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Andean priest and spiritual leader, Don Fabian Champi Apaza. Photo by Tom Pablo, Andes & Amazon Semester.

Trekking Amongst the Sacred

Hello friends and family!

We just got back from our first big trek in the Cordillera Vilcanota, located outside of Cusco. If we had to choose one word to describe our trekking experience it would be “sacred.” Some follow-up words would be “breathtaking” and “challenging” — but the students killed it!

We started our trek by hiking to the beautiful glacial lake Singrinacocha, an electric crystal blue so vibrant it almost didn’t seem real. We camped the first night on this lake, waking up to a sunrise at its shores. The following morning our Quechua spiritual guide, Miguel Inti, led an Andean Indigenous ceremony in which he thanked the lake for having us in its presence and then baptized us in its sacred waters. Miguel Inti also asked the Pachamama (Mother Earth) for good weather and good luck on our trek — something that proved to be successful, as we had perfect sunny weather almost the entire trek, practically unheard of this time of year in this range!

On the second day, we headed over a pass and down into a valley. On the way, we passed another glacial lake, this one called Armacocha, which had a completely different color. The students reflected on how glacial lakes that were so near to each other could have completely different colors and qualities because of differences in mineral deposits. We also reflected on how glacial melting affects water systems and the lifeways and survival of communities in this range. That night we made our way to a community called Palcapampa, located in a lush valley between two mountain passes. We camped that night on the property of a friendly Quechua family who enjoyed sharing a little bit about themselves, their community, and their culture with the students.

On the third day, we headed up over another pass and into a valley at the base of Ausangate, the glacier that is the star of the Cordillera Vilcanota and of the Southern Andes in general. Ausangate is Cusco’s “Apu,” an Andean concept for a sacred sentient mountain that looks over and protects the city. We had the privilege of setting up a basecamp at the foothills of this glacier, where we would spend the next two nights. The following day we went on a day hike up to Abra Campa, one of the passes on the Ausangate trekking circuit. Up on the pass, Miguel Inti led another Andean Indigenous ceremony, asking the students to throw away their bad energy and anything they hope to leave behind during this semester over the pass and into the gorge below, in the form of a stone. As the ceremony commenced it suddenly began to snow, turning the surroundings into a pristine winter scene. It was a powerful moment of reflection and healing for the group.

This trek was a success not only because of the fantastic weather and because of the students’ positive attitude and initiative, but especially because of the connections we made with families and communities throughout the range. Both during the trek and in yesterday’s post-trek debrief, the students have been reflecting deeply on what “nature” means out here in the Andes, and how it contrasts to spaces we call “nature” at home in the United States and in Canada. This trek in the Vilcanota was in many ways an experience of encountering other cultures and learning from people of these lands. On the first morning, we had an elderly Quechua woman join us in the baptism ceremony and students shared conversations with her that were playful and profound, despite language barriers. On the third day, we bought artisanal crafts from a young Quechua woman named María who had an infant on her back and a toddler by the hand, and then we took turns carrying her toddler in our arms as she hiked down the mountain face with us, laughing and telling us about her family. By the end of the trek, the students were sharing and learning from our “arrieros”, our mulateers who corralled the 14 horses that accompanied us on trek to carry our food and packs. These four men are from a community at the base of Ausangate, and by the end of the trek, they were family. This trek made concrete something very fundamental to Andean cosmovision: that there is no true separation between “nature” and the humans that inhabit it, and that entering both the natural world and Indigenous communities requires a lot of communication, respect, permission, and love. It was a privilege to see the students excel at this.

We ended our trek by waking up early and hiking to Pacchanta, a community located at the end of the Ausangate circuit with a breathtaking view of the mighty glacier. And with hot springs! The instructors had kept this post-hike trek a secret from the students 🙂 Together, the group soaked in the springs, enjoyed the view of Ausangate, and chatted about the powerful trekking experience they had just completed. Students reflected on the lakes and the glaciers, on the power of Miguel Inti’s ceremonies, and on all of the people we encountered along the way who call this breathtaking mountain range their home every single day — from infants to the elderly. Some wondered if our presence was intrusive, or if our partaking in these Indigenous ceremonies was inappropriate. These are surely questions we will continue to reflect on and grapple with over the next few months. In the meantime, we are spending a few transition days in the city of Cusco where we continue to debrief our trek experience and also spend a bit more time learning about the social and political context here in Peru. The discussions of the dissolution of Peru’s congress have been lively; yesterday the students attended a charla about the history of Indigenous resistance in Peru; and this morning the students shared with a young Venezuelan man about his experience being a Venezuelan migrant in Peru. Tonight we shift gears and head to La Paz, Bolivia, where many more adventures await. Onwards and upwards!

Tupananchiskama (until we meet again),