Experienced 4WDers tackle the ultimate South American route passing Lake Sibinacocha, Mt. Ausangate, and its 20,000+ foot neighbors to meet locals in a remote Andean village, vicuña, and llama along the way.
By Stephanie Frias
Our life is one great road trip, highlighted by more than 20,000 km (12,000 miles) of roadways which lace through the impressive (but not always easy to navigate) South American continent. We drive an easy to repair, off-road capable, vintage beast (1984 Landcruiser FJ60) for a reason – the typical tourist trail just won’t do!
One of the most memorable roads revealed on our trip so far was in the depths of southeast Peru near the rural indigenous city of Sicuani – a midpoint between Cusco, Arequipa, and Puno. We slipped into the community to visit a friend of ours from Italy, who was working with indigenous artists in the area, coaching them on sustainable practices of local production and trade. In other words, she was teaching them a way to make money doing what they love best, without compromising the underlying principles of their ancient arts.
Much of the time, part of her workday involved spending hours upon hours walking along dirt roads of the epic Andean landscapes to meet with artists in their homes and workshops. She spoke often of the incredible scenery and inspiring simplified lifestyles, but she was quick to mention a particular place that was much too far to reach on her own. A tiny village high above the valley, rumored to be the most beautiful of all, was several hours away by car and at least several days away on foot.
My husband’s eyes glistened with anticipation as he pulled up Google Maps, eager to solve the tangle of paths that would supposedly create a route to the top of the mountain and that village. Although a tiny Catholic church and a notable lake were at the endpoint of the route, there was not an obvious nor official road that led from Sicuani to the village resting beneath the famed Nevado Ausangate.
Yet, in South America, this type of obstacle is common. Paper maps are non-existent, “Google-verified” maps are sometimes laughable, and half the fun of an adventure is getting lost to reach an epic location. And epic it would be. From the screen, we counted 10 peaks in addition to the monstrous legend, the Ausangate Mountain. Towering over Cusco at 6,384 m (20,944 feet), it is of one a dozen peaks in Peru over 20,000 feet high and is gloriously tied to many tales of Inca mythology. The spirit of this mountain is known as Apu Ausangate, the protector and water-god of the region, revered for providing water to both the farmlands and cities throughout Cusco.
A few days later we set off with an arsenal of high-altitude snacks, extra gasoline, ample water, and a pocketful of soapy green coca candies for me. Tippy top peaks are not always my friend, and it was necessary to prepare for a full day above the clouds which could quite possibly result in an impossible to cure, ear-splitting headache, nausea, or worse. Although we were driving and not hiking, the effects of a quick ascent can be even worse than a slow but steady climb.
But, Apu Ausangate was on our side that day, allowing me to forget my high-altitude worries, and casting an unexpected calm over our bouncing younglings (ages 4 and 5) in the back. But, it wasn’t just the children, all three of us adults were unusually quiet on the ride as well. The surreal surroundings warranted little room for small talk, as our eyes ran laps around our brains in an effort to absorb and imprint the unspeakable beauty of the untouched Andes.
It was early spring in the mountains, which meant the ochre hues of winter were giving way to the vibrant yellows and greens of spring. Black, red, and purple slopes glared beneath cloaks of blinding white snow, and melting blocks of ice made way for hundreds of tiny, reflective lakes laden with birds and ducks. Beyond the edges of the crunchy dirt roads, awkward bundles of milk-and-toast colored fluff turned out to be baby vicuña (a beautiful, high altitude alpaca especially prized for its ultra-soft wool) chasing after butterflies and splashing in puddles, completely oblivious to our intrusion.
As we neared the top of the mountain road, the world quickly turned hazy; although keeping its allure; this offered us a different perspective of life in this strange land where verdancy and inhospitably somehow dance together in the upper elevations. Suddenly, there was nothing to see, but a faded old sign with half-scratched off words, attempting to indicate where we were.
It took a long pause to piece it all together: Qhapaq Ñan, Calle de Inca Antigua, UNSECO. As the words formed together in the air, we realized our accidental accomplishment. We were driving a portion of the ancient Andean Road system; the Qhapaq Ñan Inca Road. Our wheels were rolling along a legend, a pathway built in the 14th and 15th centuries, and although largely out of favor today, it was used for hundreds of years thereafter. This incredible feat of transportation long preceded its time connecting an astounding 30,000 km (18,641 miles) of hand-laid roads from the Andes through the Amazon, and onto the Pacific coast. It is known as one of the most geographically extreme roads in the world.
We let reality settle in as we drove on, imaging the feet that stepped here before us, only increasing our anticipation of the great lake beyond (likely prized by the Inca themselves).
But, when we reached Sibinacocha Lagoon, it stood flat and slate-colored, shrouded in fog and hugged by a biting wind. Our high spirits deflated at the depressing and uninspiring view. But, we had known all along this disappoint was a looming possibility. At over 10,000 feet, nothing is guaranteed and the weather is notoriously unpredictable.
We opted to continue on a few km more to the aforementioned village, hoping under our breaths that we would find a sweet indigenous soul to take pity on our chilled cheeks and red fingers. The tiny settlement was our stopping point, and from here it would be necessary to turn back and loop down the same path which had brought up the past four-hour-long ascent.
The village, about twenty houses strong, was still and quiet when we arrived on this Sunday afternoon. Our Italian friend hopped out, calling the names of those she was looking for, and knocking on the door of the tiny church. Her efforts were met with silence, although the sun sent down shards of warmth from what felt like only a few feet above our heads. We decided to exit the car, dashing for the pockets of sunlight to warm our skin. The kids squealed over lumps of snow sparkling under the eaves of the clay houses, jumping at the icicles hanging within arms reach from the brittle thatch roofs.
Although shouting and knocking on the doors had not produced a reaction from the locals, the happy sounds of children playing had enticed a few dark heads to peek out the window. Smiles spread across their plump faces as joyful families came out to gaze at our blonde littles. As equally charmed by us as we were by them, they indeed did take pity on our unlikely presence on that cold Sunday afternoon.
We soon learned that this small community of Inca heritage practices Catholic rituals as fervently as Andean rituals. Sundays are typically a day of rest and nothing else. But, it turned out they were expecting our sweet Italian friend and were quite enamored that she had shown up with pale-haired children (whom many of them has never seen before).
They opened a dark kitchen and immediately began preparing soup, tea, and bread; apologizing for their lack of supplies so early in the spring. Reliant on a long trip down to civilization, their stock was now low after the long winter. We waited an hour or more, mingling under the warm sun rays, expecting nothing more than a modest broth with a few kernels of quinoa or grains of rice. But, when we were ushered in, we were delighted to find a table set out with as much love as if our own grandmothers had been preparing for us all day.
Large ceramic bowls brimming over with chicken, herbs, and grain were set on white cloth doilies over the dusty table. Next to them, a big plate of bread, breaded meat, and a pitcher of a frothy caramel-colored puree drink. Our humble chef smiled but emphatically apologized for what she viewed as meager offerings. We had no complaints as the food slipped into our bellies, offering an irreplicable warmth from the tongue to the heart, and on the toes.
At the risk of being rude tourists, we were forced to saunter off soon after our plates were cleared, needing to make it back down the mountain before nightfall. By this time, the mist, fog, and wind had merrily danced off the horizon in the wake of brilliant blue skies. But, nightfall wasn’t far behind, and we could hardly wait for a second-chance at spotting the glorious Sibinacocha Lake.
Merrily humming along the road in good spirits, we marveled once more at the undulating landscapes of the thin-air Andes. Just before the turn that skirts the sky-high pool, we found ourselves stupified by the splendors of something far more majestic than a twinkling lake. First – one peak, then two, three, four, five…SIX peaks towered around us like the halos of the great Apu deities. The first was, in fact, the undisputable Nevado Ausangate, surrounded by a royal circuit of five more mountains with Inca names even harder to pronounce than the first.
Each of us tumbled from the car, eager to soak up the ethereal energy of such a majestic landscape. If there was ever a time I felt compelled to bow to any celestial being, it was in those moments in the midst of the most wondrous landscape ever beheld in my humble eyes.
The children laughed and squealed once more, seemingly drunken by the thin air; charmed by the frolicking sheep and llamas, enchanted by the soaring condors. They climbed atop our car, convinced that with a just a hop or a stretch they could touch the sky from “way up here.”
Although we could be content in that very spot for a week, we pulled ourselves from the scene to make our way to the lake of legends; before heading back down to the places where mortals live. This time around, Laguna Sibinacocha did not disappoint, offering her face as a mirror to celestial places and that awe-inspiring crown of peaks.
We thanked the heavens and the horizons, the out-of-ear reach villagers, the llamas, the twinkling lake, and the figures of Inca legends, whoever and whatever would listen, for bestowing upon us a day we would not soon forget. This day of monumental landscapes, altruistic people, and the accidental finding of the epitomic off-trail road is forever etched in our brains as the “Holy Grail” experience of Peru.
Good to Know
- Offroaders Only This is an independent road trip recommended for those with an exceptionally adventurous spirit and appropriate knowledge in navigating, isolated, off-road terrains in high altitude conditions.
- Aim for Spring We completed this trip in early March 2019. It’s possible to experience similar conditions from March through May.
- On the Road The journey is a one day trip from Sicuani or Cusco, and a 2 or 3-day trip from Arequipa.
- Lodging for Families We recommend the budget-friendly hostels at Inkas Garden Suites in Cusco and YES!Arequipa in Arequipa. Or, the AirBnb run by a Peruvian/Australian family at Chaskana Rural Guesthouse outside Cusco.
- Low Budget The only cost of the road trip is the gas it takes, in addition to the cost of bringing your own food and water supplies. The round trip from Sicuani to Sibinacocha Lake is approximately 160 km (100 miles) of mountain roads.
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