I’ve had so many adventures in the last week, it’s going to be hard to fit them all on the blog. My travel’s started last Monday when I packed up for three days of photography and interviews in two mountain villages where the NGO Threads of Peru works.
Threads is primarily an organization that promotes the native weavings of the Andean people around Cusco, but up until last week I hadn’t actually photographed any weaving for them. That changed after about two hours in the back of a Toyota Hilux.
We left Cusco around six in the morning and ended up in Ollantaytambo (last major stop in the Sacred Valley before Machu Picchu) around eight. Here we took on a final team member; at this point we had at least two more passengers than seats, so I opted to ride in the bed of the truck. Even when it is freezing cold — which it was — I would pick the back of a truck over a cramped cab any day.
In recent weeks I had traveled some distance up the dirt road out of Ollantaytambo but the ride was still fascinating. Ollantaytambo is home to a group of well-preserved ruins, and the remnants of Incan civilization spill out well beyond the city’s borders. For miles above the city, the road passes through a canyon on whose walls cling abandoned terraces of the pre-Columbian empire.
Farmers still work the land near the crumbling stones and small villages occasionally encroach on the road. As we pressed deeper into the mountains above the Sacred Valley, the houses started to thin out and their construction methods slipped backwards in time. Concrete gave way to brick and adobe, which in turn gave way to huts that were little more than piles of rough stones with thatched roofs.
The condition of the road surprised everyone. We were expecting to do some landslide clearing, technical driving, and maybe even hiking, but the worst section of the road was just a series of muddy ruts. After a couple of hours, we reached our destination — Chaullacocha.
Nestled in a bowl-shaped valley, I’m told Chaullacocha is home to a few dozen families. It has a school, some concrete buildings, and a couple cozy adobe houses. Llamas and alpacas graze with sheep on the hillsides which are gridded with potato fields. Streams from an alpine lake run through the valley and in some places mingle in marshy grasses that feed the animals. At more than 13,000 feet above sea level, the small outpost supports a surprising amount of life.
The weaving workshop started a few hours after we arrived and lasted well into the afternoon. If you would like to know more about that process, check out Threads of Peru’s blog where I’ll be chronicling these adventures from a slightly different angle.
For now, I will say that the process is truly fascinating — hypnotic almost. Unlike many other weaving traditions, Andean weavers use looms on the ground. Two weavers sit on either end of the loom and toss a ball of year back and forth, slowly building their creation. Once the entire loom is crossed with yarn, the women begin to work on the cross weaving to set the fibers in place.
After the workshop I climbed uphill (I’m pretty sure everything is uphill in the Andes) to the house where we had been invited to stay the night. At this point I was the only gringo left in the village, the rest having returned home, but I had the company of two Peruvian friends who I had gotten to know over the last few months.
The house we stayed in was owned by a porter who works for Apus Peru, a for-profit trekking company that is closely aligned with Threads. The porter told me that he had been using his wages to refurbish his house so he could host tourists. He also said he had invested some of the money in seeds for feed-grain. I love meeting people with an entrepreneurial spirit and it encourages me when I see development being done in a way that motivates local people to take initiative.
The porter’s house was made from a mixture of wood, brick, and mud. The first floor housed a kitchen, eating area, sleeping quarters, and an outside washing area, all on dirt floors. The second floor held one room for storage and another for guests, both reached by a ladder whose rungs were held together with baling wire and couldn’t have been more than an inch thick.
I must weigh nearly twice what the average Peruvian does. I kept picturing the rungs snapping under my feet and sending me plummeting into the farmyard below. By luck and a lot of awkward bracing against the edge of the building, I managed not break the ladder — though I did almost topple the porch when I leaned on it for support.
After getting settled in I followed my two Peruvian friends to a house further up the hill for dinner. This one was surrounded by stone corrals and was itself made almost entirely of rock. I think the president of the weaving association owned the house but it was so dark inside I really couldn’t tell who I was eating dinner with.
I ate what I believe was a meal of boiled potatoes, eggs, soup, and corn. Eating new foods can be frightening. Eating new foods in the dark can be downright horrifying. I did okay until I found something squishy in my soup. For a few moments my thought went to dark places of old animals until I realized it was only a harmless freeze-dried potato.
That night I dropped my microphone’s dead-cat (used for blocking wind noise) somewhere in the dark house. Turns out that asking around for a dead cat can get you some confused looks, but I eventually found it.
In the morning the weaving workshop started again and I got back to photography and interviews. We returned to the house after a lunch of guinea pig and potatoes, then packed up our bags for the hike down the mountain to the second community of Rumira Sondormayo.
On the way out of the villages we crossed a 14,300-foot pass. I was carrying almost 40-pounds of gear but I still managed to enjoy the climb. As we reached the top a light snow started blowing down on us. The scene was incredibly serene; alpacas grazed on rocky hillsides and thick tufts of grass clung to the edge of still lakes as storm clouds closed around us.
It was almost eight miles from Chaullacocha to Rumira. Eight miles of rolling pasture land, jagged cascades, and rugged homesteads. We left the road at one point to take a shortcut across the valley. I fended off some vicious sheepdogs with a bag of crackers and met three shepherd girls who decided to christen me the “Bear Gringo.”
By the time Rumira was in sight I was feeling pretty tired. I hadn’t set my pack down in three hours and I may have been singing old battle hymns at the top of my lungs as I trotted along the path. When we reached the village I followed my friends across the bridge into the neighboring community of Patacancha.
At this point I was getting a little worried. Only a few of Patacancha’s buildings were located near the river, the rest were way up on the side of a mountain. As we walked through the courtyard of a school, I asked one of my friends where we were spending the night. At first he said we were staying “aqui” but when I pressed him a bit further “aqui” turned into a word I really didn’t want to hear: “arriba!”
On the final climb to our guesthouse my legs failed me. For the first time on our hike I had to ask for a rest, probably less than 200 yards from a bed with my name on it. A few minutes later I collapsed on a lambskin spread over a bench in a smoky kitchen with a low ceiling.
For dinner we had lomo saltado, a dish whose sole ingredients are, essentially, potatoes, “meat,” and grease. Up until that point I don’t think I had understood its appeal. After that meal I realized that Peruvian food is amazing — it just requires a few thousand feet of climbing and a half-dozen or so miles of walking to appreciate.
At the guesthouse in Patacancha I met a couple of high school girls from Tennessee. They were on a mission trip and were overjoyed to meet someone who spoke English. I had to chuckle because I had just spent two days in a village where the people only spoke Quechua, at that point I was grateful just to hear Spanish.
Sleep came quickly and pretty soon the sun was making its way over the mountains. I got up and admired all the modern features of our guest house like the bathroom that, despite a dirt floor, had a flush toilet and electric light.
Breakfast consisted of corn-and-spinach griddle cakes, coffee, and, of course, potatoes. I think it was one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever had, chiefly because it was warm. After breakfast we said a couple of goodbyes and sauntered back down to the Rumira side of the river where we set up for another day of weaving workshops.
The weather was a little rough in the morning and at one point the weavers draped a large tarp over themselves and their looms to fend off the hail. Things got better in the afternoon and the workshop seemed to go off without many problems.
Before we left for Cusco we were invited to lunch in the home of the town’s weaving association president. Fried trout was on the menu along with potatoes.
A few more bumpy hours in a van, a couple goodbyes, and one or two swapped stories later, I was back on my street in Cusco. When I got home I got a chance to kiss my wife, say hello to my brother and sister, and admire how truly sunburned I was.