The journey begins in the small town of Sicuani, South East of Cusco. On this outing, we did not know that we would venture through the Qhapaq Ñan. An isolated section of the Inca Road.
This and every expedition happened in our vintage Landcruiser, outfitted for a destination of full-time travel, or #vanlife if you like. It is a vessel with memories of its own, of culture and adventures, friendship and family. We call this portal to the world, our beloved ‘Magma’.
She is red and slow and sure. As sure as the last year and the past 13,000 kilometers across Ecuador and Peru. As slow and powerful as the coagulated drops of blood that seep from a volcano spilling all her secrets.
The roads she takes us on are often narrow and forgotten, rustic and undiscovered. The memories she delivers in these far-off places are poignant discoveries of the innards of the earth. Through her, we find ourselves lost in the veins of the last meaningful societies and the final stretches of land undisturbed by man.
And on this day, like so many others, we sing songs of merriment as we drift away from the paved streets into the mountains of obscure embankments and rutted roads. On a whim, we joined noggins with another traveling spirit, to plan an adventure without a plan.
We don’t know much. We just know of a lake that floats in the sky and of a dusty trail that will lead us there.
The final hints of Sicuani fade behind us like the last reflections in a fogged mirror. The sprawling countryside floods our senses with visions of a land unravished and a life more simple than we can understand. People with warm faces and cheerful clothing moving about the picture with purpose and admiration for the earth.
The farther we follow the trail, the fewer sightings of our kinship are to be found. The echoes of the valleys offer only words via hoof prints and winds tickling the tips of the grass. Between us, we only offer poetic sighs of awe and bewilderment.
The pastures lose their footing at the shoulders of the mountain. But, the terraces refuse to end their climb. Shelves of green dangle from the tops of the last emerald peaks. Perfectly carved steps catching the corners of the sunlight and cradling the water from the sky. Incredibly, not carved by man but instead formed by an undefined creation of nature.
And then, the green color of life slips away into the abyss, replaced by vibrant yellows and grays that signify life in the thinner air of the heights. We are high and it is cold. From the parallels beneath our feet are the striking highlights of snow bathed peaks.
We can sense that we are not in the heavens yet, but somehow we are no longer of this world. In a place where sheer slabs of mountains should reign the lands, we find once again the impossible reality of rolling plains. Golden grasslands dotted with a million glistening lakes, reflecting the skies like the looking glasses of angels.
Cradled by the peaks in these plains of the sky, is the largest breeding area for alpacas in all of Peru. It is Spring, birthing season during the months of February and March. Little bundles of fur in herds by the hundreds flit across the mountain plains, hop across the road, and stare in wonder at us, their intruders.
With every corner, another misty pool of water offers confusion about where and how to find the gem of the sky, Sibinicocha Lake. How can it be that just one lake can be singularly more breathtaking than all of this?
We peer at the signs interrupting the view, squinting our eyes to translate the words and their meaning. We have reached an elevation of 4, 780 meters or 15,682 feet. This is an altitude record for us in our Magma. As the information sinks in, all at once we notice the wavy red letters at the top of the sign spelling out “Qhapaq Ñan”.
The words are clearly not Spanish and I am confused. But, our friend, our traveling companion whispers the words into the air. They swirl in the space between us like a secret meant to be held in. We must repeat it to each other, her, my husband, and I for it settle in. Qhapaq Ñan.
THE Inca Road. It covers more than 30,000 km and 6 South American countries. It was designed and created by the Inca civilization over several centuries as the main infrastructure of trade between the nations. This relationship still exists today between connected villages and centers of trade. The road has been noted by UNESCO world heritage as one of the most extreme geographical terrains in the world.
Suddenly, it didn’t matter anymore if we found the Sibinacocha Lake. We had found the Qhapaq Ñan Inca Road. This means more to us than any archeological site we had seen in all of Peru. We were in the path of history and humanity in the remote landscapes of the Andes Mountains. As overlanders, this trail is the holy grail of South America.
We did eventually come to the Sibinacocha Lake. The 22nd highest lake in the world. The name means “whistle lagoon” in the native Quechua dialect. On the first pass, it did indeed whistle to us. Even in the overcast conditions, the sheer magnificence was undeniable. We paused to ingest the magnitude of the place before heading farther down the mountain for a lunch break.
But, the only way to Sicuani was to reverse the same route that we had spent the day traveling up. In the moments between our first glimpse and our second, a whole different world was unveiled. The Sibinacocha Lake paired up with the brilliant sun and the surrounding mountains in an epic display of heaven and earth. It was the most incredible vision of a natural landscape we have seen in Peru thus far. So much so, that it deserves a post of its own.
Come back in a few days for the impressive reveal of Sibinacocha Lake.