In 2022, Gretchen was pleased to join Tropic Commercial Manager Maru and a group of agents and operators on a Peru FAM. The group spent time exploring the highlights and behind-the-scenes experiences of Lima, Cusco and the Sacred Valley, including a 3-day high alpine Andean trek with community-based Andean Lodges, with whom Tropic forged a new partnership with in 2022. Andean Lodges is partly owned by the communities of Chillca and Osefina. Their cozy and welcoming lodges are the highest in the world.
This was my first time visiting Peru. I thought I had a solid sense of what it would be like, but the country exceeded my expectations in every way! The culture, beauty, food and experiences – especially the Tropic-style experiences – make for an unforgettable journey. In advance of our trek with Andean Lodges, we spent time in Cusco and the Sacred Valley to acclimatize to the altitude. This is very important to avoid altitude sickness when trekking in the Andes. Living in Colorado and being a keen hiker, I didn’t struggle with altitude, but it affects everyone differently and can impact people that have never before struggled with it. Tropic always plans Andean adventures with an acclimitization plan in mind.
I was super excited for our trek through the Vilcanota’s Cordillera, on a route known as the “Camino del Apu Ausangate” located in close proximity of the highest sacred mountain in the Department of Cusco – Apu Ausangate. The “Apu” is the bearer of life and guardian of one of the most pristine mountain ecosystems in the world. We would be trekking more than 15 miles in 3 days through this sacred land, crossing a high point of over 17,000 feet above sea level on the Palomani Pass. We were going to be staying in community-run lodges with no wifi, electricty or heating, and llamas would be carrying our gear for us – a real back to basics adventure!
It was about a three hour vehicle ride from the city of Cusco to the start of our trek. We drove through the scenic Southern Valley, which I hope to explore another time. The Southern Valley is the geographical space that connects the capital ofthe Inca Empire with the jungle of Madre de Dios and Lake Titicaca. There are many villages to explore with unique culinary traditions, Incan archeological sites, Baroque churches and more. And all, of course, best done Tropic-style.
As we left the valley floor, we headed up dramatic, breathtaking (literally) mountain roads and my excitement began to build. The communities became smaller and further spaced apart; the scenery wilder. We were heading into an area with the world’s last llama and alpaca herders live, working hard to keep their traditional way of life alive.
We arrived to be greeted by our guide Jesus (our second guide, Moises, would join us later). He and a team from the community of Chillca were preparing us a beautiful, hearty lunch of vegetables, shredded chicken and avocado – perfect for fueling the upcoming few hours of trekking. We ate in a dining tent, protecting us from the sun and breeze. We were also introduced to coca tea and chewing coca leaves – both are used to prevent and alleviate altitude sickness. Chewing the leaves was fine, though most of the group preferred the tea. Glucose also helps, so hard candies were available throughout the trek, including some chicha morada (purple corn) flavored ones that were a favorite!
We set off – walking into a wilderness with gorgeous landscapes, alpine lakes, snow-frosted mountains and deep tranquility. We were also privileged to be given the opportunity for a connection with the local people who opened up their ways of living to our group and hosted us with all of the welcoming warmth of Andean culture. Our first day saw us trekking by a burbling stream, among green peaks with glimpses of the snowy peaks ahead. We came upon our first llamas and alpacas (and learned to tell the difference between the two). We met and interacted with some local kids and their dogs – Rambo and Tarzan – typical dog names in the Peruvian puna (grasslands).
Our afternoon trek was easy and took us to our first lodge – Chillca Tambo – where our alpaca herder community hosts were awaiting our arrival. The sun was still shining and we could see the incredibly beautiful view to Apu Ausangate and the surrounding peaks from the huge lodge windows. There was a crackling fire in the fireplace and almost as soon as we sat down we were given a basket of delicious melted cheese sandwiches to assuage the hunger from our hike which we ate while sipping steaming cups of tea.
As the light faded, our hosts lit candles throughout the main area of the lodge, providing a warm, atmostpheric glow. Hot showers were available for those that wanted one. Dinner was a simple but delicious affair, once again accompanied by hot tea and water around a large, communal table. We poked our heads outside to see the stars for a moment before drifting off to bed – each person finding their room lit by a flickering candle with a hot water bottle tucked under their super warm duvet. I slept the sleep of a screenless and very active day – pure heaven!
The next morning, the local Chilla community brought their wares (by our request) to display and sell. Their textiles (made from alpaca) were stunning. They are totally authentic and super memorable souveneirs – whether you want a hat, scarf, blanket, table runner or anything else. The funds go directly to the artisan, and it’s another way for this community to make a living while preserving their traditions.
We then had a formal introduction to our hosts, learning their names and roles with Andean Lodges, as well as how long they had been involved with the project. We would depart before this amazing team, but we would find them once again waiting to welcome us at the next lodge. They would pack up all of their gear, load our bags on the llamas and somehow bypass us while wearing their traditional clothing (and most of them in sandals). Despite all of our fancy outdoor gear and hiking boots, we wouldn’t stand a chance of keeping up with them! It was a bit humbling.
We spent the day hiking through the broad Upis Valley, with impressive and inspiring glacier-covered mountain views the whole way. We passed by herds of llamas and alpacas – which no one ever tired of seeing! The trail eventually narrowed as we made our way past a waterfall that drops from Santa Catalina Mountain. This trail is mostly used by the area’s wandering llamas, but they were happy enough to share with us. We stopped for lunch in one of the community member’s homes and it was nice to be out of the elements briefly to warm up with steaming tea. We passed two beautiful alpine lakes and crossed a series of glacial moraines before reaching Machuracay Lodge, located at the foot of Apu Ausangate (and situated at the height of the summit of Mont Blanc!).
We enjoyed another cozy late afternoon by the fire, refueling with snacks and tea, eventually followed by dinner and another super restful night (though altitude can cause sleep disruption for some people). We needed our sleep for the big push on day 3!
We gathered out in front of the lodge in the morning under the watchful gaze of Apu Ausangate. We each made an offering to the mountain, thanking the spirit for allowing us to spend time in its presence and requesting safe passage for our group over the pass. We departed and immediately began a steep and very demanding ascent of Palomani Pass. Our guides were sure to pace us properly and to take frequent breaks. I have been at elevations over 14,000′ before, but never to 17,000 and I must say I felt it! But the sense of accomplishment and the reward of the majestic 360 degree views was absolutely fantastic!
We took lots of obligatory photos at the summit before our long descent. We descended to Ausangate Cocha Lake (with stunning views of the glaciated south face of the Apu), our beautiful llama helpers bypassing us on the way. After stopping for a snack, we continued on toward the red sandstone formations of snowcapped “Nevado Del Inca.” Near the valley floor, we stopped for another filling lunch and to say our goodbyes to our hosts and the beautiful mountain valleys.
Part of what draws people to Peru is its fascinating continuiously unfolding story of more than 5,000 years, joining its ancestral history and living cultures. Equally importantly, there is the chance to connect with authentic community-based tourism experiences. This trek gave us the chance to immerse ourselves in Peru’s beautiful nature while local ambassadors shared their Andean traditions with us. Our AndeanLodges guides, Jesus and Moises, not only helped us learn about Ausangate and the surrounding communities but also helped to keep us safe and ensured our success on the trek.
Peru can impress the most seasoned travelers and Tropic takes a visit to the next level, helping your guests have an experience like no other. From hand-selected, owner-operated properties, one-of-a-kind May I Introduce You programs and dedicated team on the ground in Peru (including OnTour Concierges) to off-the-beaten path experiences and incredible guides, Peru Tropic-style is the ultimate way to discover the country.