Why Every Photographer Should Go to Peru's Huacahuasi Valley

••• @michaelatrimble

Unlike the revered Inca and Salkantay trails, the Lares route to Machu Picchu flies largely under the radar for most travelers. Developed by Mountain Lodges of Peru in late 2015, the trail blends the intimacy of mountain life with the stirringly beautiful Andean range, connecting you with the cultures that worship this land like a god. Weaving through traditional Andean communities, the Lares provides unprecedented access to life in the Peruvian highlands: This is the path for those who seek a journey to evolve just as much on the surface as it will prove to accrue within you.

The Ascent

After leaving the bustling town of Cusco for the trail, I arrived at Lares, the trail's namesake. My arrival happened to fall on election day: The mountain town was even more lively than usual, as droves of locals came flooding in to cast their vote for Peru's next president. Filling truck beds to the brim, families poured in from nearby mountain outposts. As locals congregated in the town’s many outdoor markets, a lively revelry ensued, fueled by chicha de jora, a home-brewed corn beer widely consumed in the Andes.

Leaving Lares, I traversed up a winding, thin slice in the mountain to stop for lunch in Quelquena Valley, the land which connects Lares with Huacahuasi Valley. While in this bucolic setting, a young woman corralled a herd of sheep, delicately tip-toeing around the animals, making sure to keep them in her decided range of direction. I parked for lunch nearby: With mountains surrounding me on every side, it was easy to feel infinitely small in a setting so endless, making it hard to think of anything else except what was before me.

After adequate rest beneath the Peruvian sun, the journey to Huacahuasi Lodge began. Loading up my pack, I began to trek the small path over Huacahuasi Pass, gaining access to a panoramic view revealing the entire valley, over 12,595 feet above sea level. It was a sprawling scene, almost fully green, except the occasional white dots, representing sheep herds in the valley.

The Descent

Once at the top of the pass, I began my descent to one of the most beautiful scenes I’ve ever encountered: Combing through patches of the mint-flecked moraine, I reached Huacahuasi Valley, Peru’s best-kept secret. It's here where mountains become gods and the wind whispers; a place where nature reigns supreme. When inhabiting this expansive landscape, it's easy to feel small. Two sisters passed me upon my arrival, taking moments to wave hello as they corralled a herd of horses through the highlands. It’s a moment that can only be achieved on the Lares Adventure, which weaves travelers through local villages that exude a palpable sense of life.

I arrived at Huacahuasi Lodge as a mist begins to blanket the entire valley, masking a serene landscape that encompasses a number of cascading waterfalls. I took refuge from my trek in my room’s outdoor sauna, resting in the tub as the mist curled around the lodge. As Peru’s mysticism unveiled before my eyes, the only sound I could hear was the rush of water reaching the base its falls.

Rising early the next morning to explore the valley, I went with my guide and fellow travelers to see the surrounding waterfalls firsthand. As we hiked through the valley, we passed a set of traditional farm homes where sheep and llama grazed.

In this provincial farmland, locals source their livelihood from the animals and mountains that inhabit the space, making each step a delicate one, as this is home to a lineage of individuals whose families have been caring for this land for thousands of years. 

As I got closer to the waterfalls, a pack of dogs began to follow. They mingled with the alpacas and llamas that filled the horizon, effortlessly communing as they have for years. On the ascent up the mountainside, I made my way through a path filled with crumbling rocks, mostly boulder and mineral deposits, shed from the mountains as the years passed. Due to this, the land has a continual, never-ending dynamic, making it a joy to traverse a land with such spiritual connotations. 

As the wind whipped around my face, a dose of fresh Andean air filled my body.

In a land so vast and extreme, it's easy to feel like a dot on the map, which is a feeling I've grown to crave the more I travel. As the wind created a pocket around me, it's in that moment I remember the importance of why we travel. We travel to feel something, anything, to connect us to the world around us. As a photographer, I often live through my camera lens, and only when I remind myself to look up do I truly experience the world as nature intended. Although I will never cease to document the incredible world we call home, I do hope to bring the mindfulness I found in Peru into my everyday life. 

Photo Tips for Documenting Peru

Scale: Due to the immense topography of the Peruvian Andes, it’s easy to miss capturing the scale of such towering mountain peaks. Before capturing an image, try to find a focal point that will enhance your scale. Can you spot a llama in the distance? Is there an alpaca foraging through the mountainside? Is there a particular boulder that's closer to you than the mountain, ultimately creating a point of reference? Whatever you find, be sure to show it in the image. This helps showcase the breadth of the landscape. By capturing a person, animal, or rock formation in an image, you're able to truly document the extent of the vastness at hand. When in Peru, this tactic is essential for optimal photographs.

Cultural Sensitivity: The Peruvian people make up one of the most precious and breathtaking cultures in the entire world. It’s hard to restrain yourself from documenting absolutely everything, but to show respect for the land in which your traversing, ask people permission before photographing them. Do you see a family walking the mountainside that you would love to photograph? Is there a handmade rug at a market that you would love to get an image of? Whether you seek to capture the lovely hat you have your eye on or the adorable child you see playing in the street, you’re sure to find more success with this nod of appreciation. Peruvians are known for their kindness, so they will likely oblige, but this act of respect goes a long way. 

Elemental Variety: During a trek in Peru, you will quickly notice that the elements can change in a moments notice. It can be a perfectly sunny day in the Andean mountains, and within mere minutes, a weather mass can blow in, turning your bright, sunny day into a torrential downpour. Due to this, it's essential you pack the right gear when you're on the trail. Do you have a waterproof bag? Is there a quick, go-to location you can house your camera, cell phone, and any other tech items in? Do you have the right clothes to wipe your lenses if the rain happens to land on the glass? All of these items should be packed for your trip, as well as a dry bag that can be easily accessed on the fly. This can substitute in the absence of a completely waterproof bag, which is likely holding your extra gear.