Exploring Pachamama in Perú

Nine brave adventurers joined myself and Sony Alpha Imaging Collective members Nate Luebbe and Quay Hu in the Cusco Region of Perú on a seven day photo expedition. Partnering with a local tour operator, we dove into the expressive culture, unique cuisine, and beautiful landscapes that make this country so special.

Day one was spent in the city of Cusco, which sits at around 11,152’ (3,399 m), to allow everyone to get acclimated to the high elevation. Our hotel was slightly uphill from the main square, Plaza de Armas, and you couldn’t tell that you were at a high elevation until you had to go back to your room – huffing and puffing to catch your breath. 

Cusco view from Sacsayhuamán © Autumn Schrock

Cusco view from Sacsayhuamán © Autumn Schrock

That evening our tour operator took us up to our first official site, the fortress of Sacsayhuamán. It lies on the northern outskirts of Cusco at 12,142’ (3,701 m) with an overlooking view of the city. It’s said that the city of Cusco was created in the shape of a puma, one of the Inca’s revered animals, and that Sacsayhuamán is the head.

Day two started out at a local wool shop to see how the amazing Peruvian weavers create such beautifully colorful sweaters and ponchos. We learned about their culture, how they dye the wool, and create makeup using special beetles, as well as the actual weaving process.

After we drank delicious tea and made our purchases, we headed to Moray, a mysterious circular agricultural site with terraces at varying depths.

Weaver © Autumn Schrock

Weaver © Autumn Schrock

Moray © Autumn Schrock

Moray © Autumn Schrock

It’s not fully known what exactly these terraces were for, but it’s generally believed to have been an agricultural laboratory of sorts. The variation in depths of the terraces creates a temperature difference of 15ºC (27ºF) from top to bottom!

Our next adventure was to Salineras, the famous salt mines. The scale of this place is one that I was not expecting. One needs to see these mines in person to grasp just how large the field of pools is. Unfortunately, we were three weeks too late from being able to walk around on the mines; they’ve now closed them off to the public and built more viewing platforms instead.

After Salineras we hopped the one and only train to Aguas Calientes, which is the closest access point to Machu Picchu. The hour and forty-five minute train ride was a nice break for the crew to look over our photos and get to know one another.

Salineras © Autumn Schrock

Salineras © Autumn Schrock

A 4:00 am wake-up call the next morning got us on the first bus up the steep route to the magical Machu Picchu just before sunrise. Some might scoff at visiting the largest tourist spot in all of Perú, but the second you catch sight of these legendary ruins, a strange yet wondrous feeling takes over you. The Incas worshipped Inti, the sun god, and therefore partly designed the ruins to celebrate the solstices. In the Temple of the Sun there are two windows designed specifically for the solstice sunrises. When the sun peeks over the distant mountains at dawn on either solstice, the light rays shine through a window and illuminate the ceremonial stone inside.

The ride up was heavily overcast and we all worried whether or not we would even see the sun. But sure enough, right around sunrise the clouds began to part and gave us the most spectacular light rays that illuminated the ancient city below.

Machu Picchu © Autumn Schrock

Machu Picchu © Autumn Schrock

After we spent the day exploring around Machu Picchu, we took the night off to rest before our big trek the following morning. Hello, Rainbow Mountain! 

We were up and at ‘em before dawn again for a shuttle to the small village of Quesiuno where we began our trek. The trail started out nice and leisurely along the Quesiuno Valley with adorably fluffy alpacas around every bend. 

Our lunch spot climbed to 14,435’ (4400 m) and gave us a taste of what was to come. Some of the group came down with altitude sickness along the way, but luckily our tour operator came prepared with emergency horses. After lunch was the real test: trekking up and over Warmisaya Pass, which tops out at 16,568’ (5050 m). The gorgeous trail weaves around cliffs and is situated next to massive glaciated peaks that drop your jaw. It also gave us a glimpse at the tallest mountain in the Cusco Region, Ausangate, and its sheer size made our legs quiver even more. 

Warmisaya Pass to Rainbow Mountain featuring Ausangate ©  Nate Luebbe

Warmisaya Pass to Rainbow Mountain featuring Ausangate © Nate Luebbe

Once at camp, sunset began to light up the sky and the spectacular full moon even made an appearance. We all ran around the valley shooting the seemingly endless colorful Vinicunca Mountain (Rainbow Mountain) views.

Our awesome tour operator cooked up a feast fit for an Inca and as soon as the stars came out, we grabbed our tripods to shoot the stars. The full moon was quite bright and hid the Milky Way core, but we were still able to get creative and have fun capturing night shots regardless. Many people had never seen the Southern Cross, so that became a focus.

Full moon at Yanacocha Lake © Autumn Schrock

Full moon at Yanacocha Lake © Autumn Schrock

The Southern Cross over Yanacocha Lake © Autumn Schrock

The Southern Cross over Yanacocha Lake © Autumn Schrock

After only a few hours of sleep, our guides woke us up for the last and final push up to THE Rainbow Mountain. With frost grazing the rock hard ground, we sluggishly hiked up and up to the final 17,060’ (5,200 m) where we were the first people in sight. I felt shockingly cold and I couldn’t quite figure out why, since it wasn’t that cold (15-20ºF). Then I realized that high altitudes like this take your appetite away. I barely ate dinner the night before and couldn’t stomach anything when we woke up to start our hike. I was running on fumes and my body was struggling to keep warm. Luckily Nate was generous and gave me his 7000m expedition jacket on top of my 12,000 other layers.

Freezing at the top of Rainbow Mountain ©  Alejandro Silva

Freezing at the top of Rainbow Mountain © Alejandro Silva

Once more groups began to show up, we hiked back down and caught a shuttle back to Cusco. The next morning we drove up to Soraypampa at 12,795’ (3900 m) for a hike to Lake Humantay. Opting to avoid more altitude sickness, the majority of the group hired horses to take them up, as this was another somewhat strenuous hike. I made the choice to hike up (after forcing myself to eat a large lunch!), and the marvelous views of the vibrant blue lake at the top were hands down worth the slog. 

A small storm rolled in right as we got to the top, but the rain dissipated quickly and left us with a very moody scene that reminded me of home in the PNW. With each of us on a photographer’s high, we begrudgingly hiked down knowing that this fun adventure was coming to an end.

Lake Humantay © Autumn Schrock

Lake Humantay © Autumn Schrock

Perú left me astonished. The people and culture are so warm and bright that it’s honestly hard not to soak up every second spent with the locals. The landscapes are ridiculously breathtaking, literally and figuratively, and make for the perfect location for a photography workshop. 

Traveling for photography workshops around the world is an amazing way to see new sights, but one thing I’ve learned along the way is to remember to put the camera down at each place in order to take in the full experience. It can be easy to get caught up in snapping the perfect shot, but exploring new places and cultures shouldn’t be solely viewed through a lens; the journey along the way is just as important to our growth as photographers. The next time you’re out shooting, whether it’s in your backyard or across the globe, I encourage you to take a moment with your camera turned off to truly appreciate the environment.

Gear used during the trip:

Sony a7R III

Sony a7 III

Sony 16-35mm f/2.8

Sony 24-70mm f/2.8

Sony 70-200mm f/2.8

Sigma 14mm f/1.8

Vanguard VEO 2 265CB Tripod

B+W 82mm XS-Pro Circular Polarizer Filter

B+W 82mm XS-Pro UV Haze Filter

Autumn Schrock