We Are Women Conquering the Mountain, and Ourselves

By Marinel de Jesus

I recently had the privilege to trek in the Huchuy Qosqo of Cusco region of Peru. This two-day adventure started at 11,000’ elevation and we climbed 3,500’ and then descended to 9,000’. I did this trek with an all women group from the U.S. through my social enterprise, Peak Explorations. Sounds like a fairly typical Peruvian trek, until you learn that we were guided by Shandira, a Quechua woman and a team of all female porters on the trail. For the first time in the history of Peru, the Quechua women have become a part of the trekking tourism industry.

I assembled this small group of women from the U.S. who had taken my backpacking class and/or joined me in previous backpacking trips. They’re at best beginners at backpacking and hiking, and it was a first international trek for many. It was also their first visit in South America. As this was also their first time climbing up to 14,500 feet, they were understandably nervous.

We met our female trail leaders, as well as our male chefs in the small village of Tauca. We started walking early in the morning and on the way, we enjoyed the view of the villages of Tauca and Chincheros. In the far distance, we took in lake views at the start of our hike. As we ascended on a rocky path, we started feeling the heaviness of our breathing and the slowness of our steps. We could not help but notice the air was much thinner, despite the trail being gentle in its grade. This meant we were gaining the altitude that was taking us closer to the highest point of our trek.

After about three and a half hours, we hit a marker on the trail where we took a brief pause to catch our breath. We only had a little way to go before we got to our highest point of 14,500 feet. The wind started to pick up considerably so we all had to put on our extra layers to continue on. We proceeded one slow step at a time while enjoying the beautiful open space full of peaks and valleys of the more remote Andes. Absent other hikers, it felt surreal to pause and take in the beautiful landscape before us. At this juncture, some of the women had developed a slight headache and noticeably heavy breathing.

As we reached the top, smiles and laughter erupted. We memorialized our accomplishment with group photos and thanked Shandira for getting us through the hardest part of the trek.

The rest of the trek consisted of a descent to our campsite near the Huchuy Qosqo ruins. We had this amazing historic space all to ourselves, except for a few creatures loitering in the area – alpacas, dogs and llamas. That night we had a delicious meal cooked by our amazing chef consisting of chicken, rice, potatoes and local vegetables. As we finished our meal, we found ourselves caught by the lure of slumber. By nine o’clock we retreated to our respective tents to rest up for our three-hour descent the next day.

The next day of hiking provided us the opportunity to get better acquainted with our trekking guides, porters and chefs. We found that the Quechua women porters were all new to the trekking tourism industry, most of whom joined in 2017 when the program first started. Prior to that, they made a living as farmers and weavers. The notion of women working on the trails was unheard of as the roles of guides and porters are typically assigned to men. The Quechua women joined the team to earn better wages to support their families. While some of the female porters are married and have children, others are just teenagers and are also pursuing their education. The wonderful men in the team expressed full support of the women’s roles in the trekking industry, some of which have been in the industry for more than 15 years. At that moment, it dawned on me that we were experiencing something historic -- these Quechua women trail leaders are paving the way for better economic opportunities for future generations of indigenous women in Peru, and making the trekking tourism industry inclusive of women.

As the women from the U.S. exchanged life stories with the local Quechua women, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of gratitude. Standing there amongst such strong and dedicated women, I knew that no matter where life takes us from that point onward, this very moment on the Andes belonged to all of us. Without a doubt, we conquered the mountain, and ourselves.