage a future which did not involve their menfolk spending most weeks out of town, guiding tourists on the traditional four-day Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Each day-visit brings in at least $300 (a porter on the Inca Trail earns $100 for four days’ work) and the opportunity for the women of Choquechaca to showcase their incredible weaving prowess. If this sounds like your cup of chicha, you should check out our Active Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu tour, or our Great Inca Trail Day Hikes tour.

Building on the success of these trips to Choquechaca, we began to take annual SA Expeditions treks into the Peruvian highlands in the spirit of developing unique hikes for our clients, and trying to make a positive impact to the communities we visit. This seed has since grown, taking us across 4,000 miles of the Andes on our Great Inca Trail expeditions (read the blister-by-blister account in our e-Book), and later into the formal creation of SA Explorations and the discovering of our company purpose in all its forms. Once again, you can be an instrument for change by hiking one (or more) of our mind-altering Great Inca Trail treks.

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree

SA Expeditions has come a long way since that first visit to Choquechaca in 2005, but our commitment to the community that started it all remains stronger than ever. Not only do we continue to bring travelers to the valley (our all-new Great Inca Trail Day Hikes tour being a classic example), but we also work closely with the Sinchi family to carry out our Great Inca Trail treks throughout Peru.

Reforestation has been on our minds for a while now but, instead of rushing into things, we wanted to do it in a careful, measured way that ensures maximum impact. Planting trees isn’t as simple as digging a hole in the ground – you need to know what species to plant, and where, when, and how to correctly plant it.

This is why we’ve partnered with the locally-operated non-profit Valle Sagrado Verde, which has been rehabilitating Andean ecosystems by employing local people to rear and translplant native tree seedlings throughout the Ollantaytambo region of the Sacred Valley.

One of the Polylepis nurseries. (Photo: ECOAN)

The 28 species of the genus Polylepis, known as Queñuas, are uniquely adapted to grow at altitudes between 3,500 and 5,200 meters (11,500 to 17,000ft) above sea level, making them the highest-growing trees on the planet. The trees contain a number of specialized features which allow them to survive in the cold, dry, and extremely sunny climate of the high Andes. The Queñua’s dense crown of leaves (the Queñua is evergreen) covered with small hairs captures moisture from the air and carries it to the roots. And its emblematic red, flaky bark serves the dual purpose of insulating against the cold (the air in between the layers of bark remains at a fairly constant temperature, day and night) and providing humus (compost) for the tree’s own roots.

The slow-growing Queñua helps to maintain the water regime of the high forests and forms a barrier against strong winds. Replanting Queñuas has helped to fight erosion (both rain and wind) and has also contributed to saving several species from extinction. The numerous mosses and lichens which grow on its bark feed countless endemic birds. Used carefully, Queñua trees can still be a valuable timber resource in the Andes – their hard wood is “ideal for building houses and tools” – but using these slow-growing trees for firewood is a recipe for disaster.

Tree planting during Queuña Raymi. (Photo: ECOAN)

Putting our money where our mouths are

Ever since we’ve been taking travelers to the Choquechaca Valley, we’ve been contributing a small amount to local reforestation projects via official park entrance fees. In 2019, we ramped things up several notches by giving a lump sum donation to EcoAn, which was to be used to plant trees in the Choquechaca Valley during the region's annual tree planting festival, Queñua Raymi. In 2021, we pivoted to support Valle Sagrado Verde and the folks who are actively working to prevent forest fires in the Sacred Valley.

We have made an ongoing (and increasing) commitment to donate funds to reforestation of native species every year. And we soon hope to be hosting Choquechaca tree planting events of our own!

You can play your part, too

The good news is that, through the simple act of booking a trip through SA Expeditions, you will be contributing to reforesting the Andes. While the impact of our purpose-driven model is most evident on our Choquechaca expeditions (here you’ll even be able to walk to Queñua forests, both ancient and recently planted) and Great Inca Trail expeditions, the fact of the matter is that every single trip booked through us plays a role in delivering dignified social, economic, and environmental development to the people and habitats of the places we operate.

Keen to explore the world and contribute to reforesting the Andes while you’re at it? Check out our most popular trekking, nature, and cruise adventures, or speak to a Destination Expert about crafting a boutique itinerary of your own.

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