An undergraduate eye-view of an Andean lake-coring expedition

August 23, 2017

Part 1: Huayabamba
by Molly Kingston (a BSc Biological Sciences student at Florida Institute of Technology, taking part in an expedition lead by Prof. Mark Bush)

When I first heard about this class in Peru, I had no idea that I was going to experience so much in such a short period. Our goal was to visit two lakes in Peru and raise sediment cores for paleoecology. The first lake that we went to was Laguna Huayabamba, which sits at about 3250 m elevation in the La Libertad region of the Peruvian Andes.

However, getting to this lake was no easy task. Before the hike even started, we had to obtain the necessary permits and permission from the local people. After several days of visiting different town officials and waiting for approval, we could set out on our adventure.

We started out from a small Andean town called Uchucmarca where there were many more horses than cars. We were fortunate enough to have 13 of those horses to carry our gear (about 300 kg), so all we had to carry were our day packs. We rode in the back of a pickup truck over dirt roads about 20 minutes to the next village where the trail started. This part wasn’t too bad. It was fairly flat ground with a hill here and there. I was really proud of myself because I was able to keep up with the guides all the way to the top of the hill. In the distance we could see a lake, which was only the first of the three lakes we were going to pass, with the third one being Huayabamba.

After six and half hours over 18 km and about 1000 m of elevation change, we finally got to Laguna Huayabamba. Near the lake was a shelter that we used as our cooking area, and a place for our guides to stay. The rest of us set up camp nearby. The sun sets much earlier than we were used to, so we were all typically in bed by 7:30.

Going into the trip we had no idea how deep the lake really was, with most of our estimates being 20-30 m deep. However, when we did the bathymetry we discovered that it was actually 50 m at its deepest point! We didn’t have the equipment to do a piston core in such deep water, so we used a Universal sampler.

On our first full day at the lake, I had the opportunity to help with the coring. We were towed out into the middle lake where we were then taught how to set everything up and how to use the Universal sampler. Our first two attempts produced no usable sediment. We were about to give up, but decided to give it one more shot while we waited for our ride back to shore. Our patience was rewarded with a beautiful 2 m-long tube full of sediment.

After a quick lunch we switched up “jobs”. For the rest of the afternoon I walked around the surrounding hillsides with Dr. Warren Church (the archaeologist on our team). We used a GPS to mark the different corners of what he thought could be ancient terracing originally built by the Chachapoyans.

On our second day, several of us went for a hike around the lake to make note of the modern-day botany. We took pictures of all of the different plants we saw, as well as samples of flowers that could be important in the fossil pollen record. Relicts of Andean woodland hung on in steep locations.

Near the base of a white limestone cliff wall we found orange paintings and a brick structure built into the wall. After climbing a small rock face, we were looking into an ossuary. It was a cave filled with many skeletons. These were mummies that had been placed into the cave. Relatively recently, the site was discovered and looted by grave-robbers, but some of the wrappings of the mummies were still evident. It was cool to see a part of history that very few people had ever seen before.

All too soon it was time to leave. With several cores under our belts and the experience of a lifetime, we made our way back to Uchumarca. I will forever be grateful for the experience that made me push my limits and that taught me new things. Now on to the next adventure.


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