Monday, March 6, 2017


A Magical Trip

Zach and I spent a marvelous 2 weeks in Peru.  I had a hard time picking out photos that capture the mind boggling architecture, vast agriculture, sheer steepness, vivid colors, culinary uniqueness and cultural traditions that make this country so incredible. 

Many crops were harvested by hand and carried on backs to sell at market or to feed livestock.

Steeped in tradition; many people still wear bright colors which were hand sheered, hand spun, hand dyed with local fruits and herbs and then hand woven to perfection and practicality.

Right off the plane in Cusco, we taxied down in elevation toward Machu Picchu Pueblo about 2 hours away.  On the way, we passed through the Chinchero District, a breathtakingly beautiful agricultural patchwork of cover crops, potatoes, grains and corn.  As well as free roaming sheep. pigs, donkeys, llamas, alpaca and cows.

Our first few days were spent in the beautiful town of Ollantaytambo.  Pictured here are the Ollantaytambo ruins which were built by mining massive rocks from the tall mountain you see on the left, pushed/pulled (by hand) across the valley and then back up the hill to the ruins.  It was our first insight into the magical powers of the Incas and the Sacred Valley.  The Incas were avid farmers and terraced sheer cliffs to provide growing platforms which included detailed underdrainage to handle torrential rains that fall December-February.

Inca built terraces are still used widely today.  The area remains rich in agriculture, focusing on grains, corn, fava beans, peas and potatoes.  I am not sure if the terraces are owned individually or if they are rented from the district, but each terrace was carefully managed, weeded and irrigated with Inca built waterways.  

It was obvious the Peruvians practiced precise cover cropping and crop rotation.  During the crop rotation, they would also rotate livestock through the fields by tethering them.  Once the space was eaten, the farmer would move the animals to a different position until the field was gleaned.

We stayed two nights at El Arbergue.  It is an historic hotel which has wonderful views and a fantastic restaurant that is provided for by an onsite farm.  We took a tour of the farm with Oscar, the resident farmer.  What an amazing backdrop to work by!!

We enjoyed lunch with freshly harvested vegetables and meats cooked in the traditional Pachamanca style.  A hole is dug in the ground and the meat and vegetables are covered with hot rocks, a wet canvas, more hot rocks and then soil.  The first layer of rocks are covered with huacatay, a type of marigold whose leaves have an incredible spicy minty flavor.  This herb is used in many Peruvian dishes.

Choclo con queso.  This classic street food is boiled corn with a chunk of fresh made cheese and huacatay sauce.  The meaty kernels are 4 times the size of corn you find here in the states and are easily plucked from the cob with your fingers. Yum!

Peru is the place were tomatoes, potatoes and many other roots originated.  The potato especially is revered and consumed in Peru.  Each has a unique shape, size, flavor and use. The Incas found ways to dry and preserve certain potatoes. Some even think they buried them (like a squirrel would) along their treacherous trails to provide nourishment during their long journeys.

We took an amazing tour of 4 different ruins which brought us through farm fields and rolling hills. Although we did get caught in pouring rain, a hail storm and 2 thunderstorms during our trip, I was happy that we traveled to Peru during the rainy season.  It allowed for lush vegetation, bright colors and potato plants (left) that were in full bloom.

One day was spent at a Botanical Garden along the Mandor River in the Sacred Valley.  We saw huge brightly colored birds, tiny hummingbirds, a ferocious waterfall, indigenous fruits and several species of orchids.

Another trip was to Maras.  A town in the Sacred Valley that has naturally occurring salt.  Hundreds of evaporation ponds, started by the Incas, produce well known Peruvian salt. 

Here I am overlooking the Ollantaytambo Valley and the "granaries" where it is believed that the Incas stored food.

Zach, being a "water guy" was mesmerized by the ingenious Incan water ways which are still in use today.  This llama was particularly happy for the Incan invention, as he drank from the hand built rock fountain during this sunny day.

And for the big moment....Machu Picchu!  Just. Unbelievable. 

Llamas mow the grass on the Inca laid terraces.

We hiked Machu Picchu Mountain which reins over the ruins.  A near 2 hour hike up crazy steep 10,000 ft peak.  The downside to traveling during the rainy season....typically the view from this peak is a mind blowing 360 degree spectacle.  We saw nothing but dense fog and lots of flowering plants. Maybe it was better the fog hid the cliff faces, I might have been terrified.

This is Sacsayhuaman, a ruin in Cusco.  I have focused this blog mostly on the plant and ag side of our trip, but I have to show you how incredibly amazing the Inca stonework is.  Not only in its precision (no mortar used) but also the sheer vastness of these rocks which weigh over 360 tons each and are stacked on top. of. each. other!!!!!!!!!

The last part of my trip was spent in Lima.  I visited a college roommate whose husband works at the International Potato Center.  They maintain the largest gene bank of potatoes and sweet potatoes.  Not only does this center save seed potatoes so varieties will never be lost, but they also focus on ensuring agricultural production in developing countries and they are currently researching if it is possible to grow potatoes on Mars.  

There are several potato varieties found in Peru.  They may not all taste good, but they all are important to food security. Each variety carries a trait which may be pertinent to cultivating a new/better preforming variety.  It takes ten years to grow, test and hybridize a plant to perfection. 

The center has several methods of preserving potato diversity. One is in thousands of sterile test tubes, called In Vitro Conservation.  Each plant can only survive in its tube for two years, so scientists are perpetually dividing and retubing plants to keep them alive.  Another, more recent discovery, is Cryopreservation.  In this method, plant tips are frozen, suspended in a tissue protecting solution and kept frozen. This method not only takes up much less space and time, but the tissue can be kept frozen indefinitely with no harm to the plants' vitality. 

Photo of current day potato harvest in the Sacred Valley.

Papa Arariwa, the Protector of Potatoes.  He, along with Pachamama, the Andean earth mother, protect this Sacred country full of agricultural riches, deep traditions and beautiful peoples.  I am grateful to have made the trip.