Not far from Cusco, the Vilcanota River winds its way through the Sacred Valley of the Incas, all the way to Machu Picchu. There are villages here that are rather well-known, including Pisac for its traditional market and Ollantaytambo for its monolithic ruins. But venture off the beaten path, climb up the hills that overlook the valley and you’ll find incredible places that rarely make it into the guidebooks.
Wisdom from the Andes
In the Sacred Valley of Peru, eight Quechua-speaking communities have come together to form an association called La Tierra de los Yachaqs. With training and guidance from Codespa, an NGO based in Spain, the communities have opened their doors to visitors interested in seeing what life is like in rural areas away from the big tourist centers. All profits generated from tours, hikes, and homestays go directly back to village households. The additional income enables families to develop their communities sustainably while also protecting their cultural heritage.
The Quechua word yachaq, similar to “sabio” in Spanish, refers to someone who possesses great knowledge about the world. The Andean communities of the Sacred Valley refer to themselves as “los yachaqs” because they have learned to live from and with the earth without taxing its natural resources. Over many generations, they have developed myths and legends about how the world works. This ancient wisdom is applied to all areas of life, including textile art, ceramics, and handicrafts, food preparation, agriculture, ceremonies and rituals.
The 8 communities that form the association are spread out in the area between Pisac and Ollantaytambo. A few communities maintain the traditional organizational structure of Inca times, with a varayoc, or maximum authority, who is elected every 2 years and who sounds a pututo, or conch shell, to summon the village for gatherings.
The communities subsist mostly by pasturing llamas, alpacas, and sheep, and by cultivating crops of corn, potatoes, beans, quinoa, and tarwi. They use the traditional agriculture tools of their ancestors, like the chaquitaclla, a type of foot plow. For planting and harvesting, they carefully monitor calendar cycles and, when the time is right, they make rituals and offerings to the Pachamama (Mother Earth) and to the Apus (mountain spirits). For communities that literally live off the seeds that they sow, ancestral knowledge is more than just a link between the past and the present; it is what sustains them.
Experience La Tierra de los Yachaqs
To participate in one of La Tierra de los Yachaqs’ programs is to experience the Andes in a way few people do, seen from the perspective of peoples who have been rooted here since time immemorial. Plants, animals, and even the ancestral paths that wind their way up and down the slopes of mountains – all of these acquire new dimensions.
Excursions and activities are organized around themes such as Andean textiles and handicrafts, ethnobotany, agriculture and animal husbandry. Most activities are carried out in Quechua, the first language of the communities, but an interpreter is always available to translate. With every activity, visitors gain tremendous insight into how these Andean communities use ancestral knowledge to forge relationships with the nature that surrounds them.
To give one example, “Revealing Andean Textiles” is taught by weavers who explain the iconography of textiles and who share the stories that are literally woven into every garment and piece of cloth. The weavers also demonstrate the process of making textiles from start to finish: shearing wool, coloring with natural plant dyes, spinning, weaving, creating shapes and patterns. This is the process for making the bright clothing that has become a distinctive symbol of Peru’s living indigenous heritage.
Other activities include learning agricultural techniques from farmers, hiking on the mountainside in search of plants, or climbing to highest altitude pastures to see flocks of camelids grazing among the clouds. Other hikes go between destinations of great local importance, such as Huchuy Qosqo, the Perolniyoc waterfalls, and the Inca quarries at Cachiccata. Homestays are also offered on a limited basis.
For the Yachaqs, the connection to nature is not automatic. Rituals and daily practices are needed to maintain and refresh the link. It requires the work of digging through a bag of coca leaves to find the three perfectly shaped and unblemished leaves needed for a K’intu, a thanks to the Pachamama for all that it gives.
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Anabel has been exploring the length and width of South America since 2010. Ditching preconceptions, settling into the local pace, and embracing the unexpected are the tenets of her philosophy of travel – and life.