I recall as a youngster I watched the BBC’s ‘Flight of the Condor’. It was a family favourite each weekend at the time; a natural history prime time programme that captured the magic of the Andes – the world’s greatest mountain range, a land of ‘ice and fire’ as they put it.Music from the show’s soundtrack of Ecuadorian and Peruvian folklore music would sometimes fill the house in the evenings and I guess ever since I’ve wanted to come to this place. Peru is not passionate and loud like some of it’s Latino neighbours; here in the Andes the indigenous people are modest, quiet and affectionate. It is a land steeped in history, and with the most stunning scenery and wildlife.
The valley produces what we’re told is the best maize in the world – most of the varieties can be traced back to the Incas. It’s a crop, like potatoes, that grows well at this altitude. Throughout the area one sees large white cobs drying in the autumn sun. We chatted with one group of pickers and they told us they export as far afield as Japan.
The women sit and flick the dry, plump corn seeds off the cob into sacks with their kids playing by their side.
They’re friendly and know we want a photo; the mother calls across laughing to her child ‘una sonrisa para el guiri!’ / ‘flash a smile for the foreigner!’
Corn is central to both the agriculture sector and local diet and is used to make bread, salads, snacks, sauces and even fermented into alcohol. Establishments that sell this corn brew display small flags of red plastic sheeting by the door.
Another interesting observation is that on the roof of each home are icons of religion and good fortune; a small cross and maybe one or two ceramic bulls or some bottles; quaint details that reflect a superstitious and spiritual people.
The Peruvian summer rains transform the Andean landscape; and the Sacred Valley pastures become rich with lush greens. Travelling towards the ancient salt pits of Salinas, near Moray, we passed shepherds and workers in the fields, an almost idyllic rural scene, and a welcome change from the heart wrenching poverty of the towns such as Cusco where half built homes and filthy streets spread out for miles.
Salt has been collected from the mineral rich water of these valley hills for thousands of years and the many salt pits that fill this small valley remain in use as they did since the time of the Incas: although one can’t help but feel the salt works themselves now earn far more from tourism than from the unique salt they produce.
The terraces of evaporating pools (some 3000 of them) echo the sight of the iconic dye and tanning pits in Fez, which I visited in a few years ago, but here there is no stench; instead clean, clear high mountain air and the view of white salt crystals forming in the shallow pools.
The Valley is full of Inca sites, as well as modest market towns. Many of the small town squares have been transformed into almost daily markets, which seem to be catering more for tourists that locals.
Some products from town to town seem to be almost identical, with a factory feel and some even hazard to guess that some of these fabrics aren’t even made in Peru, but manufactured in Asian factories, shipped over to meet the demand of the visitors.
We managed to find a few charming vintage items – the old items are all clearly made by hand with a irregular finish and the dyes are natural and have faded beautiful. The small ‘mantas’ or ‘ capas’ – the small blankets that you see the local woman using to carry things across their backs, or even their babies are the most interesting. Yet these are hard to find.
We stumbled across a young woman with a stall that had a number of vintage items; her father collected them from surrounding villages for resale.
And so ended our little sojourn in the valley. Some things haven’t changed though…