The Jewel of the Andes
The quest to reach Laguna Singrenacocha the Andes in Peru.
Part 1 of the Way of the Ausangate.
A Bus into the Andes
An early morning, rickety old bus left the cobbled streets and red-roofed buildings of Cusco for the roads to the east. The first hour was a smooth passage as it traverses the eastern boundary of the Sacred Valley of the Incans, passing the ruins of Tipon and Piquillacta, until reaching Urcos at the intersection of two roads. Continuing straight leads the passenger to the blue shores of Lake Titicaca and the borders of Bolivia. However, forking north, the road narrows and steeply ascends the Andes Mountains, plateauing at dizzying heights until descending into the never ending realms of the Amazon Rainforest, all the way to the border of Brazil. And it is the road north where we are headed on this rusty bus, stepping off at Tinki, a town wedged between glaciated peaks on both sides.
The bus ride was a journey in itself, as the confident driver fearlessly climbed the steep mountain roads full of blind corners, revealing a new vantage point by the minute. Near the top of the ascent, the mighty peaks we will trek into the coming days appeared under a break of clouds - the Ausangate Mountains, championed by 20,945 foot peak of the same name. A wild, yet stunningly beautiful range, full of impossibly colored lagoons and lakes, multi-colored cliffs and hanging glaciers - or so it appears from Google Earth. And this leads to our wanted destination, a lake discovered on a virtual tour of the mountains…
One Month Earlier ~
A month or so before embarking on our traverse through Peru, a detailed peruse of this nation on Google Earth led my eyes to the Ausangate Mountains. The rugged peaks and beautiful lakes shone as a bright light, but one lake in particular caught my attention more than others - Laguna Singrenacocha. The color was impossibly blue, it stood not far from the main road, and the route to its shores seemed easily attainable. A quick search online of this lake found very little information, however, spurring my curiosity to new heights. I made a plan: reach the tiny town of Tinki by bus and then convince a taxi driver - if there was any - to drive us to the lake. And as the first part of plan came to realization as we are dropped off in Tinki, the second, and most important part, is yet to be known.
Passage to the Lake
Tinki is a tiny, unassuming village of concrete structures and dilapidated streets, a far cry to the beautiful mountains that surround the town. An initial scan found no “taxis,” but we kept hope. We also realized this could be our last chance for a warm meal in several hours, so we plopped ourselves in a tiny shop seemingly served by a young, 10-year old girl. We attempted to order something, only causing the girl to run inside and bring out her mother. At last, we ordered the “only” option of chicken, fries and vegetables, which by now has become a daily meal. The meal did its job just fine though. As we paid the mother a modest sum, we also asked where we could hire a driver. She pointed up the hill to a cluster of three old vehicles with the three drivers having a chat.
We wandered on up there to surprisingly find them having little interest in transporting us “tourists” anywhere. “Paccanta?” one man asked, a nearby village known for hot springs and a starting point for treks. “Singrenacocha… Laguna Singrenacocha.” I responded. He just walked off. I asked the others, and they seemed to have a little discussion amongst themselves. “Very far” one said, only to offer an exorbitant price. I knew it only to be 25 km away, so I gave what a thought to be a fair price in the range of a few hundred soles for the ride to the lake, wait an hour, then transportation to Paccanta, the hot springs village. Another discussion ensued for who knows what about, only for a middle-aged man to offer the journey.
And so began the journey to the lake, as the second part of the plan came to fruition. Soon, our eyes will behold Singrenacocha, but will it’s colors rival those seen virtually? I won’t take long to find out as the driver is a maniac driving top speeds through the mountains, cutting down the first 20 km of the journey in likely record speed for these roads. But once we reached the dirt roads of an even tinier village of Yanacancha, the velocity came to a crawl. Past the village, the “road” seemingly halfway cut from the rock face tested the old vehicle to its limit. Large gravels and boulders are dodged as the driver zig zagged back and forth, chugging towards Singrenacocha. One final push saw the vehicle come to a halt, with our driver pointing out the window:
A small hill separated us from the lake - childs play for myself as I ran towards the top of the small hill. Well… my run didn’t last long (like only a few steps) as we are standing over 15,000 feet in elevation. Nonetheless, anticipation as my fuel, the final result is my reward - a lake so beautiful as a bright blue jewel, standing gracefully under glaciated snow mountains and framed by hundreds of grazing alpacas. In a moments notice, my heart became full, a smile cracked under my dry lips, and I shouted to Mary and Zion - “You’ve gotta see this!” These raw moments of joy are the reason why it’s worth it to climb a rickety old bus, risk food poisoning in a tiny village, and bargain with strangers (all with a one year old, mind you). How else would we glimpse beauty like this and be humbled by God’s magnificent creation?
The lake, meaning “mermaid” in the local Quechua language, is said to change colors thrice per year, alternating between different shades of blue and green. We happened to be witnessing Singrenacocha’s bluest state. The lake lies approximately 14,800 feet in elevation wedged between snow capped peaks.
The simple joy was contagious in every direction.
The alpacas seemed unfazed by our intrusion, even slightly amused. Zion couldn’t control his one-year old self to chase these fluffy beasts. In one moment as me and Mary were in quiet contemplation, we suddenly found Zion scrambling off in the distance, crossing muddy paths and mossy banks in the direction of a group of a dozen or so alpacas. Even our driver clambered up the hill with a wide smile and sat on a stone, taking it all in.
Following an hours time, which seemed like mere minutes, the driver ushered us back into his vehicle for the final part of the agreement. Passing by the tiny village before the main road, the driver picked up a colorfully-clad woman with a traditional Incan hat. The driver engaged in a conversation with the woman, driving slowly on the road he previously sped quite dangerously. Soon enough though we passed by good old Tinki en route to Paccanta, which lies 15 km south from Tinki on a rough dirt road. The countryside side in the late afternoon hours was splendid, full of trees and terraced hillsides. A favorite moment ensued as a traffic jam of alpacas forced us to stop, waiting for the fluffy creatures to pass. One of the few times I quite enjoyed rush hour traffic.
The road ended where Paccanta began, a village consisting of a few homes flanked by rocky hills.
Clouds formed overhead, shrouding any large mountains which surely lay ahead. The hot steam from the natural hot springs interacted with the cold air to form piles of steam over a portion of the village. Walking over to the hot springs, we are pleasantly surprised to see how modernized the pools are in this remote village, evidenced by the care the locals place on a warm soak. Several guest houses are found in the single dirt track found in town. We set up home for a couple nights in one such, run by a cheerful lad that goes by Clive.
It is an entirely basic abode, yet the atmosphere was warm and cozy as we plopped on the long table with a couple of other trekkers. Within 10 minutes, a warm meal of soup and chicken was placed before us. We gobbled up the meal, filling our stomachs that somehow feels so much better on those long days. The sun was nearing retirement, so I stepped outside to see if the mighty peaks of the Ausangate Mountains decided to show up. And they sure did… The queen of the mountains at nearly 21,000 feet, one of the tallest in all of Peru, towered clearly above town. It’s craggy rock faces and glaciers appear as if I can reach out and touch it. The moment once again warranted a genuine smile, as the Peruvian Andes seem to have a knack for. Tomorrow, we will hike to the base of this mountain, and the excitement swelled. What unexpected surprises will tomorrow hold?
But first, the hot springs are calling.