Many students and faculty in the US celebrated Spring Break last week and I did too, though it is Fall here. My husband, sister and brother-in-law came down to join me in these extraordinary places.
If you ever have a chance to travel to Cusco, I recommend you start as we did with a trip down into the Sacred Valley. This allows you to acclimatize, since most destinations in the Valley are actually lower than Cusco (11,152 feet). Macchu Picchu, the Inca town built on a mountain jutting up out of the rainforest at a mere 7,972 feet, is often referred to as one of the seven wonders of the world. We decided that Peruvian cooking counts as the eighth. (Try the ceviche mixto at El Paisa on Avenida del Sol in Cusco.)Stunning photographs don’t do these places justice. There is nothing like being surrounded by the majesty of the mountains and the endless miles of terraces and stone buildings that make them habitable and productive. The terraces prevent erosion and extreme fluctuations of temperature, capturing heat and water. The buildings serve many purposes: housing, astronomical observation, ritual life, storage, defense. In fact, these purposes were reflected in every place we visited.
In the course of returning to the city, we visited the salt mines that served donkey trains shuttling silver from Bolivia to destinations in Lima and then Europe. We also saw the pre-Incan concentric circular terraces of Moray.
Nowadays in the Sacred Valley and even parts of Cusco, the primary economic activity is tourism. We were concerned that we might be rained out of the valley, and yet I was certain that Cusco alone would be worth the visit – Saqsaywaman and related wonders are within walking distance of the center of town.
I saw several things I’d missed on previous visits, including the extensive ruins at Chincheros which I had neglected by not walking beyond the church yard. An indigenous teenage boy who tried to sell us keychains in a courtyard of those ruins ended up giving us a fascinating recitation of everything he knew about the Incas and their descendants in the valley. He told us about the primary ‘products’ of each town: weaving, potatoes, and in the case of Macchu Picchu: young beautiful women. According to his grandfather, the Incas did not marry these women because they were not good weavers – only good looking. Needless to say, Chincheros is known for its weavings.
Our taxi driver told us that he would take us to a place in Chincheros where we could dress up in traditional ponchos, have our pictures taken and be sung to in Quechua. I had something even better in mind, and requested that he take us to the Center for Traditional Textiles, an NGO founded by Nilda Callañaupa which also has an outlet on the Avenida del Sol in Cusco. There we saw everything from washing, spinning and dying raw wool, to setting up the warp and weaving on a backstrap loom. This organization has had great success with cataloguing and regaining the prestige of traditional weaving techniques and patterns while spurring economic growth and new designs. If only we could be so successful with endangered languages! Once again we were amazed at the creativity and resourcefulness of Andean people in ancient and modern times.
We finished the week with four more days exploring in and around Cusco. According to an indigenous friend, the Catholic church, Peruvian state and private enterprises have appropriated and built on top of nearly everything created by indigenous people – he complained bitterly that a fraction of this wealth makes it back to Quechua-speaking communities in the countryside. Time cannot be rolled back, but we all wonder how these communities can take their rightful place as they move forward.