Our Purpose
February 14, 2020

By: Nick Dall

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 Sincha 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 Sincha 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.

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 Sincha 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.

 

Which is why we’ve partnered with the scientist-backed non-profit ECOAN which has been rehabilitating Andean ecosystems since 2000. ECOAN employs local people to rear Queñua seedlings (100,000 per year!) which are planted throughout the Vilcanota Mountain Range. Over the years, they have planted more than 1.5 million trees across an 8,500-hectare swath of the Andes.

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” according to ECOAN – but using these slow-growing trees for firewood is a recipe for disaster. Which is why ECOAN doesn’t just plant the trees, they also promote ecotourism in the newly-formed forests, and they work to “reduce the firewood requirements of local communities by installing improved stoves and solar panels.”

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 ECOAN via park entrance fees. In 2019, we ramped things up several notches by giving a lump sum donation which was to be used to plant trees in the Choquechaca Valley during ECOAN’s annual tree planting festival, Queñua Raymi. Watch this video to find out more about the festival:

We have made an ongoing (and increasing) commitment to donate funds to ECOAN every year. And we will soon 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 (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 South America.

 

Keen to explore South America 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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