Under the watchful gaze of a shepherdess | Ancash Region, Peru
Peru is a country of color. There are the terraced hillsides of carefully tended crops whose greens range from basil to emerald to pistachio. There is the Andean sky built like a layer cake of ever-varying blues stacked high into the atmosphere. There are the 3,800 potato varieties plucked out of Peruvian soil whose outer skins range from canary yellow to beige to aubergine. There are the fish markets of Lima with their dark red tuna steaks, mottled brown squids, blush pink whitefish fillets, and mounds of mossy seaweed. And, of course, there are the densely crowded markets from which goods and foods explode out of tiny stalls—white alpaca ponchos and multicolored tablecloths with an orange-pink-green-blue pattern best resembling neon Sour Skittles draped along the walls; vibrant red wool blankets and hand-knit rainbow belts heaped atop chartreuse skirts and cobalt scarves; and bouquets of cilantro sitting alongside spicy scarlet and orange peppers next to mounds of purple potatoes all spilling out onto the sidewalk.
The eyes feast in Peru.
I first recognized the extent of this visual stimulation while in Lima, widely considered to be a boring and ugly city whose only saving grace is a burgeoning, globally-renowned restaurant scene. Before catching a bus to Huaraz where I would spend three weeks in the Andes, I roamed around the metropolis of nearly 10 million inhabitants for a couple of days, soaking up the ceviche, the Pacific, and the pisco. Intrigued to see the mechanics behind a city so infatuated with seafood, I woke up early one morning to visit Lima’s largest fish market at Villa Maria del Triunfo. From 5-8am, this indoor market is a frenetic maze of vendors selling squid, shark, tuna, white fish—anything and everything the Pacific has to offer, really—while buyers, among whom number a great many of Lima’s famous chefs, haggle over price and quality.
The floor was covered in a mixture equal parts water, fish debris, and plastic bags. Men yelled adelante and permiso while pushing huge carts laden down with seafood through the aisles; they cut through the crowds like a scythe. Vendors raised squid and tuna and a wide array of snaggle toothed fish seemingly dug out of the darkest, most uninhabitable depths of the ocean and assured me theirs was the freshest catch in the market. At 5 o’clock in the morning, the place pulsated with energy, and, contrary to what everyone would have you believe, oozed an authentic charm that Lima was purported to lack.
But it was days later, while hiking in the Cordillera Blanca, where I grasped how much of this country’s color is derived from its people. I had spent the day hiking to Laguna Churup outside of Huaraz, capital of the Ancash Region directly north of Lima. Located at 14,600 feet, Churup was the first acclimatization hike in a week of thoughtfully planned acclimatization and rest days prior to embarking on a 10-day circuit of the Cordillera Huayhuash.
I was traveling with four others on a photography-centric trip organized by a mountain loving man who has cracked the algorithm on how to successfully use social media to build a personal brand. Companies send him gear and pay him to be a brand ambassador because, at the touch of a button, he can reach a market of more than 300,000 eager followers. And so there we were, a group of strangers, all of us mountain aficionados in our own right, gathered together to learn the secrets of social media marketing while hiking what is widely acknowledged to be one of the most beautiful treks in the world.
So, yes, Laguna Churup was a stunning sight, made all the more picturesque by calm waters that enabled us to shoot photos of an absolutely perfect reflection in an alpine lake that shimmers green, blue, and aquamarine all at once. But I knew it would be stunning; Instagram and the Internet had assured me of that.
On the descent from Laguna Churup, while walking through tall shrub grass in a high alpine pastoral setting, I saw two shepherdesses dressed in striking shades of pink, red, canary yellow, and cobalt blue. I stopped in my tracks, completely caught off guard by the sight. We were in a grassy field; sheep were scurrying about and bellowing; the high peaks of the Cordillera Blanca surrounded me, and I couldn’t take my eyes off of these women.
Maybe it’s because I live in Washington, D.C. and frequently find myself drowning in a sea of monochromatic suits whenever I venture outside, but the colors of Peruvian textiles and patterns continually delighted and surprised me in a way I certainly didn’t anticipate. In the small villages of the Ancash where time-honored traditions are held in a tight embrace, I interpreted the vibrancy of their clothing as signal of a centuries-old appreciation of beauty and energy in both people and in their surrounding environs.
After this chance encounter, I began to look for color among the people and the produce and the products of Peru wherever I went. Lucky for me, the women and men of the Ancash ensured I would find it easily.
There’s this narrow alleyway in Huaraz a few blocks to the west of the Plaza de Armas tucked between a couple of busy streets where a bevy of women trek in from the countryside to sell produce. They lay out their goods directly in front of them, stretch their legs, and chat among one another. To a person, every woman wears a montera (hat) and a pollera (pleated skirt). Most have llicllas (a rectangular cloth) tied around their shoulders or waists. This type of dress is rooted in traditional Quechua attire and is widely worn by women in the Andean regions of Peru and Bolivia. The hat they each wore, tall and adorned on one side with a detailed feather design, is typical of the Ancash region in particular.
I felt like I had found some sort of treasure enclave, similar to what I experienced at Villa Maria del Triunfo in Lima, which led me into the unadulterated heart of a people and a place. An enormous simplification, I’ll readily admit, but chatting with these women about quinoa (I tried to explain how popular and trendy this grain is in the United States) and types of potatoes (they laughed at my ignorance of the variety that exists) and the recent presidential election (PPK beat Keiko; they weren’t pleased) was like an epinephrine injection of local culture. It worked immediately; my eyes were open to Peru.
“Quieres un sombrero?”
I was standing outside a sliver of a shop, its width no wider than the door, in which stood a hat maker. He wanted to know if I wanted to buy one of his hats, and the answer was an obvious yes.
“How old do you think I am?” he asked—a dangerous question to answer in any country.
“I have no idea,” I told him.
“60-years-old, and I’ve been a hat maker all of my life.” I feigned surprise, insisted he was surely no older than 50, and we started talking about his store. “There are many hat tiendas in Huaraz, but mine is the best. I have the greatest variety, the most colors, the best prices.” I was holding a blue montera in my hands, and I was not in a position to argue with him. In many countries, you’re expected to bargain prior to making a purchase. It’s how things are done. I almost never do it. I handed him 30 Peruvian Soles ($10 USD), turned around, and found myself standing face-to-face with an elderly woman wearing a tan montera. She pointed at my montera and smiled. “I like your hat.”
With Huaraz acting as our home base, we headed down valley to Caraz where we spent the night before hiking up to the Cordillera Blanca’s Laguna 69 and camping at 15,100 feet. In Caraz, I met a young girl who sold me avocados the size of small mangoes and grenadas, a fleshly green-yellow fruit that tastes like a pear. She was a fiercely competent saleswoman and nodded approvingly after I showed her the portrait I had taken of her.
Days later, I would happily give a woman in a green cardigan and tan montera what felt at the time like a small fortune in exchange for some beautiful alpaca and wool blankets she sold out of her small tienda off of the Plaza de Armas in Huaraz. “Chica, chica,” she would say to me. “You need another gift for your family, sí? Let me show you this scarf. I have more colors—blue, green, black.” The last thing in the world I need is another scarf from another foreign country, and I told her that. She smiled, said “no problem, no problem,” and showed me her selection of blankets and throws. I walked away having bought four.
Arms now excessively overloaded with artisan goods, I walked back towards the Churup Guest House, a lovely little hostel with the best breakfast buffet imaginable—I would later have vivid hunger pangs imagining their guacamole and fresh salsa spread atop warm rolls while hiking in the Cordillera Huayhuash. Fading afternoon light fell on the shops I passed, an absurd number of which seemed to sell the exact same thing: cell phones, cell phone covers, scanners, and printers. While I was contemplating how such a market for office supplies could exist in this town, my gaze fell upon a woman cutting up chicken parts. You could just barely make out her face through the line of hanging, featherless chickens. To watch her felt like stealing a glimpse of something effortlessly poignant.
We would leave Huaraz the next day and begin our hike around the Cordillera Huayhuash—10 days and 100+ miles with seven mountain passes to cross, the highest of which topped out around 17,000 feet. En route to the Huayhuash, we stopped in Chiquián to stock up on last-minute supplies such as coca leaves and fresh fruit. In a tienda like so many other tiendas in Peru, stocked high with candy bars, Gatorade, crackers, Ramen, and toilet paper, a man in a brown cardigan quietly stood ready to make a sale.
The Cordillera Huayhuash is a narrow mountain range running 30 kilometers in length located due south of the Cordillera Blanca in the Peruvian Andes. Its name, translated from Quechua, means “place of the icy winds.” Its peaks are more isolated and widely considered to be more difficult to climb than the mountains of the neighboring Cordillera Blanca. The area is sparsely populated. Small pueblos numbering 300-400 residents can be found down valley from some designated campsites on the circuit, and it was the people of these pueblos whom we would meet on occasion while making our way around the mountain range.
The campsites of the Cordillera Huayhuash are managed by residents of the villages that live directly down valley from each individual site. Tolls are collected from tourist trekkers; the proceeds are then used to make site improvements and ensure the land remains safe and pristine. On our second day of hiking, I met one of the toll collectors when entering the Mitucocha campsite. She asked me if the mountains in the United States were as tall as those in the Huayhuash. I told her no, and she nodded knowingly. “The Huayhuash are the most beautiful mountains in the world,” she said before returning to her knitting.
Our group of six entered Huayllapa on our seventh day of hiking. We were dragging en masse, beset with GI issues, sunburned skin, and utterly spent muscles. As we searched the narrow dirt streets of this tiny town for some source of hot food prepared by hands other than our own, I came across two little girls who were coyly watching me as I walked. They ran away, and then came back again—something in their smiles and eyes suggesting they wanted to be photographed. They posed with their hands behind their backs, the older of the two held a bucket while the younger held an empty plastic sack commonly seen for sale outside of small shops.
We set up camp for the final two nights of our trek alongside the shores of Jahuacocha, a large lake where we encountered more people than we had seen in a week. Most of them were members of hiking groups who were spending a night or two in the backcountry, and, as Jahuacocha is one of the more easily accessible campsites in the Huayhuash with a preeminent view of the mountain range, it serves as a focal point of activity. Jahuacocha is also home to a number of residents of the village of Llamac, located a few hours down valley, who “summer” next to the lake with their livestock. Two notable firsts in my life occurred at Jahuacocha: I milked my first cow (shockingly difficult) and I watched my first live calf birth (shockingly messy).
At Jahuacocha we also met the tia (aunt) of our arriero (donkey driver), Samuel. Tia is a fiesty older woman—the type who could be 50-years-old or 100-years-old; it’s impossible to tell—who has been summering at Jahuacocha for the last twenty-five years. She has an equally fiesty cat who purportedly lives alone in her one room cabin when she heads down valley to Llamac during the winter months. “He kills and eats birds while I’m away,” she said proudly. She pointed at some enormous water fowl gliding across the surface of Jahuacocha, and I didn’t doubt her for an instant.
But of all of the people I met during my three weeks in Peru, Samuel, our arriero (donkey driver), remains the most memorable and the most dear to me. No doubt that is a byproduct of the fact that I spent ten days getting to know this man. We spent hours conversing in the cook tent over freeze-dried dinners and while on the trail walking in the shadow of great mountains. His life story is a poignant one which speaks to both the opportunities inherent in living in such a beautiful and remote part of the world as well as the hardships.
Samuel was born in Lima and moved high into the Andes when he was two-years-old. He never knew his father. He got married at 21 to a woman four years his junior, and he had his first child later that same year. He’s been working both as a cook and an arriero for groups trekking in the Cordilleras Huayhuash and Blanca since his teens, and in the cook tent at night he would tell us stories of his adventures in these mountains. He has epic tales of reaching nearby summits and equally epic tales of nearly dying in an effort to do so. He is a slight man with boundless energy and incredible strength, someone who can change the shoe on a horse with his eyes closed and accurately forecast the weather in the Huayhuash for the upcoming week by simply looking at the moon cycle. His mother died of cancer at age 46; she had to go to Lima for her treatment, an eight-hour ride from Huaraz on bus.
Samuel is 28-years-old. He lives in the tiny town of Mahuay, a five-hour ride on horseback from where he met us on the day we began our trek. He owns two horses, four donkeys, a couple of cows, an untold number of sheep, and one dog. All of the livestock in Mahuay graze on collectively-owned, community land. Towards the end of our trek, I told him we should exchange email addresses or befriend one another on Facebook. He laughed at me as one laughs at a small child who has made an endearing but ridiculous comment. “Dottie, I don’t have Facebook or email. If you want to reach me, email Paulino, my boss at the trekking company in Huaraz.” I wrote down and handed him my email address anyway.
Mahuay is a town of 400 residents. There are three teachers who share the responsibility of educating the children through primary school. There is no secondary school in Mahuay. Those who can afford it send their kids a couple of hours away to Chiquián, the largest town in the immediate vicinity of the Huayhuash, for their secondary school education. There students live with family friends or rent rooms in town. Samuel told me that the greatest problems in the Ancash Region are lack of easy access to education and healthcare. Samuel has two young sons; I didn’t ask him if he thought they would make it to school in Chiquián a few years hence. We spoke about PPK, Peru’s incoming president, and whether Samuel is excited. He’s fairly indifferent. He just wants a president who will promote policies that help industries develop within Peru; he’s tired of having to buy overpriced foreign goods.
One evening all seven of us gathered around Samuel’s radio in the cook tent to listen as the Peruvian national soccer team played Colombia in the Copa America Centenario. We huddled close together as the temperature dropped into the teens outside, our shoulders hunched and our breaths collectively held as the announcer called out the plays in a Spanish staccato rhythm which moved across the airwaves at Mach 3. Samuel’s excitement was palpable; he couldn’t take his eyes off of the radio. I didn’t know the words of the Peruvian national anthem as it was sung or the names of the players on the national team or the brands of local goods as they were advertised on the radio, but I was unequivocally Peruvian that night.