A Guide to the Culture and Traditions of the Andean Communities of Peru
Homestay > Chinchero
(Travel article copyright the Independent Newspaper UK, written by Ann Noon Published 11 January 2005)
Carved into the hillside facing the cosmopolitan city of Cusco are the words El glorioso Perú. South America’s most popular destination is indeed glorious with its Inca foundations and broad Spanish colonnades, its pretty plazas and roaming llamas. But Cusco also cocoons you from the rest of the country. Cappuccino bars and ciabatta sandwiches are as easy to find as roast cuy, the unofficial national dish, and, after a few days of Cusqueñan chilling, there comes a time to go in search of a deeper darker Peru.
To experience Andean culture firsthand, local agency Peru Treks has introduced Quechua home stays to help develop tourism in some of the smaller rural villages in the Sacred Valley that surrounds Cusco. Once the tongue of the Inca Empire, Quechua is an indigenous language of the Andean region spoken by approximately 13 million people. Many Quechua speakers are directly descended from the Incas and live as subsistence farmers in remote high altitude areas, eking out an existence from the crops that they grow.
Señor Pascual Sallo and his family live in Chinchero, a weaving community set high up in the Urubamba Valley, an hour north west of Cusco. Woven cloth was a highly prized trading commodity in pre-Columbian times and the Incas continued the tradition, making vast quantities of textiles to burn as ritual offerings. Like many of his fellow villagers, Señor Sallo is an artist by trade, painting intricate scenes on earthenware Salamanca jars to sell to passing tourists in the marketplace. His wife, Fortunata, and daughter Miriam both weave richly embroidered mantas, or shawls, and chuspas, small shoulder bags that the men use to carry the coca leaves which they chew to help combat the altitude.
Peru Treks can arrange for a private taxi to take visitors to Chinchero but the bus journey is a real highlight, if you don’t mind being jammed up against sacks of vegetables with live chickens squawking on the roof and Andean singer Sonia Morales blaring out over the aged sound system. For 1.5 Nuevo Sols, around 25 pence, the bus takes you out past the fruit stalls on Avenida Antonio Lorena where there are papayas the size of footballs and then starts to wend its way up a long winding road punctuated with Inca terracing before dropping down into the valley on the other side. Look back at Cusco and you can clearly make out the ornate façade of the cathedral in the Plaza de Armas and, further up, the impressive ruins of Sacsayhuaman.
Once over the brow, we can see the snow-capped peaks of the Cordillera in the distance while lush green undulating hills fill the foreground and cotton wool clouds float over the wheat fields. All the houses have a pair of terracotta bulls planted squarely on their roofs, perched either side of a cross, to ward off earthquakes. At the edge of the road, elderly women wearing full skirts and wrapped in striped blankets, long black plaits showing beneath their bowler hats, sit tending their sheep. Blue and yellow Inca Kola signs pepper the route and poking out of many buildings is a stick with a red kerchief on the end to denote that chicha, a fermented maize drink, can be bought there. When the bus stops for petrol, a hawker is selling choclito con queso, giant-sized sweet corn with melted cheese.
Chinchero itself is a small unassuming village that, on first sight, doesn’t seem to offer much to the visitor. But follow the streets up to the plaza, through the archway, and you come across a magnificent Inca wall that divides the square into two levels with the community’s 17th century church on the upper terrace. The little whitewashed church boasts Inca stonework as its base and, just below, are the remains of what was probably the palace of Tupuc Inka Yupanqui. Miriam, Señor Sallo’s 20-year-old daughter, is studying tourism at college in Cusco and she takes all their home stay guests on a tour of the ruins when they first arrive.
Opposite the ruins looms an imposing hill range. According to Miriam, the largest of the hills is called Antakilka and represents the head of a serpent whose tail can be found many miles away at Sacsayhuaman. The smaller one is known as Antanomaq, Antakilka’s wife, and legend has it that every midnight he calls across the valley to her. On a clear morning, it’s possible to see Salkantay and La Verónica, the highest peaks in the Cordillera, from the ruins. Miriam also shows me scorch marks on the rocks where offerings of incense, beer and coca leaves have been made to feed Pachamama, or mother earth, usually in August when the soil is most hungry.
Back at the house, it’s time for dinner. Señor Sallo and his wife still haven’t returned from their chakra, or field, which lies a two-hour walk away behind Antanomaq. Here, they cultivate mainly potatoes and beans to feed the family and, sure enough, Miriam prepares soup using a special freeze-dried spud called moraya. Estimates vary wildly as to how many different kinds of potato are grown in Peru but the actual figure is well into the hundreds. The fertile soil around Chinchero makes potatoes the easiest crop to produce along with the super grain quinoa which is packed full of protein and quiwicha, another Andean energy food.
It’s at dinner that I meet Milagros, or Miracles, Señor Sallo’s impishly beautiful three-year-old daughter who calls me amiga, and her teenage cousin Milton whose maths homework appears to involve very advanced algebraic formulas. Even though Quechua is the family’s first language, school lessons are all taught in Spanish. Milton tries to make conversation with me in his mother tongue. “Iman sutiyki?” he asks. What is your name? It takes several minutes’ patient coaxing on his part before I can eventually reply: “Ann-n sutiy.”
We retire to bed at a decent hour. Tomorrow is market day and Miriam will be up at dawn to lay out her pitch where she sells the cloths that she has been weaving since the age of eleven. The accommodation, an annex of the main house, is basic with stone walls and no heating but clean. A small cactus hangs above the door for luck. Outside, a couple of scraggy chickens peck around in the dirt yard.
By the time I rise at 7am, Miriam and her father have already left for market. I breakfast with Fortunata and Milagros and then we head off to join them. It’s still early but panpipe music from the altiplanos is blasting out over the loud speaker and stallholders are swilling down great glasses of pink chicha frutillada in preparation for the long day ahead. Like the other women in the community, Miriam is dressed for the occasion in a traditional gathered black skirt, or pollera, and embroidered red jacket and matching montera on her head. Business is slow as many tourists choose to visit the larger market at nearby Pisac but the quality of Chinchero textiles is far superior and the prices more reasonable. Miriam shows me a particularly fine tablecloth coloured with natural dyes that took her five months to weave and which she will aim to sell for 120 Sols or £20.
The stalls display pretty much the same wares. Blankets, bedspreads, ponchos, belts and shawls, all hand-woven and all on display alongside painted gourds, terracotta bowls, cedar wood plates and fluffy miniature llamas. While they wait for visitors, the women pass the time spinning wool or knitting hats. A small boy goes round the market handing out a sprig of yellow flower called ruda to bring the vendors good fortune.
Up at the church, a bell tolls for the morning service and a voice can be heard asking Santa María to watch over the weavers. Although rather plain on the outside, the church’s interior reveals strikingly painted beams and walls covered in red and blue floral designs. Every inch of the ceiling is also decorated with vivid frescoes. On the back of the pews are the names of resident families: Señor Agustin Huallpayunca y Margarita y hijos.
When I leave to catch the bus, Miriam insists on presenting me with an alpaca scarf to remember her by. She won’t take any money for it and asks only that I visit again one day. “Ciao amiga,” calls Milagros as I set off for the bright lights of Cusco.
Peru Treks can arrange a tailor-made Andean home stay at a couple of days’ notice but it’s best to visit Chinchero on a Sunday, Tuesday or Thursday when the market takes place. It costs three US dollars (£1.60) for one night’s accommodation plus one US dollar (£0.55) for a simple meal such as soup or breakfast. All money goes direct to the host family.
Ann Noon, 11 January 2005 ©Independent Newspaper UK
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