Field work in Peru

Field work in Peru

Deciphering the past climate signature on present-day landscape: travel notes from a fieldtrip to the Peruvian Andes

By Prof. Matteo Spagnolo

In collaboration with:


This is the first and an introductory video of the five videos series of the trip to Peruvian Andes

Video 2

This is the second video of the five videos series of the field trip to Peruvian Andes

Video 3

This is the third video of the five videos series of the field trip to Peruvian Andes

Video 4

This is the fourth video of the five videos series of the field trip to Peruvian Andes

Video 5

This is the last video of the five videos series of the field trip to Peruvian Andes

Travelling is arguably one of the biggest attractions of my job, a professor at the Geography Department of the University of Aberdeen. Since I was a kid, all my savings were spent on summer trips as far away from home as possible, of which I dreamt all winter long, studying (and staring!) at maps for hours. Luckily, I then became a physical geographer, a glaciologist in particular, and, with that, came a good deal of fieldwork to various mountains in the world.

Peru is a dream destination for someone who loves travel and the mountains, with its beautiful Andean backbone of top-of-the-world peaks. It is also a dream for someone like me who studies glacial landforms, as rarely I have seen such pristine and preserved landscapes, ready to be “read” for evidence of past glaciations and climate changes. Scientifically, Peru is an incredibly interesting area because its tropical glaciers are largely located in a very arid region, and little is known about their past climate. Arguably, there is no better way to understand present-day and predict future climate changes than to look at what happened to climate in the past. However, the study of Peruvian glaciers is not just a scientific curiosity. These ice masses are currently disappearing at a fast rate, and this will have major implications on Peruvian water resources. Lima, and many other Peruvian cities, heavily rely on glacier meltwater. So, we need to come up with reasonable predictions of what might happen to glaciers in the short, and long, term future, and our approach is to look back in time and use the past as key to understand the present and refine future predictions.

While Peru is unquestionably a dream and a beautiful destination, travelling to, and conducting fieldwork in the Peruvian Andes has its challenges, with its chaotic (dare I say dangerous?) traffic,  the (very) bumpy condition of the roads away from the most frequented routes, the remoteness (and therefore inevitable lack of facilities) of the mountains and, last but definitely not least, the taxing effect of high altitudes on unaccustomed traveller’s body. It is therefore with a mix of excitement and apprehension that I undertake this trip, with my friend and colleague Brice and our PhD student Lucy, plus a team of Peruvian and Spanish colleagues (Ronald, Pool, Jose and Joshua) who will meet us in Peru in a few days.


With these thoughts in my head, I climb on the flight from Aberdeen, where I live, to Amsterdam and, from there, to Lima, the capital city of Peru, on its very dry west (Pacific) coast. It is a very long trip, but I am used to this and find ways to kill the time. Unfortunately, at arrival, we discover that our luggage decided to take its own vacation in Amsterdam and not follow on. This is less than ideal: the following day we are due to travel about 2 hours away from Lima, to start the long and slow journey up to the Andes. We aim to reach elevations of 4,000 to 5,000 metres above sea level (asl), almost 4 times higher than Ben Nevis, the highest peak in Scotland, and while we are giving ourselves a week to get this high, starting the journey without knowing if our bags will manage to catch up with us is a bit of a stress.

DAYS 2 and 3

Taking a walk in Cocachacra ,as we recover from jetlag

The first day in Lima is dedicated to shopping of equipment and food before leaving the city, in the afternoon, to reach the small village of Cocachacra, at 1500 m asl. We are accompanied by our Peruvian colleague Joshua, from the Peruvian geological survey (INGEMMET), who has kindly agreed to stay with us, and give us a hand with the logistics and language, for the first few days of our trip. Joshua is a great companion, and we have a very good time in Cocachacra with him, exploring the area and learning about the Peruvian culture. We explore amazingly tasty tropical fruits we never had before. We walk, talk, venture on local buses, swim, discuss science and, generally, have a very good time while recovering from jetlag. We are lucky to stay for the nights in a small paradise, away from the mad busy road that connects Lima to the Amazon basin, the road we will follow for many days to come on our journey up the Andes. Eventually, our luggage joins us too, time for a shave and a change of outfit.

DAY 4 and 5

The colourful murales of San Mateo

After three days in Cocachacra we move to San Mateo, at 3200 m asl, where we spend a couple of nights and where we are joined by the rest of the team, our colleagues and friends Jose, from the Complutense Universidad de Madrid in Spain, and Ronald and Pool, from INGEMMET. We now have two pick-up vehicles, an essential commodity to do fieldwork in the Peruvian Andes, and two excellent drivers, the wise but speedy Hector and the safe and curious Giancarlo, with whom I spend most of the car trip and entertain in various conversations trying to pretend I know a little Spanish. In San Mateo we soon realise that even a small walk of a mile or two is a major challenge at that elevation, and we are still at least 1000 m below where we need to work. We also experience a small but frightening earthquake, a reminder that these apparently dormient peaks sit on one of the most tectonically active regions of the world, the Pacific “ring of fire”. I slowly get intrigued by the local culture: the festivals; the music; the language, including typical Peruvian expressions such as the essential “una descuentida, pe”; the murals depicting local historic events or social issues; the slow pace of life but also the madness of the road traffic; the amazing food; the dogs everywhere in the towns; the obvious care for education, with schools being the best looking buildings around; the markets full of all sort of goods and smells; the beautiful traits of the local people, many of whom I cannot possibly figure out the age of; the unfinished brick houses in the towns or the mud huts in the rural areas. Everything is so interesting and different, and having our Peruvian colleagues with us means I can learn a lot about all of this, which I really enjoy.


The last shopping at the local market before moving to the field site

Our last day in the civilisation is in La Oroya. The economy of this place heavily relies on the many mines that surround it. Indeed, we spot so many mines along the travel from San Mateo to La Oroya. It is painful to see how this beautiful mountain landscape (today we drove over one of the highest Andean passes, at 4800 m asl) is deturpated by endless accumulation of mine waste and the evident pollution of the nearby lakes and water courses. The excitement for the fieldtrip to come is now very tangible and we spend half a day here sorting out the last shopping and logistical plan. We do feel the elevation now, just some headache, but a clear reminder to take things easy. Tomorrow we will abandon the main road and drive up to the remote and small village of Tanta, along a bumpy dirt road that climbs up towards the Paryaqaqa mountain, a beautiful ice-clad peak at 5751 m asl.


Ronald talking to a local family of shepherds that we picked up along the way 

Today is the last day of long-distance travel by car. We leave behind, with some relief, the big busy road, full of trucks and mad driving, and we head towards the mountains. As we wind up the valley, the very arid landscape begins to get increasingly greener, though clearly the vegetation is kept at bay by the grazing of the llama, alpaca, guanaco and vicuna. We are now alone on the road for many hours. I cannot help the excitement as we begin to recognise landforms formed and then “abandoned” along the valley by a glacier that must have been here many tens of thousands of years ago. And the excitement continues when we finally start seeing the present-day glaciers, surrounding the Paryaqaqa peak. The geology is also amazing, folds and faults everywhere, and rocks of amazingly, almost artificially bright colours. We eventually reach Tanta in the late afternoon, after having picked up a family of shepherds along the way and gave them an essential lift to the village that saved them many hours of walk. In Tanta, we will be staying with our friend Angela, who works here as a researcher, at the nice house of the local authority in charge of protecting this amazing, but incredibly fragile, environment. The accommodation has no heating, but a warm shower, which is a blessing given the remoteness of this place.


Jose and Lucy about to sample one of the moraine boulders

We have now reached 4200 m asl and today we will go sampling just a couple of hundred meters higher. However, the night was really bad for me, I could not sleep and was coughing a little, which stressed me as it reminded me of the experience of a few years back in another high mountain region of Peru when my colleague Brice started coughing and eventually ended up in hospital with pulmonary oedema. However, the coughing is now gone, and I am just too excited about finally going sampling that I soon forget all the struggle and I am ready to go. We head towards an amazing moraine, as tall as 100 m and a couple of km long, beautifully preserved, at the end of a handbook-style glacial valley. We want to collect samples of rock, just a few hundred grams from the boulders on top of the moraine crest, which will tell us how long ago the now retreated, or disappeared, glacier deposited this landform. The hike up to the crest is intense, but my body seems to be working ok, and I am there ahead of others. The headache that started a day or so ago is not going away and we test our oxygen level and mine is scary, around 80%. With the sleepless night, too much sun (incredibly strong at this elevation), little water intake (my usual mistake..), and the exhaustion from going uphill and then hammering and sawing boulders etc., I do not realise that I am slowly getting myself into trouble. My enthusiasm is such, that I even convince all others in the team to go further up valley and sample a second moraine, even though it is getting late. The way back, by a different route, turns into a nightmare for me. I can barely walk and feel like I am about to collapse any minute. I pushed too hard; lesson learnt. Luckily, I make it to the car eventually.


Life in Tanta

The night goes well, but we decide to take it easy today and go sampling a moraine nearby a large lake, just a short walk away from the road and less than an hour from Tanta, nearby the ruin of a very old (possibly pre-Inca), now abandoned settlement. It is difficult to imagine human life up here thousands of years ago, and indeed even now it seems incredible that there is a thriving village, Tanta, so far away from all sorts of more or less essential commodities. Tanta is a good day drive away from the nearest tarmacked road and even further away from schools, hospitals etc. During my stay here I decide to eat “at home” by myself rather than going out with the others, as I am trying to get rid of a tummy-ache which has followed me for a few days now and also because I have little appetite (another typical altitude sickness symptom). The interaction with local people in Tanta is minimal, partly because they seem a little reserved, but largely just because I do not really speak the language. Mostly, I observe the life here, the very strong sense of community, the smiling kids playing around, horses and donkeys (and the always present dogs) that run freely around the town, the traditional dresses (colourful ponchos and dark large hats) that almost everyone is wearing, and the small gatherings of teenagers by the main square at night to look together at someone’s phone. Indeed, it is incredible how phones are everywhere, even in these very remote places where many other modern-day, and arguably more essential commodities are missing.

DAY 10

A break to admire the majestic landscape of the Peruvian Andes

Third day in Tanta. This is an important day, as we will go to sample the most recent (perhaps as young as a few hundred years) moraines, not far from an extant glacier. The plan is to walk there and camp one night. Everything is sorted, and we even manage to secure some local logistics: a couple of donkeys to help us carry our rucksack and the samples, and a cook. However, safety comes first, as usual. The weather forecast is not good this morning, snow and thunders for most of the next 24 hrs, starting from the afternoon. We therefore decide against our original plan. It is a pain, as we were really hoping to get there and we were super-excited about it, but we need to be responsible. Up the valley, we would be 2 days away from the nearest road and hospital, and we cannot take the risk of being hit by a bad thunderstorm or stuck in a tent for some days because of a heavy snowfall. We therefore go looking for moraines along the dirt road that connects Tanta to San Mateo, and we find a few very promising ones that we sample. We also meet an amazing couple from Austria who are touring the world by bike, so inspirational! We offer them to stay by our accommodation and when the night comes, I wonder if it is warmer in their tent just outside, or inside the building where we sleep, where temperatures haven’t gone higher than a few degrees Celsius for days. I now understand what they mean when they say, “chilled to the bones”!

DAY 11

Leaving beautiful Tanta

It is time to pack. I am very weak as I had the typical traveller’s stomach disorder, and I have been eating very little for days. Even though I will be eating a lot for the rest of the trip, this first week or little eating translated in a weight loss of 3 kg, as I discovered once back in Aberdeen. This, unfortunately common, intestinal disorders, and their associated loss of weight, should not be underestimated when travelling to beautiful Peru, especially for long trips. Our intestine is simply not used to the bacteria/viruses of these places. Luckily, we spend most of the day just driving to Huancayo, after taking a few last pictures of the amazing surroundings of Tanta. This was a dream place, from all points of view, and I know already that I will ache to come back as soon as possible. Returning to the comfort of a city, Huancayo, is an interesting experience. However, Huancayo is a bit of a different city, not so much on the bitten track of tourists and therefore more authentic than other places. It is the weekend, and we are welcomed by local music, firecrackers and dancing in the main square of the city. A party that seems to go on all night.

DAY 12

Lucy and Brice exploring the valley we will be working on in the next few days

The following day we climb (by car) a nearby mountain range, Huaytapallana, where we aim to sample other moraines. All these rock samples will be sent to Australia, where they will be dated in a highly specialised laboratory, one of the few of this kind in the world. This will allow us to “attach” an age to, i.e. date, the landforms and, from there, we will reconstruct the extent of the glaciers that deposited the boulders and get a fairly robust assessment of what the climate was at that time. Huaytapallana is much closer to the Amazon basin than Paryaqaqa, and we hope that the comparison between the ages and reconstructed glaciers of these two sites will reveal climatic gradients (for example in precipitation) that will help us to understand the circulation of air masses in the past. Our first day here is unsuccessful, as we discover a locked gate that prevents access to the sampling sites. We then return to Huaytapallana where we speak to the local authorities to get a formal permission to work and sample in the area and the key to open the gate. The people there are very friendly and interested in our work, so everything goes smoothly and the next day we are ready to start working again.

DAY 13

Sampling a large boulder in the most recent moraine

Today we head for the most recently deposited moraine, just in front of the extant glacier. A beautiful turquoise lake, Laguna Lazuntay, is in between us and the glacier. The sampling is not trivial, because of the elevation, 4700 m asl, and even the smallest physical effort is so tiring. This is the highest elevation we would be working at for the entire trip. Despite the many days of acclimatisation, it is still a struggle. In the afternoon, when the others decide to sample a lower moraine down the valley, I prefer to rest in the car, I am simply too exhausted. This valley is rather spectacular, with its high peaks, the lake, the glacier and the grazing llamas all around us. It is roughly facing west so, at times of clear sky, we can catch a glimpse of the top of Paryaqaqa, some 100 km away.

DAY 14

Lucy and Brice sampling a boulder deposited here by a glacier many thousands of years ago

Our second day in this valley is dedicated to the sampling of older moraines, further down the valley. Luckily, and interestingly, these are rather clumped together, certainly less spread out that those we sampled in Paryaqaqa, which suggest a different climatic story. The nearby Amazon basin, which we glimpsed at on our way up, must have had a major influence on the glacial history of these mountains. Around us all is green. A few huts, barking dogs and the grazing llamas are a clear indication that somebody must be living here, but it takes a while before we catch sight of a shepherd, a woman who walks by, but keep herself at a distance from us. By the huts, we notice a number of rather large circular features, built to contain some of the meltwater from the glacier. It is only in the afternoon, when we return to the cars, that we realise something is jumping in those circular pools: large numbers of trout. What a surprise to find such ingenious way to fishery at these elevation!

DAY 15

Lucy assessing a potential candidate for sampling of the very old moraine

One of our colleagues, Jose, is not feeling too well today, most likely the altitude. We decide to leave him in Huancayo at the hotel while the rest of the team head back to the Paryaqaqa area to sample what we believe is a really old moraine, barely visible in a landscape that evolved for possibly hundreds of thousands of years without glaciers. It is interesting that this moraine could barely be noticed from Google Earth, and we struggle at first to recognise it in the field too but then, as soon as we climb up the side of the valley and we look at it from above, it becomes very apparent that these ridges are indeed part of a very large and old moraine system. Given its position in the valley and elevation, the lowest we sampled at during the entire trip, it is possible that the moraine was deposited by an enormous glacier that occupied these lands well before the last glacial maximum. We get rather excited about this and spend the rest of the day trying to guess a possible age, spanning from 30,000 to 800,000 years ago! We can’t wait for the samples to be processed in Australia and an age revealed! Sadly, it is time to say good-bye to the Peruvian contingent, who need to head back to Lima today. It has been great to work with them, such nice and pleasant people! Once back in Huancayo we discover that our friend Jose had fainted in the morning and is now in hospital for a check-up. This is again a reminder of how taxing working at these elevations is. Luckily, his oxygen level is good, and he is dismissed. Jose would complain about a back-ache for several days to follow until eventually, in Lima, he will discover that the fall from the faint caused the fracture of one of his ribs.

DAY 16

The typical flora of these arid, high mountain region

Today it is the British team only that head to the sampling site in Huytapallana, with our Peruvian driver. We sample some high ground glacial deposits in between valleys, with the hope that they could give us an idea of when the ice reached its maximum thickness. We are tempted to venture on a long hike, but we are not sure that we can explain the exact pick-up point to our driver, given the language barrier, and phones do not work. We therefore decide against it and prefer to stay on the safe side and head back to Huancayo.

DAY 17 and 18

The disastrous effect of mining activities on the high mountain environment, along the road back to San Mateo.

It is time to leave Huancayo, and we slowly start our journey back to Lima. On the way back we spend a night at San Mateo, and from there we take a detour to sample one last moraine in a nearby valley, which is still part of the Paryaqaqa wider basin.

DAY 19 and 20

The Pacific Ocean view from the shopping centre of Larcomar, Lima.

We reach Lima in the afternoon and spend the last two days in the city trying to ship the rock samples to Australia. It has been a very successful trip, with more than 50 samples collected overall. Each sample is carefully labelled and packed, and for each sample we have a detailed description of the sampling site, the rock type and other aspects that are relevant to the analysis in the laboratory, plus many accompanying pictures.

It is time to leave, and it is odd to spend these last two days in such a big city, surrounded by cars, traffic and tourists, and with all commodities one might want. Such a contrast from the beautiful Paryaqaqa and Huytapallana mountains, the remote villages, their people and ways of living. This has been a scientifically inspiring trip, with lots to learn and digest. It has also been the discovery of an amazing corner of our planet, a really remote and beautiful one, that hopefully will remain protected, especially from the aggression of the mining companies. Water, largely glacier meltwater, is still abundant here. But how long for, given the evident retreat of glaciers due to climate change? Hopefully our work will help contextualise what is happening and contribute to improved predictions of glacier retreat rates and, from there, help to develop water management strategies. Aside from all these scientific considerations, this trip has been a personal journey as well, that has helped me to understand my own limits. Of the many learned lessons, it is clear that to work at these elevations requires as much preparation as possible, optimal equipment and careful planning, plenty of time (at least 2 weeks) for acclimatisation and the inclusion of at least a rest day every 3 days. With its struggling, challenging but also many fun moments, this trip has also been a great occasion to consolidate the relationship with my colleagues and friends. Despite the challenges, I am certain of one thing: I will be back to the amazing Peruvian Andes, sooner than later.

Note: most pictures and videos were taken by Prof. Matteo Spagnolo but some were contributed by Ronald Concha and Pool Vasquez, from INGEMMET (Peru), who are here acknowledged.  If you have any questions or are interested and would like to know more, do not hesitate to contact Prof. Matteo Spagnolo.