Nature walk in Chinchero, Peru ©2019, Cyndie Burkhardt

Five Llamas and a Baby Alpaca go up a Mountain

Five Llamas and a Baby Alpaca go up a Mountain 1024 683 Cyndie Burkhardt

I woke up exhausted from a week of rigorous hiking. Running on little sleep and pure adrenalin, and aching from six straight days of altitude sickness, I really just wanted to sleep. But I had booked a walking tour of Chinchero, in the Sacred Valley of Peru, and I didn’t want to miss it. Within a few minutes of meeting Reynaldo and our walking companions—five llamas and a baby alpaca, I forgot about all that.

Starting at the highest point in Chinchero, 13,123 feet above sea level, we walked leisurely along a mountain trail and through the valley. The animals led the way and ate throughout the scenery, stopping for any shrub or piece of grass.

All photos ©2019, Cyndie Burkhardt

An indigenous farming village

One of the first things Reynaldo told me about this Quechua community is that Sacred Valley Andean communities look poor but aren’t. The Quechua are indigenous people from South America, originating in Peru and this area. They don’t spend money on cell phones, televisions, or internet, and many don’t have electricity in their homes. They use candles at night. Organic farming is done manually, without tractors or technology. It was unfathomable to look out over the vast landscape and see people digging the earth with hand tools. Reynaldo’s ancestors are Quechua and he understands, many people want to preserve their culture and they choose a simple life. 

Not everyone adheres to this thinking, farming here is 70% organic and 30% conventional, the latter uses tractors and fertilizer. In Chinchero’s high-altitude mountains roughly 345 types of potatoes are grown along with lima beans and barley. Farmers in Chinchero follow Incan tradition, they respect the land and plant their crops in carefully laid-out fields. So strong is the culture, that patterns on the ground inspire patterns on textiles that are woven here. Reynaldo comes from a family of farmers and he’s an expert in the field. In fact, he lived in Harrisburg, PA (USA) for two years teaching an Amish community about organic farming. 

Chinchero farmland
Divisions of farmland
Medicinal plants 

His knowledge extends to plants, many of which grow wild here. We saw Zapatito de Bebe, a small yellow flower with small green leaves that’s widely used “for the brain,” for anxiety. But beware, it has an alternate use—drink the tea and you’ll become sterile. Manca paci relieves diarrhea and upset stomach, and Ccunoka helps with altitude sickness and headaches. (The names are in Quechua.) People here use medicinal plants regularly and typically don’t see a doctor.

Reynaldo learned about plants from his grandparents. His grandfather and grandmother are nearly 100 years old and in good health. I asked how they’ve lived so long. He immediately answered, “what they eat, all organic food, including the meat.” I asked how people take care of themselves and stay healthy. He didn’t seem to understand my question, as if people don’t think about it. But the lifestyle offers some clues.

Medicinal plants
Zapatito de Bebe
A unified community

Reynaldo grew up with responsibilities. As a child his father made him wake up at 4am to work on the farm. Then he walked one and a half hours to get to school. After school he walked home and went back to the farm. When their work was finished his father helped with his homework. It was a unified family coexistence that reflects a community mindset. People in Chinchero show up for each other, whether to help with farming or for a birthday celebration.

After walking for several hours we came to a picnic table overlooking the mountains and valley. Reynaldo set out lunch. Everything was organic, homemade, and fresh, including cheese and ochukuta that his grandmother made. Ochukuta is a Quechuan sauce made with local aromatic herbs. He prepared guacamole there at the table and we ate it with our Andean corn, potatoes, and hot muña tea. It was a beautiful setting with good company and the food was simple and delicious. The animals rested nearby.

Organic lunch, Chinchero
Lunch overlooking mountains

After lunch we descended the mountain to the Chinchero Incan ruins. These are an ancient agricultural site unlike many other ruins consisting of temples used for religious and administrative purposes. From there we entered the town and went to Reynaldo’s house. As soon as his one-year old daughter Adriana saw him she cried out “Papa!” and he dropped to the floor while she climbed on him. Margot, his wife, is a weaver and she showed me how she makes textiles, including unique Chinchero designs. Her work is of superior quality, unlike anything I’ve seen, and products are sold in a shop at the front of the house. 

One thing that bothers Reynaldo is the international airport being built in Chinchero to support tourism in the Cusco region. It’s causing major disruption as local people are being bought out for their land, getting anywhere from $4,000 to $1 million. One visible sign is the big, new colorful homes they’re building which stick out like a sore thumb and clash with the modest adobe homes. At the core, people are uneven now and it’s going to get worse when mass tourism descends on this traditional farming village.

Chinchero Incan ruins
Chinchero Incan ruins
It’s a good life

Given the amount of walking to look after crops and animals, the intense manual labor, organic food, medicinal plants, time to rest, and family ties, I got the feeling that lifestyle is a major factor in people’s wellbeing. Reynaldo mentioned traveling around the U.S. and said, “I don’t like New York [city], it’s too fast and too many tall buildings.” He’s comfortable with a slower pace which is surely another factor in the Chinchero people’s resilience.

I absorbed Reynaldo’s words about his work and family, his connection to the community, and his bond with the culture. I felt a deep appreciation for a certain ease and simplicity of his life. Walking with animals, eating a beautiful and healthy lunch, and returning home to a loving family seemed peaceful and ideal. I mentioned that he seemed to have a good life, a happy life, and he agreed, repeating, “it’s a good life, a happy life.”

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