Journal of Writing & Environment

We thought hiking around Ausangate would be like hiking off the end of the earth, and in many ways it was. It was glacier country, the ground a hard crust that seemed bedraggled, as though it had just recently awoken to see the sky again after millennia of being trapped beneath ice. The landscape was a palette of yellows and browns, boulder-pocked and wind-swept, etched by streams that cut deep as they rushed down in a seemingly whimsical manner from the melting glacier and through the earth’s fragile crust. We had expected this, and we had even expected the brown-red moonscapes of the higher passes, to find old snow in the shadows of boulders. We knew the air would be so thin we’d struggle to breathe, that the nights would be so sharp that ice would glitter across the inside of the tent, that the elevation would drain us, the sun bake us, the wind scour us as though the mountain were trying to render us into rawhide. But we weren’t expecting all the people.

The terrain and its occasional villages seemed to me both prehistoric and post-apocalyptic, as though a great blast had knocked a chunk off of the mountain, and the people here lived in the rubble. Walking through the crumbling stone corrals that seemed at first as though they hadn’t been used for decades, we would walk over mounds of fresh alpaca dung. And then, we’d catch a glimpse of a herd in the distance, often pouring like slow water down into valleys where grass was most plentiful, a single person or a small family not far behind. The women dressed in traditional Andean garb: double-layered black skirts to the knees, the hems lined with bright edging; flat embroidered hats with a fringe all the way around; woolen leggings and leather sandals; and a brightly woven shawl around the shoulders, often with a small child tucked inside. Houses were built out of the rubble, round stones stacked and stacked. Corrals and livestock walls were built out of it too, the walls less carefully so, and when I peered up at one on a hillside from the valley below, I could see the sky gleaming through the network of chinks.

Ausangate’s peak sits at nearly 21,000 feet—the highest mountain in southeastern Peru. It’s in the Cordillera Vilcanota—an Andean range east of the city of Cusco. My boyfriend Ben and I were backpacking for four days, originally planning to partially circumnavigate the mountain; on the far side it was supposed to be more wild with glacial lakes and herds of alpacas’ wilder cousins, vicuña. But we had overestimated our capabilities, thinking we’d have acclimatized faster, and we were interrupted about every twenty minutes with the feeling that we’d like to lie down and take a long nap. So we took it slow, working our way towards the glacier, into terrain where the rubble houses became fewer, to where we could feel the blast of cold air rippling off the glacier, trying to inch our way into what we thought was a wilder Peru.

We’d come from the rangle-jangle of Cusco—from the smog and shouting and shoulder bumping. We’d come from tight alleyways with dead chickens heaped up on tables out in the open, their chicken feet dangling off the edges; from señoras grilling anticuchos on street corners; from church bells and street fairs; from pan pipes and menu-thrusters and women offering—insisting—massages; from honking, death-wish taxis and starry-eyed tourists in North Face gear stepping dangerously, obliviously, into the road; from the rowdy, late-night cat fights that happened in the eaves of our hotel roof and into all the stillness and silence that was Ausangate.

It was a smooth, easy, two-hour bus ride east to the small town of Tinke on the newly paved Interoceanic Highway. I was in Peru to learn about this road—it was now a continuous ribbon of asphalt stretching from Peru’s Pacific coast to Brazil’s Atlantic. It went over the Andes, and serpentined its way down through the Amazon before cutting into Brazil. My journey was taking me from the Andes to the Brazilian border—the last portion of highway to be paved, the trickiest portion in terms of engineering as the eastern slope of the Andes receives some of the highest rainfall in the world. This stretch was believed to have the most social, environmental, and economic impacts than any other portion because it runs through some of the most quickly developing regions of Latin America.

Before seeing the bustling cities that were growing by the minute in the jungles; before the shanty-towns I’d heard about—swaths of blue-tarp mini-cities that had popped up along the highway where people flocked, hoping to reap the benefits of booming global gold prices; before the tiny towns that were taking the first tentative steps with tourist plans and development projects, learning how to hawk their exquisite hand-woven goods and to treat their traditions like assets; before I would see with my own eyes the places where rivers used to be that were now murky dribbles with red and gray sludge where front-loaders had rearranged the topography—before all that I wanted to locate a place that seemed frozen. Perhaps, even as I traveled under the pretense of being a writer, I still had that backpacker’s ideology tucked away in my heart—that there was something authentic at the core of Peru. I admit, I was romantically wooed by the idea that for 1,000 years the alpaca ate grass, the grass ate alpaca dung, and people ate the alpaca, the cycle such a neat harmony. As I took breathless steps across the puna I located something that seemed to point down the black hole of time and space into a remote and ancient history. Ausangate was like a fulcrum—a place on which the rest of my journey hinged. From here Peru would roll ever forward, tumbling headlong into a rapid, jostling future of industry and global markets, of motorbikes and fashionable clothes and pizzerias—but here, it all paused for a minute, frozen.

After getting off the bus in Tinke, we hiked five miles away from the highway, south on a dirt road, and motorcycles and trucks passed occasionally, heading to the village of Upis. Sometimes, if the driver were solo, he’d slow and call to us, “Upis? Upis?” trying to offer us a ride, but how we would’ve gotten both of us and our huge backpacks onto the motorbike was always a detail that confounded Ben and me, but never the drivers who drove entire families, the smallest children tucked in the middle, their faces smooshed against their fathers’ jackets as the bikes went over bumps. Women wore indigenous clothing, but the men wore leather jackets, work boots, and baseball caps—was this a testament, I was curious to know, to changing Andean cultures? From Tinke, various villages and homesteads speckled the bleak puna like buckshot. This close to Tinke the houses were made of sturdy adobe, and the homes, tucked in stands of scrawny eucalyptus trees, were clustered in little groups with vast stretches of yellow grass and windswept plains between. The people we passed were not surprised to see foreigners with backpacks, but occasionally small children stopped to stare, smiling goofily at our gear.

In some places, the kids came running from the corrals, from the houses, to ask us for candy. Dulces? Dulces? they would call—boys eagerly jumping and smiling around our feet, girls often hanging back shyly in doorways. We had come prepared for this, with two bags of coca flavored hard candies. Our trekking guidebook had warned us: “Sadly, you are also likely to be pestered by lots of children asking for dulces.” It was a line I didn’t think much of at first, but I grew increasingly irritated with it over the course of my hike. Was it “sad” because the illusion of wilderness was shattered, and instead the hiker had to be reminded—pestered—that people lived here? Was he merely inconvenienced—did it make it seem as though he owed people something just for hiking, even though he hiked through their land, their homes? Was it sad because the hiker could not pretend that these children were not untouched by Western desires, that they broke this barrier of “us” and “them” by crossing the line, asking for a handout from the white person? That no matter what ends of the earth he hiked to, he could never completely shed his robe of privilege, and that these children reinforced the idea that he had something they didn’t?

I thought about all this, literally, on our first day hiking as I handed a group of boys one candy each. One boy wore a baseball cap with an image of Che Guevara on the front. “Do you know who that is?” I asked. He shook his head, but another boy piped up, sure that he knew, racking his brain for a moment, and then announcing a name I’d never heard of. I started to explain, but stopped when I realized I hadn’t the language skills to explain much further, nor could I know how to begin to explain the complexities the image represented—particularly for an indigenous person in Latin America. I doubted I could have even explained it to a kid in English. I hoped that by pointing it out, by giving him the real name, the kid might go and ask his parents or his teachers. Part of me wondered if it hadn’t been a gift from a former backpacker, who perhaps candy-less or in a moment of solidarity had handed the kid the hat. Keep it, he might have said. For you. What did Che mean to the people of rural Andean Peru? Villages high in the mountains had suffered the hardest during the worst years of fighting between Peru’s own Marxist guerilla group, Sendero Luminoso, and Government officials. This kid was too young to have lived through the worst—hadn’t seen his parents shot point-blank by one side or the other, hadn’t seen his friends taken away to be trained as rebel soldiers. I doubted he could wear a baseball cap to the little school in Tinke, where children wore maroon uniforms, but what would his teachers say?

By the time I’d handed each a candy, their attention was already drifting away, and I imagined a group of boys walking home from school relished the unstructured time, before they returned home and had to help haul water, or herd alpaca, or feed pigs.

Upis was where the road ended. The last place with electricity. Our first night we hadn’t made it past Upis and we camped nearby, against the warnings of a woman who told us it was peligroso—dangerous—there. Her Spanish was so heavily laden with Quechua and I couldn’t understand her explanation as to why. It was growing dark and we knew it would be cold soon, and our bodies were growing more exhausted with each step as we climbed in elevation. As we pitched our tent atop old, dried alpaca dung not far from a little stream, we could see one light glowing from a homestead near Upis, another glowing from a house in the distance. Peering towards the mountain, whose snowy peak glowed in the dark long after sunset, the valley stretched out in an otherwise still and silent darkness.

In the morning we awoke to music. A man stood outside our tent, his figure just barely visible in the early morning light. He held earphones in his hands, the music pouring out tinnily—it was Peruvian pop music, which seemed so out of place, the melody serenading the open, empty landscape. He grinned in at us as we sat up sleepily, and turned to show us the baby alpaca strapped to his back. Around him a hoary layer clung to the hilltops, to the mounds of alpaca dung, like mold. Were we alone, he asked. Did we need horses? Any supplies? The alpaca was wrapped tightly in a woven blanket, its head peeking up over the man’s shoulder, its velvety lips pursed in a Mona Lisa smile as it perused the hillsides through its long, lush eyelashes. We grinned back and answered: No, thank you, we have everything we need.

He nodded, but before he left he asked us why we had slept in water. Sure enough all around us were dark pools in the low spots of the terrain, the surfaces glazed over with ice. I could feel a slight slurping beneath the tent as I shifted. He asked it like that, as though maybe it was something that American backpackers did, as though maybe it wasn’t as blatantly stupid as it seems. Maybe we had slept in water for a reason. “Last night it was dry…?” was the best I could offer him, but I could see the doubt in his nod. Of course he knew that already, would have seen it with his own eyes, felt the land give a certain way beneath his own footsteps. Last night it was dry, but during the night water had seeped out, running and gathering once the sun went down, doing its best to make little pools before the night deepened and froze it. By the time it melted the sun would be up again, wicking it away, drying the ground. Should we have predicted this?

As the man proceeded downhill away from our tent, his figure disintegrated into a silhouette in the morning fog, the alpaca’s head bobbing in tandem with his steps. Even after he disappeared I could still hear his music, just a thin buzz in the distance.

When the Inca, 500 years ago, sacrificed children on the tops of mountains in order to appease gods, they often buried them with gold or silver figures of llamas and alpaca. They dressed the children in the finest textiles—intricate weavings made of the highest quality wool. Sometimes they had little pouches filled with fingernails or hair clippings from the ceremonial first-hair-cutting. Alpaca or llama fetuses were also offered to gods, buried on mountainsides. “Mountain gods were consistently more important than the primary deities named in the usual accounts of Inca religion, such as Inti (the sun) and Illapa (weather),” writes Johan Reinhard—the archaeologist who has discovered several mummies of human sacrifices on several high peaks in the Andes—in his book The Ice Maiden. His many discoveries revealed that such sacrifices were offered during periods of extreme drought, or when a recent volcano had erupted, or both. Volcanic ash drifting from one volcano might soften the ground of a nearby mountain. Only then could the Inca dig into the ground and create the shallow tombs, where they surrounded the body, which was nestled in a cross-legged position, with idols and objects. The mountains were responsible for the volcanic ash that drifted over valleys, making grass inedible for their animals; the mountain was responsible for water—the peaks conjuring up storms that would lay snow or rain in the valley; the mountains held the vast, frozen reservoirs of water in the forms of glaciers. Mountains controlled weather, and therefore crops and animal herds, and therefore the livelihood of the people who lived there. The group of animals called camelids—vicuña and huanaco, and their domesticated descendants, respectively, alpaca and llamas—were the medium that connected people to the mountain.

Camelids migrated from North America over 40 million years ago during the Eocene period. As the ice age came to an end about 12,000 years ago, camelids migrated higher in elevation as ice fields retreated, the animals developing the capability to withstand frigid mountain temperatures, the aridness of the terrain, and the stresses of living in rocky high elevation territory. They were the only herbivores to withstand high tannin levels of the tough, yellow grasses of the puna. The land was meant to be inhospitable, yet the vicuña and huanaco had evolved to convert these tough grasses into stored proteins, and those proteins became usable for people via meat and fibers of the animal. Approximately 6,000 years ago, humans began taming and selectively breeding the vicuñas and huanacos, developing them into the domesticated species of alpaca and llamas. Dung was used for fertilizer, without which quinoa and Andean potatoes wouldn’t have become staples. The animals were the key that unlocked the mountain and the rugged puna for the people. The animals and, of course, the glacial waters.

Today Andean people keep herds much as they did during Inca and even pre-Inca eras. And they still maintain the same relationship with the wilder vicuña, traveling across the puna in certain times of the year, herding the animals into enclosures, harvesting their fine wool before releasing them again. Hiking around the skirt of Ausangate, the impression grew on me that really much hadn’t changed for centuries. On our second day we found ourselves inching across a valley, the hillsides closing in on us. Flocks of gangly, inky-feathered ibises lighted in shallow pools across the open field, and the Upismayo River ran down the valley’s center, the current stronger, the glacier close now. We passed a woman weaving at a loom, fibers stretched out in front of her. Near her a little kid threw a tantrum, and he ceased pitching forward and back long enough to stare at us as we passed.


Ben and I had left Cusco two days after the festival of Inti Raymi—the festival of the sun god, Inti. Every year, the whole city become a festival, the morning starting with parades and song and dance in the central plaza, people dressed in traditional Inca warrior garb carrying spears and chanting as they run through Cusco’s cobbled streets. There is an invocation at the ancient sun temple, Qorikancha, which the Spaniards built their Santo Domingo church on top of. The procession goes to the ruins of Sacsayhuaman, high above the city, where participants represent the royal court of the Sapa Inca, his wife Mama Occla, and various high priests and noblemen. There is a reenactment of a llama sacrifice, the fake bloody heart held out to honor Pachamama—Mother Earth. It’s a theatrical production with cast actors, one that draws hundreds of thousands of tourists from around the world each year, a highly commercialized event full of glitz and glamor, the tourist buses lining the narrow streets in every block around the central plaza. When we were at Sacsayhuaman, flagging kept tourists corralled into a certain zone, and as we pushed our way through the mobs, a row of plastic porta-potties that would match that of Lollapalooza stretched across a parking area to the right, where off to the left across an open field, actors performed rituals in front of the sprawling, ancient rocks that once represented the teeth of a jaguar.

What we didn’t learn until we arrived in Cusco was that a week earlier another festival had been happening, a few hours east, celebrating a different god. Qoyllur Riti is an ancient festival, likely pre-Incan, and is celebrated largely by peasants living in the mountains. Up to 70,000 attendants, and some from as far away as Chile and Argentina, make the pilgrimage up the steep slopes, to celebrate in a weeklong festival the continued honor of the mountain deity, or apu, of Ausangate. Qoyllur Riti doesn’t actually happen on Ausangate, but in the Sinkara valley, at the base of a glacier called Qolque Punku, in view of Ausangate. “Although some of them come as lay pilgrims, or even merchants, thousands of them gather as costumed dancers,” writes Dr. Constanza Ceruti, a researcher who worked with Reinhard on archaeological expeditions and who has conducted her own researcher on Andean rituals. “During the five days of the festivity, at an altitude of near 17,000 feet, they dance for hours, at daytime and at night. Their impressive demonstration of physical endurance is meant to be in itself an offering to the nearby mountain spirits or Apus, especially to Apu Ausangate.”

In Quechua, Qoyllur Riti means Snow Star, and at the festival site is a shrine honoring El Señor Qoyllur Riti—the Lord of the Snow Star. Like Inti Raymi, and in fact like most ceremonies throughout Latin America, the once-pagan festival has become Catholicized, and at the shrine is an image of Christ, on a sacred rock, where he is reported to have appeared in 1783. Condemned souls are said to wander on the icy peaks of Ausangate, and to appease the great apu dancers dressed as bears, called ukukus, “who are perceived as mediators between the pilgrims and the mountain spirits,” writes Ceruti, “are expected to climb up to the glaciers at night, braving the freezing temperatures, the crevasses, and the fear of the ghosts of the condemned souls, in order to retrieve the sacred ice that will bring health and fertility to their households.” But in recent festivals, mountain police have been stationed at the glacier during the festival, allowing pilgrims only to take small vessels full of melted water. On top of global warming, the “somewhat more silent destroyer of the heritage of the Andes,” as Ceruti put it, some aspects of the ceremony meant to ensure that the mountains keep giving to the people were becoming a threat to the glacier’s longevity.

We weren’t aware of all the details of Qoyllur Riti as we hiked below Ausangate, just a few dozen miles from where this yearly ritual takes place. But without knowing anything of the people who’d lived here for generations, there was no avoiding the fact that the glacier ruled this terrain and the horizon, always the focal point as we hiked, luring us in. Its waters, coruscating in the sun, networked across the terrain, bleeding life into the rugged landscape.

Hiking, we met a man with green hands. He walked slowly, his attention focused on his work as he spun green yarn onto a spool. It was a vibrant green, a freshly mown lawn in the suburbs green, more vibrant than anything in the landscape. I asked him how he had dyed the yarn—how everybody’s clothing had so much color when all around us was only yellow and brown. It was a polvo, he told me, a powder he had bought in the market. It was made from a plant that came from the jungle.

When Reinhard discovered the mummy of Juanita, the Ice Maiden, on top of Ampato, a peak nearly due south of Ausangate in the region of Arequipa, he’d discovered another body—one that had not been preserved like the maiden—just a skeleton, which wore a woven cap with a resplendent crown of macaw feathers. The feathers, Reinhard noted, were from a tropical region of Amazonia, “probably obtained as part of a long-distance trading pattern established centuries before the Incas came to power.” And they were also trading with people from the northern coasts of Ecuador, as many of their idols were carved from spondylus shells—a thorny oyster found in waters north of Peru whose shells were of great value throughout South America.

In her description of Qoyllur Riti, Ceruti noted, “The dancers wear costumes that represent different ethnic groups in the Andes. The qhapaq chunchos, adorned with feathered headdresses, incarnate the indomitable Amazonian tribes of on the lower slopes of the eastern Andes; whereas the qhapaq collas impersonate the wealthy Aymara herders from the Bolivian highlands,” and if her observations are a testament to how the festival has been celebrated for generations, then it recognizes that the people of the mountains are not so isolated. That they’d been trading when Atahaulpa was captured and strangled by Pizarro’s army in 1533, and probably long before that. It was easy for me to have the illusion sometimes that this new highway I was about to travel down meant the beginning of the end of indigenous Peru, that it was somehow catastrophic, cracking the fine glass bubble that had protected people and place for generations. But in short: I knew better. In truth it was just another iteration of what had been happening there for thousands of years. What happens all over the world—people mingling and mixing, trading, pushing forever outward in search of new items, new people, new ways of living.

Landscape does not always hold history. Not like in Cusco, where tourists can still walk up the foot-worn steps the Inca built, where they can run their hands over stone walls of near-impossible engineering (considering it was done with no horses, no wheel), where traces of Incan temples are preserved beneath the Catholic churches the Spanish built right on top. Here in the mountains history is only read by what enters and stays—an occasional cross atop a stone building, sheep mixed in with the alpaca, shepherds carrying cell phones, ear buds dangling from the front pockets of their jackets. I’m not sure if it’s unfair to say the civilization goes on otherwise unchanged—because what I can’t see, at least directly, are the centuries of feudal reign, the decades of terror caused by fighting between Sendero Luminoso and government forces. I can’t see the effects of President Fujimori’s forced sterilization plans, or several attempted (and failed) government plans of land distribution. It’s ignorant to say life goes on unchanged here, and it’s not my choice to say people here don’t want to change or that they do.

What’s frozen eventually melts. On our second-to-last-day of hiking we passed across the front of the Vilcanota Range, the white peaks rising up over the stretches of yellow hills, blinding against the sky. We moved away from the glacier, and into a valley where a dirt road would lead us back to civilization—or I suppose just a different kind of civilization. But already, modernity had reached into this particular valley. As we descended towards the dirt road, we crossed newly laid cement irrigation ditches. Water storage tanks rose up on pillars over some of the buildings, and on a little hill sat a hut with a kind of antenna rising up over it. A new school sat on the edge of this little village, although on that Friday it appeared quiet and empty. Children we met asked us for pencils instead of candy, and I was sorry I didn’t have any. We crossed through backyards trying to get to the dirt road, passed by territorial, barking dogs that still couldn’t hide their fear behind the raised hair on the scruffs of their necks. An older boy came and showed us a way we could get easily get down. He wasn’t surprised to see foreigners, and pointed out where the hot springs were, assuming that’s why we were there. Eventually we navigated our way through the burgeoning chaos of a developing village, through the loose rubble of the hillside, and landed on the firm ground of the road that would take us back to Tinke and the highway. Our last night out, as Ben and I huddled into our tent, cold and breathless still, the glacier calved, the echoes bouncing off mountain walls and into the glittering, frosty walls of our tent, rousing us from our shallow sleep.