Macusani, the High Altitude Home of Alpacas, Precious Memories and Sun Halos

About Macusani

Macusani, located 4,315 metres high up in the Andes Mountains, is the capital of Carabaya Province in southern Peru’s Puno Region. Macusani is also the self-proclaimed Peruvian and world alpaca capital.

Although receiving few tourists, the Carabaya Province, including districts Macusani, Corani, Ayapata, Ollachea and San Gaban, has amazing sights. Macusani town is not so scenic although it has views of snowy mountains on clear days. Mountains in the area include 5,805 metre high Allincapac and the world’s largest tropical glacier, Quelccaya Ice Cap. In Macusani town I did see my first ever sun halo, a colourful circle resembling a 360 degree rainbow.

For visitors, Macusani has basic hotels, restaurants, shops, a central market (Mercado Central) pharmacies and a single ATM inside the Caja Arequipa bank (only accessible during office hours). The weekly street market occurs Tuesdays. In October 2016 wifi was non-existent and not all mobile telephone networks had coverage. At least basic Spanish (or Quechua) is required as few people spoke any English.Macusani sheep and mountains

Sheep graze on the outskirts of Macusani with snow-topped mountains in the background

Before visiting Macusani one should spend time at elevation and be prepared for headaches and shortness of breath upon arrival. Sleep quality may also be impacted. Macusani has a tundra climate with year-round cold days and freezing nights. If staying in Macusani is problematic, Ollachea one hour drive north has a more moderate elevation and climate.

Town square at night, Macusani

Macusani’s Plaza 28 de Julio town square – few people linger here during the freezing nights

Rocío and I visited Macusani twice, in September and October 2016. The town lies on the Interoceanic Highway (Carretera Interocéanica) between Juliaca and Puerto Maldonado. We first visited Macusani from Ayaviri, travelling via Pukara and Juliaca.

Macusani Memories

Macusani held a special place in Rocío’s heart as it was the location of her happiest childhood memory – summers with her late maternal grandmother. Rocío last visited three decades earlier while the region and much of Peru were subject to violent conflict. Back then, the region’s roads were poor and travelling through the Andes often took days, not hours.

Many years ago, Rocío’s grandmother left Ayaviri for Macusani. Prior to visiting in 2016, Rocío described Macusani in almost mythical terms; an isolated, difficult to reach town high up in the Andes. In the 1980s, this was likely the case as the primary transport was old, slow trucks negotiating mountainous unsealed tracks and harsh weather.

Rocío expected the van ride north from Juliaca to take most of a day. In fact, on the modern Interoceanic Highway, the trip only took four hours. The highway passes through Abra Oquepuño, at 4,873 metres, one of the highest paved roads in the world.

Like most people of Ayaviri and Macusani districts Rocío’s maternal family is of indigenous descent. Despite living much of her life abroad Rocío still understood some Quechua words.

Rocío’s grandmother sold groceries from both a truck travelling around the region and her rented Macusani shop. Amazingly, the old thatched-roof shop on Arequipa Avenue still stood, the closest such building to the town centre. Seeing the building brought Rocío great joy. It felt so special to her that she requested I not take any photos of the shop. From my recollection, at time of visit, the current shop sold and hired suits.

Google Satellite image of Macusani showing Rocio's grandmother's shop

Two blocks south of Plaza 28 de Julio on Arequipa Avenue, the blue dot on this Google Satellite image marks Rocío’s grandmother’s former shop

Will you visit Macusani? Could you please check and update me on the building’s status and perhaps even send a photo?

Thatch-roofed building, Macusani

The thatched-roof of Rocío’s grandmother’s old shop as viewed from Hotel Mirador’s roof

Multiple local shopkeepers recalled Rocío’s grandmother and some even remembered Rocío from her summer visits. Rocío played with another girl, Roxana, and locals advised us where she now lived. Unfortunately she wasn’t home when we visited. Hotel Mirador’s helpful managers even tracked down Roxana’s phone number. Although Macusani’s culture is conservative and appeared cold, locals were helpful and friendly. One restaurant lent us, no questions asked, cutlery and bowls to use in our hotel room.

Town Environment

Macusani lies above the tree line and vegetation is limited to low-lying shrubs including a cactus species. The town is served by the Macusani River (Rio Macusani) which unsurprisingly runs cold. Like Pukara, we also observed the Andean Flicker woodpecker here.

Joe on Macusani hill

Macusani’s tundra climate and extreme altitude limit vegetation growth; the lighter  coloured mounds in the picture are cacti plants

Tiny Macusani wildflower

A tiny, sky-blue wildflower hugs the ground

Washing clothes alongside Rio Macusani with houses in background

The Macusani River running through town. The people on the right riverbank are washing clothes with a woman and child chasing an escaped item going down river

While exploring on the town’s outskirts, a mixed herd of sheep and alpacas passed. The sheep walked along the steep riverbank while the alpacas waded through the chilly river.

Alpaca crossing river, Macusani

A white alpaca crossing the cold Macusani River

Sheep crossing steep hillside, Macusani

Sheep appearing to defy gravity by walking and leaping over the steep riverbank

Suddenly, the sheep and alpacas were upstaged by an incredible sky scene: a 360 degree rainbow surrounding the sun. This was the first time I had seen such an event. Sun halos are not rare in the Macusani area and Rocio recalled them from her childhood.

Sun halo, circular rainbow, Macusani

The sun halo surrounding the sun with wisps of cloud on the right

Double rainbow of sun halo, Macusani

The halo had a second ring around it like a double rainbow

The Alpaca Capital

The alpaca is a camelid species domesticated for its meat, wool and skin. Smaller than the llama, the alpaca’s importance to Macusani was evident in many places.

Alpacas and farmer sculptures in front of Macusani municipality building

Alpacas and potato farmers feature on the sculptures fronting Macusani’s municipality building; note the special shape of the till held by the farmer

Alpaca wool in trader's store, Macusani

Piles of alpaca wool in a trader’s store; note the scales in the centre and calendars and event posters on the wall

Alpaca charqui, mercado, Macusani

Alpaca charqui on display at Macusani’s Central Market (Mercado Central). Charqui is a dried and salted meat resembling jerky and commonly used in stews

Alpaca anticuchos, Macusani

Delicious grilled alpaca skewer topped with a potato (anticuchos) cooked and sold by the woman at her street stall

Macusani Happenings

One day we came across a wedding party exiting the main church on Plaza 28 de Julio. The way confetti was thrown around, I expect some shops to have sold out of it.

Confetti rains on bridal couple at Macusani wedding

Confetti thrown over the wedding couple after leaving the church in Macusani’s Plaza 28 de Julio

In Macusani posters advertised an upcoming Ayapata coffee festival. While we waited for the Ayapata van to fill, a local man entertained himself playing the harmonica. A toddler then wandered over to provide support.

Man practicing harmonica in front of child, Macusani bus terminal

The man playing the harmonica and listening to a radio entertains a young boy adjacent to Macusani’s bus station

Leaving Macusani the final time we were lucky enough to get a ride to Juliaca with salesman Hugo on his way to Puno city. Macusani will always be a special place for me.