In the Andes, mountains are more than geological objects, they are the sacred protectors of the people and animals who live in the highlands. These soaring peaks are seen as the source of life. This worldview is shaped by a chain of events. The high mountain peaks bring snow, snowpack forms glaciers. The glaciers melt which feeds the rivers and streams. The rivers flow into the valleys, allowing the grass to grow high and crops to be watered. The animals feed on the grass. The crops and animals provide nourishment for humans, allowing them to exist.
There is another chain of events that gives life to the people of the Peruvian Andes. Adventure seekers from all over the globe come here to hike through some of Earth’s most scenic landscapes. This, in turn, creates many jobs for local people who were once living in extreme poverty. The presence of tourists demonstrates the economic value of this ecosystem, which encourages the conservation and preservation of the land and wildlife.
There are many hikes and tour companies to choose from in the Cusco area, but there’s one experience unlike any other, the Ausangate Trek with Andean Lodges. Andean Lodges is more than just a tour company, it’s a community project that’s on a mission to create sustainable ecotourism in the Andes. They are fully committed to conserving the natural beauty and cultural heritage of the local people. Hikers who take on the challenge of the Ausangate Trek with Andean Lodges help leave our world a better place.
Unlike many of the other hiking routes around Cusco, on the Ausangate trek, you won’t find any ancient ruins. Hikers, mountaineers and nature lovers come here for the out of this world scenery and to get a glimpse into the Andean culture. Think snow-capped peaks, turquoise lakes, glaciers, and strange rock formations. This 5-day journey takes you around Mt. Ausangate, Peru’s fourth highest peak.
The hiking group is led by a guide who shows you the way over several high passes, down into alpine valleys and through traditional Peruvian villages. The group is also accompanied by a caravan of llamas that carry the heavy equipment. These fluffy porters make hiking in high altitude much more enjoyable and accessible.
The Ausangate trek is challenging. All five days are spent at altitudes above 14,400 ft (4400 m). The highest point is 16,850 ft (5135 m). The breathtaking (literally) landscapes and the sense of accomplishment you get make it a worthwhile pursuit.
Seeing Vinicunca, aka the Rainbow Mountain, is a highlight of the journey for many. As the name suggests, the mountain has incredible rainbow stripes that are caused by mineral deposits. Deep turquoise, rust red and golden yellow paint the Earth making it one of nature’s beautiful creations.
Each night, the hiking group arrives at one of the four lodges that were built by Andean Lodges. These lodges are not simple huts but luxury accommodations complete with private bathrooms and hot showers. Situated at altitudes ranging from 14,100 ft (4300m) to 15,100 ft (4600m), these lodges are considered the highest luxury lodges in the world.
These beautiful mountain lodges are places to warm up, rest, and refuel your energies. After a long day on the trail, a hot shower and a warm homemade meal is a real treat. In the evenings, you can sit on comfy couches by the fireplace and connect with your fellow hikers as well as the local people.
In the morning, hikers are awoken by the sounds of traditional Andean songs. After a healthy breakfast and a briefing from your guide, it’s time to get moving and enjoy another day of hiking through the Peruvian mountains.
For centuries, the people of the high Andean communities have lived as llama and alpaca herders and traders. They made their living by transporting foods and goods between the mountains and valleys in Cusco’s rainforest to the East. As the world became industrialized, roads were built, and trucks were a more efficient way to carry goods through the mountains.
The Andean communities felt these changes and were severely impacted when the trucks put their llamas out of work. During this transition, an extreme increase in poverty rose in the villages and small towns of the Andes. This lack of income forced many people to move to the cities, where some had to pick up jobs that were illegal and unsafe. Others moved to the Amazon, to work in mining; one of the most dangerous and poisoning activities in Peru.
One man was driven to give hope to the people living in the highlands. Roger Valencia, a Peruvian entrepreneur, had the vision to create a network of mountain lodges. These lodges would give work to the local people while providing a world-class hiking experience to adventurers from all over the globe. He plotted a route through the mountains that would provide hikers with the best views and raised 1 million dollars to build three lodges. The fourth would be funded by the communities of Chillca and Osefina through a grant by the Peruvian government. This gave the members a financial stake in the project.
Not only do the people work in the lodges, but they also use their llamas to create caravans for transporting baggage and equipment on the treks. This not only makes the journey more comfortable but also creates new jobs and economic opportunities for the shepherding communities.
The women from Chillca and Osefina inherited a tradition of working with textiles to create beautiful weavings that have deep symbolic significance and vibrant colors. During the trek, you have the opportunity to see this traditional weaving process. You can also buy a unique handmade garment directly from these talented craftswomen in their towns.
The lodges are operated 100% by locals from the mountain communities. They work as cooks, housekeepers, and guides. Every year, they go to a tourism training institute which gives them the skills to not only work at the lodges but also, in other tourism companies.
Andean Lodges has achieved its goal of integrating the traditional Andean economy of llama herding with the modern sector of the Peruvian economy, tourism. This integration allows the people living in the mountain villages to live in the 21st century without destroying their way of living.
The Land & Wildlife
The snow-capped peaks, wetlands, meadows, and beautiful lakes that surround Mount Ausangate offer a habitat for many species of plants and animals. There are 110 species of birds, such as Andean Geese, Condors and the Giant Hummingbird. Thirteen species of mammals can be found, including vicuñas (a relative of the llama), vizcachas (big rabbits), and foxes. The rare Andean Cat also calls this region home. Many of these animals are threatened due to habitat loss and degradation due to mining, water extraction, unregulated tourism, and inappropriate livestock farming and agricultural practices.
Establishing Ausangate as a Regional Conservation Area was a combined effort of the government, the Association for Conservation of the Amazon Basin and local village communities. The goal is to conserve local vegetation, prevent the degradation of land and loss of wildlife, and promote job creation and sustainable development that benefits local communities.
Vision for the Future
Hikers who take on the challenge of the Ausangate Trek play a vital role in preserving this pristine high altitude ecosystem. Not only do you have an incredible experience, but you also help fuel the mission of Andean Lodges. From the moment you step onto the trail, your presence empowers the people who live in the rural Andean communities to grow their own capacity to create better lives for themselves.
Experiences like the Ausangate trek with Andean Lodges inspire The Adventure Junkies to help people get outdoors. Stepping outdoors creates a chain of events that all have a positive impact on the environment. First, adventurers gain a new perspective of the world and their place in it. Second, outdoor experiences provide jobs for the local community. Third, the increase of people visiting demonstrates the value of wildlife and natural ecosystems to government leaders.
When you reach the end of the trail, you won’t be the same person who started it. After this surreal experience, you’ll not only return home with unbelievable photos and memories but a deeper understanding of the Andean people and the place they call home.