Beyond Machu Picchu!

30th January 2016

Recces, research and photography in the hidden tropical valleys beyond Machu picchu


It must be three years ago that Juan Carlos and I were discussing the ecology of cloud forests and the economy of local communities in the high Andean and tropical montane valleys to be found just beyond Machu picchu, the place on everyone’s bucket-list, and whether the local people and land owners of those parts required any assistance in terms of nature conservation and economic development. I was of course interested in evaluating whether Fauna Forever’s research, conservation, and ecotourism development knowledge could be useful in another part of Peru. I was also on the lookout for alternative destinations and routes to offer clients of Untamed Photography, a small outfit that offers training workshops and photography tours in Peru that I had established in 2010 and which I now co-direct with my colleague Mark Fernley, an avid nature photographer and ex-Fauna Forever photography intern of a few years back.


Juan Carlos is a Peruvian ecotourist guide and up-and-coming photographer who has been working as Fauna Forever’s Community Development and Nature Photography Coordinator for the last several years. He recommended I visit the area around the small town of Santa Teresa, which is located at the very end of the railway line from Cusco, the same railway line used each year to drop off hundreds of thousands of tourists at the Aguas Calientes station located at the foot of the Inca citadel of Machu picchu.


I managed to drag myself away from Fauna Forever priorities in Madre de Dios around Easter 2014, and lucked out when I made a reservation at the Yellow River Homestay – a small, family-run place nestled between the Quellomayo Stream and the raging white waters of the Vilcanota or Urubamba River and located a little downhill from Santa Teresa. Having had a great time on this initial visit, and then after many meetings and some periods of indecision, I took the plunge and designed a series of research and short photography expeditions to the area for 2015, with the aim of getting a much better idea of what threats the local people, forests, wildlife, rivers and streams were experiencing and whether/how Fauna Forever and Untamed Photography could help.


This blog is sort of a narrative that combines my experiences and thoughts of my last few visits to this interesting area between September 2015 and January 2016, accompanied by Fauna Forever coordinators, volunteers, interns, family and friends. The images and videos that accompany the text have been taken by an assortment of people, with credit given in each case.


Cusco traffic, I guess like any Latin American city approaching half-a-million inhabitants, even on a Sunday, is appalling, and it has taken us nearly 40 mins in Angel’s new Yaris to pass through town and up and over the crowded hilltop towards Poroy – the village that marks the end of the Cusco conurbation and the start of inter-Andean-valley landscapes and windy (and if I might say somewhat dangerous) roads that lead down into the Sacred Valley and the many places and destinations beyond – including of course Machu picchu (which can also be reached by train from Poroy). It’s not the roads themselves that are dangerous per se, but of course the driving styles of most people who use them, and their perceived need to beat everyone to their respective destinations. Slow, smoke-belching trucks, virtually-unmarked speed bumps every few kms, and packs of stray dogs and untethered cows on the verges admittedly don’t help the situation.


We sped along the two-lane highway in a convoy of four cars, with mist-net poles and other wildlife research paraphernalia tied to the roofs, as the whole Fauna Forever team were on the move from the lowland rainforest around Puerto Maldonado to the montane rainforest around Quellomayo for the next couple of months. This time yesterday I was walking around Cusco buying some last-minute supplies and at times being a tourist myself snapping pics of Cusco’s plazas, Inca stonework and alpacas.


We passed the turn-off to Moray, the incredible circular terraces used by the Incas as an agricultural research station of sorts that I had visited many times in the past, wishing we had an extra hour to go take another peek in the morning sun. We did stop however a little further on at a view point that looked out across the valley below, though it wasn’t long until we were on our way again, down through Urubamba, and on to the old Inca fortress town of Ollantaytambo.


We stopped for tea, coffee and choclo con queso (Peruvian giant corn with fresh, white, squeaky cheese) at a place called Piri, a few minutes beyond Ollanta, knowing that our route would now take us up a steep-sided valley to a high mountain pass called Abra Malaga at 4,300 m altitude, a height difference of 1500 m. The area around Piri and Ollantaytambo, on the flat valley floor next to the Vilcanota River, is a patchwork of potato, corn/maize, quinoa, kiwicha, and livestock fields, some of them raised on intricate terraces that probably date back to the Inca period. Each field is delimited by Capuli trees, a type of Andean cherry, Molle trees, which could be described as weeping willows from a distance, cacti, tall and slender Eucalyptus trees (originally from Australia!) and long, mud-brick walls, next to which run irrigation channels and paths. A quintessential Peruvian Andean agricultural landscape.


Having paid up and cajoled the restaurant lady to write me a receipt, always an issue it seems, our convoy was off again, this time with 100 hairpin bends ahead of us. The valley we were inching up, and which was fed by numerous small clear-water streams, was certainly carved by glaciers as the cliffs of rock were sheer in many places for thousands of feet. As we progressed and as we got higher, the trees lining the highway gave way to grass typical of the Andean puna, and where there is grass at these altitudes there are alpacas and llamas. Here too dotted around the landscape were small, stone hamlets with families that make a living from herding these mountain camelids (for meat and wool) and selling grilled rainbow trout to passing motorists. The road flattened out a bit after this as we reached the Abra Malaga pass. It was freezing at this altitude, but nevertheless we trooped out to stretch our legs and admire the snow-capped mountain views and breathe in the frigid air – which actually makes for a nice change from the more usual 30 degrees C that dominates the lowland rainforest. We were in the middle of the Veronika Range and rock, grass and snow were all we could see. Angel and the other drivers went to pray in the small chapel, a usual sight at any mountain pass in Peru, undoubtedly asking for the powers above not to place long, slow trucks in front of them during the second half of our journey. Travel time from Cusco to this point was 4 hrs, including the restaurant stop.


For a tropical biologist in love with trees and humid forest landscapes, the downhill journey from 4,300 m to the Yellow River Homestay at Quellomayo at 1,300 m, is a dream. After only a few hairpin bends on the way down, we rounded a corner and a forest-sided mountain loomed into view, and below that opened up a luscious green valley. Our convoy kept on, through rain showers and fording streams that ran straight across the road, until coffee, tea and papaya trees began to appear in the fields on either side of the road. We passed a few old and shabby tea estates around the village of Huiro, Peru’s tea production centre which has certainly seen better days, and in the village of Santa Maria we turned off the highway onto a bumpy secondary road and headed on through a canyon, which doubles as a rousting site for thousands of Mitred parakeets. On the other side of the canyon the valley opened up once again and far below we could see the group of houses that make up the Quellomayo community, and among them the red roofs of the Yellow River Homestay – we were almost there!


We finally pulled up in front of Yellow River, a full 6 hrs after leaving Cusco, and were met by Andy and his cute dog (a boxer called Tyson). Andy helped set up the homestay with his Peruvian wife, Tatiana, who has lived all her life here and whose dad (Don Angel) had settled in the Quellomayo area about 40-50 years ago. Tatiana and her dad manage the nearby family farm, which is based around a sustainable mixed-agricultural system of shade coffee, bananas, pineapples, cacao, cut flowers, papayas, and other fruit – which we were told volunteers could also help them with if they wished.


We were shown to our rooms and given a tour of the buildings, the farm, the neighbours (who are mainly extended family members), and of the riverine vegetation on the banks of the Vilcanota River, which at Yellow River is always audible in the background and provides a soothing white-water-noise effect, great for dropping off to sleep with! Tyson followed us everywhere we went, and soon became another regular member of the FF-Quellomayo (QUE for short) research team.


The following morning, having gotten up a bit late for sure, we had a huge, fulfilling breakfast and then downed mugs of Yellow River coffee which grows locally and is harvested, ground, packaged and sold by Andy, Tatiana and the rest of the family. The place was already living up to its 5-Star Homestay rating on Tripadvisor ( We then set about with GPS’ in hand to locate and map out research sites and monitoring stations for the bird, mammal, herpetology and insect teams at three elevation levels, one around 1300 m, another around 1600 m, and one up at 2500-2800 m. The first two levels were identified to coincide with a mixed forest/agricultural landscape, made up of remnant montane rainforest patches, riverine vegetation, and coffee/fruit farms, with small, dusty roads bisecting some areas and permanent human settlements (with their associated domestic animals, particularly cats and dogs) never far away. The upper level included more pristine montane and cloud forest habitats, dominated by trees festooned in epiphytes (largely bromeliads) with the understorey vegetation made up of a plethora of ferns, mosses, bamboos, and begonias.


It took a while to get all the sites and monitoring stations ready, many days of sweaty work in fact, but then we set about in earnest collecting data in our bid to understand the ecology and dynamics of the species that call this area home. It is safe to say that the bird diversity is very impressive indeed, with everyone’s favourites being hummingbirds and brightly-coloured tanagers, parulas and redstarts – which just happen to be photographers’ favourites too. Between bouts of research, photography, exploration, and regular visits to hot-springs and internet cafes near Santa Teresa, we also partook of fruit picking, mainly bananas, papaya, avocados, and pineapples.


On more than one occasion our local explorations took us up a side valley towards the Salcantay Mountain, one of the many snow-covered Apus (revered peaks) that tower in excess of 5000 m above the Peruvian Altiplano, to a small hamlet called Rayampata. Juan Carlos had been contacted by one of the Rayampata families with an invitation to visit, and to bring as many friends along as he could. It’s accessed via a 2-hr car journey along a good if bumpy dirt road, followed by a 2-hr hike up through cloud forest and along trout-filled, mountain streams. This area can certainly be described as a riot of forest-covered ravines and valleys at the very point where the Andes meets the Amazon. The hamlet of Rayampata is a loose grouping of stone buildings with low, Ichu-grass thatched roofs through which a constant flow of blue wood smoke seeps, from the burning fires within. From dawn until dusk, as long as it is not raining cats-and-dogs, hummingbirds whizz across the landscape at breakneck speeds defending their territories from bumbling intruders, courting the fairer sex, and feeding on red Datura and Fuchsia flowers. Vicky, our resident Peruvian bird expert, had a jolly time identifying these guys!


With our things stashed away in our rock-walled rooms, binoculars around our necks, field guides tucked under our elbows, and walking sticks at the ready, we thoroughly explored the local area until nightfall. We agreed the place is breath-taking, if a bit cold when in the deep shade of a cliff or Clucia tree, and when looking up at the permanent snows of Salcantay. With the stars were out, we tended to be huddled around the kitchen fire warming our fingers, toes, ears, you name it! Alongside us, doing the same, where the resident walking bundles of warm-blooded protein, namely Guinea pigs, not less than 50 of them in fact. Their scurrying feet and squeaky battles are certainly the quintessential sound of an Andean family’s kitchen.


The local family that hosted us were very interested in knowing how they may attract more visitors like us, people who want to spend time (and some money) admiring this wild landscape, learning from it and from the people who have been its stewards for so long. I suggested the first thing they should contemplate was installing solar-powered water heaters, as bathing in frigid water each morning was playing havoc with my sticky-out ears (my personal thermoregulators). The area would certainly by a magnet for nature photographers and biologists, and with a little outfitting the low-roofed rooms in some of their un-used houses could become very welcoming indeed. We returned to Yellow River with our hearts warmed by the natural and human experience we had at Rayampata


No visit to Yellow River would be complete without a trip to the Inca citadel of Machu picchu, the world-famous archaeological site, built by the Inca Pachacuti Yupanqui 600 years ago, perched high up on a ridge overlooking the Vilcanota River and between two steep-sided mountains (Waynapicchu and Machu picchu, one or other of which needs to be climbed). One Sunday Funday we jumped into a van and drove the 15 kms to a placed called Hidroelectrica, a hydroelectric power station that feeds of the energy in the Vilcanota River, and perhaps off the deep-rooted Inca cultural energy that permeates this whole area. At Hidroelectrica there is the option to catch the Peru Rail train for a 30-min ride to Aguas Calientes where buses are on hand to connect people with the ruins above. We opted, however, for the 2.5 hr gentle walk along the shady railway tracks, due to the numerous photo ops that the tropical vegetation and mad-rushing water and giant boulders offered. On route we dove into the Mandor Botanical Garden for a cool swim in a cold stream, and to admire the flowers strategically placed along the paths – including plenty of Epidendrum orchids and yellow bromeliad flowers. After a pizza-filled evening at a restaurant just off the small plaza in Aguas Calientes, it was early to bed in readiness for an early rise to get up to Machu picchu before the mist rose too high.


Machu picchu…well, I’ll leave that up to your imagination, or at least until the next blog entry!



Story written by Mark Fernley