Heroes Around the World: Wayramachay Edition

Heroes Around the World highlights amazing people we meet on our travels. From pursuing their dreams to changing the world, we find their stories inspiring. We hope you do too.

The valley where Wayramachay sits, as seen from the Salkantay pass. There are no vehicular roads to the village.

On the far side of the Salkantay Pass, 30 kilometers from the nearest town, there sits a little stone hut with a corrugated aluminum roof. It huddles at the base of the mountain pass less than a kilometer from Wayramachay, a tiny rural village of a few dozen scattered houses. Wayramachay is the kind of place that turns up no results on Google Maps, a place where the nearest vehicular roads are more than 10 km away. It looks like many other towns in the Andean highlands, a few dozen stone dwellings with farm plots and some scattered horses. But if you hike the Salkantay, you’ll notice the little hut near Wayramachay because it hums. It’s the only sound like it out here in the isolated Peruvian Andes.

The hut, as seen from the trail, humming away happily

We arrived at this hut on the second day of our hike, exhausted and soaking wet from rain. As the steep mountain trail gave way to gentler slopes, we heard that odd hum over the patter of the rain, and within minutes the hut faded into view through the mist. Three men were working around it, but when they saw us they stopped and excitedly waved us over. We were wary at first, as we remembered a rather visceral warning we had received the previous day of dangerous men on the trail. But these men seemed friendly and not the throat-cutting type. We slogged over the wet trail to greet them.

A closer look at the hut, the source of the now nearly deafening humming noise

The men introduced themselves as engineers and then invited us to look into the hut for the source of the noise. Here, the humming sound was nearly defining, drowning out even the patter of the rain. It became a high-pitched whirr, filling our ears, filling the whole hut, bursting forth and filling the whole countryside. It was a generator, belt whirring away madly, assembled from scratch and powered entirely by the water rushing down the mountains around us.

A generator creates electricity from water flowing in through a pipe (upper left)

Stoytcho and I used our Spanish to talk with one of the men and got this story. The three of them were originally from Wayramachay and wanted to make life better for their village, to bring it the modern comfort of electricity. But without a way to build power lines out here, they decided to harness the only resource they knew their village had in abundance: flowing water. With financial help from the Peruvian government, they had purchased machinery and building materials and carried them here on foot and horseback along the Salkantay trail. After several months of construction, they were finally putting the finishing touches on the system, which harnessed flows of water down the mountain to create the first electricity Wayramachay had ever seen.

A river flows by fields in Wayramachay. With clouds often obscuring the sun, flowing water is one of the few constant energy sources in the area.

When we asked an engineer if we could take photos, he gestured with gusto and beamed. “Of course!” he replied, radiating with pride. He pointed uphill along a white pipe that ended in a stone wall. “There’s still some work to do. Right now, we can’t control how fast the water flows. We’re building a dam system so that we can better control the water flow and the electricity,” he explained. “But this,” he pointed in the opposite direction, to a thin wire running from the front of the hut to a building several hundred meters away. “This is already carrying electricity. It already powers lightbulbs over there.” He then explained that once they could control the system, they were planning to extend the wire further into town. They hoped to eventually bring electricity to the entire village. We wished them good luck and bade them farewell, continuing along the Salkantay trail, past the stone houses and fields of Wayramachay.

A stone fence near Wayramachay. The people here have always lived without electricity.

It’s hard for me to imagine how the people of Wayramachay live now because it’s so vastly different than anything I’ve ever experienced. They’ve lived with sunrise and sunset since the beginning of their village. They’ve endured the Andean chill with no means of heating besides burning fires. With no other source of light, their work is limited to daylight hours with tools that don’t require electricity. And the only ways to communicate with the outside world are to talk with those passing on the Salkantay trail, or to make the long hike yourself to the nearest town. If there’s an emergency, there’s no way to get help. All that is about to change for these people if they get electricity. They can have emergency phones, electrical heating, and light after the sun has set. They might be able to use some electric tools that make farming easier, giving them free time to make handicrafts to sell or to learn new things.

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The first lightbulb in Wayramachay

The future for Wayramachay is embodied within a flickering lightbulb high in the Andean mountains. And by the hard work and love that these engineers have for their hometown, and it’s getting brighter.

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