Friday, April 24, 2015

Huchuy Qosqo: Hiking up…up…up

…and then down…down…down.

Since I moved here to Calca, I have been eyeing some zig-zag trails on the mountain across the Rio Vilcanota. I was told that they go up to an Inca ruin site called Huchuy Qosco (which means “Little Cusco”). That trail kept calling to me, but I was pretty intimidated. A check on Google Earth showed that there was an altitude gain of over 2800 feet in less than three miles! Steep indeed. Some friends had made the hike by starting higher up near Chinchero and hiking gradually down to the site and then taking the zig-zag trails down to the little town of Lamay. But getting to that trailhead was a bit involved. There are also routes from near the city of Cusco, but those take two days and I was not prepared to carry enough gear to camp overnight and was too cheap to hire a guide and horses like most people do. So, my only option was to go up those zig-zags and back down again the same way. With only about a week and a half left in Peru, I had to do it now or not at all. 

To be perfectly honest, I am not strongly drawn to ruins in the Sacred Valley—I know, I know, it sounds sacrilegious. I am more interested in the present culture and the people who live here now. (And the textiles…oh, and the food.) I also enjoy walking along less-traveled dirt roads through the small communities, occasionally meeting folks in the fields and talking with them. Sometimes I am offered chicha to drink (a homemade corn beer), or invited to come back for a meal later. So, this hike to Huchuy Qosco was more of a personal challenge. The day before I embarked, I gave myself permission to turn around and come back if, at any time I decided it was too much for me. This is one advantage of hiking alone. The other being, that I can travel as slowly as I want to—and boy, do I travel slowly. 

On Thursday morning, I got up early and took a bus to the little town of Lamay, east of Calca. They let me off right at the road that goes over the bridge that begins the trail.

The trail begins across the bridge. The arrow points to my destination.
 Right away I started going up, and before I knew it, the trail got so steep that I was stopping to catch my breath every 20 steps—sometimes in only 5 or 10 steps. Remember, the trail started at 9600 feet.  Chewing coca leaves helped and I made myself stop to refuel with snacks and Powerade every hour. It took me four hours to get to the top—it takes the average person three. I met a guide coming down with a tourist couple and he asked where my group was. I told him I was solita (alone) and he gaped at me. I jokingly told him, in my broken Spanish, that I was such a slow hiker that no one would walk with me—which is actually not true—but he laughed and continued on.

It was not long before this lovely view of this part of the Sacred Valley opened up.

I also stopped to talk with a caballero (horseman) who was talking on his cell phone (!) and leading horses down with tourists’ packs on them. [That is the WAY to hike here if you are going to be out for overnight, and Rebecca (my daughter) and I did hike with pack horses and caballeros when we did the Choquequirao trail last year. Talk about luxury camping—they even prepared all our meals! See my blog post about that trip here.]  The caballero was named Domingo and he wore a colorful chullo (hat) and vest, on which I commented, telling him that I was interested in textiles, especially spinning and knitting. He told me that he and his wife have a homestay house in the community of Patabamba, not far from here, where they demonstrate fiber art. He invited me to come up to visit with them next Monday. He asked me what I like to eat and we made arrangements and continued on our way.

It was pretty disheartening when I would round a steep switchback and
find another one waiting for me.
One highlight of the trip was sighting two Andean condors in the wild. The caretaker at Huchuy Qosco later pointed out where they were nesting. I was also impressed with the fields of blue lupine-type flowers. They reminded me of the bluebonnet carpets in Texas. Wildflowers are blooming in earnest now, in the middle of autumn. That is because the rainy season has just about concluded with summer’s end and everything is very green. The caretaker at Huchuy Qosco told me that in a couple months everything will be brown.

Four kilometers down
and less than one to go

I arrived, worn out, at the ruins and then had to climb up seven agricultural terraces—each with 14 high steps! But no one was there and I found a nice grassy spot to rest for a while before exploring. It was so lovely and the solitude was welcome, even if dark clouds were gathering, threatening rain.  

After eating—yet again—I began to explore. These ruins have been restored (and many are covered with thatch roofs to protect the restoration, so it is easy to see how they once looked. The Inca stonework is amazing—all the stones are carved so they fit together so tightly that you cannot insert a razor blade between them. The nice caretaker gave me a short guided tour.

 I could have rambled for a couple hours, but since I needed to get back to the river before dark, it was time to go down.

My Final Destination
Wildflowers continued
to keep me entertained.
Thank goodness for trekking poles—they saved me from several nasty falls since the trail was so gravelly and it was easy to slip. Every time I fell, I just used it as an excuse to sit down and rest a bit. This part of the hike went faster—although I was still walking slowly and taking care of my knees, I did not have to stop every 10 to 20 steps to catch my breath. The air became considerably warmer as I descended.

Before long, I could see the bridge. It was a matter of 15 minutes and I was across and waiting for my bus ride home. A wonderful, empowering day! On the way home, I bought a large bottle of cervesa to celebrate with my friends. (It also makes a nice muscle relaxer.)

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Shopping…Cooking…Eating: Chapter 2


Panchita's Causa
Last year when Rebecca (my daughter) and I visited Lima, I had the opportunity to have Causa a la Limeña at Panchita in Miraflores (a highly recommended restaurant!). This is yet another Peruvian dish that uses potatoes, but it served cold. When I first bit into the dish, my face lit up in surprise at how good it was. But that was the only time I had causa until last week. I don’t know why—it is a very easy dish to make. 

At the mercado here in Calca, I got my ingredients:
  • Yellow potatoes: If you want potatoes here, you don’t buy them from a vegetable vendor. You look for the ladies sitting behind sacks full of different kinds of potatoes. I asked for a half kilo of “papas amarillos para haciendo causa”  (yellow potatoes for making causa). She knew exactly what I wanted.
    Just tell Alex which parts you
    need and he'll package them
    up for you.
  • From my casera, I got spices like aji amarillo (yellow chile), ginger, ajo (garlic), mayonnaise, and aceitunas (olives)
  • From the chicken vendor, I got a nice large chicken breast (The chicken is very fresh and safe to buy in this market and you can pick out the individual pieces that you want—you don’t have to depend on whatever packaging the butcher puts out to sell.)
  • From the vegetable seller, I got a red pepper and onions.
  • From the women selling fresh herbs, I bought a huge bunch of perejil (parsley)
  • On the way home I stopped by a neighborhood tienda and bought eggs.

My lovely kitchen at Casa Willkaymayo
In my lovely kitchen at home, I boiled the chicken breast with onions (I would later use the broth for soup.), and made up some chicken salad with olives, and parsley. But you could also make your favorite chicken salad recipe, OR some people use tuna salad.

I also blended up a nice sauce by putting aji amarillo, garlic, ginger, and olive oil in the blender. (This is a great sauce to add to chicken or vegetable soup right at the end of cooking!) 

Mabel spread the potatoes into a
baking dish. The
aji sauce is in the
little bowl in front. 

At the same time I boiled the peeled potatoes until they were pretty soft. Once they were drained, I took the ingredients upstairs to Mabel’s (my host’s) lovely kitchen and together we finished the dish. The potatoes were so soft, they almost mashed themselves—no need for a mixer.  Mabel mixed in some of the aji sauce and salt into the potatoes and put half of them into a baking dish.

Next we layered the chicken salad along with some slices of fresh red pepper, and then the rest of the potatoes. 

Now, causa has to look pretty. So for the last garnishing layer, I added a drizzle of mayonnaise, sliced avocado (The avocados here are amazingly delicious!), sliced hard-boiled eggs, red pepper, and ground black pepper. The dish needs to set in the refridgerator for about  2 hours.

Serve with soup or salad. It makes a nice appetizer or light summer luncheon meal.

You can be very creative with this dish. A vegetarian central layer of steamed veggies, egg salad, or various cheeses, work well. The causa that I ate at Panchita in Lima had a very thick central layer of egg salad, tomatoes, and avocado. And you can use anything that sounds good for garnish: tomatoes, cucumbers, grated carrots—just use your imagination.

At Cusco Eats, the reviewer, Hebert Edgardo Huamani Jara, upon eating causa for the first time, wrote: 
         I felt a celebration start on my taste buds. 
        By the time I was finished I was absolutely                   fascinated with the combination of tastes 
        of the causa.

I felt the same way.


Saturday, April 18, 2015

Fiber: Chapter 7: Colores! Colores!

Since I arrived in Calca, I have been trying to find a natural dyeing workshop to learn how the Quechua traditionally dyed their fiber. I was especially interested in a four-day homestay in a small village sponsored by an organization called Awamaki which is located in Ollantaytambo. However, they would not have any excursions until May, after I leave Peru. But, thanks to my hosts at Casa Willkamayo, where I am living, I was referred to a local organization only blocks from here: Apulaya, which is run by Emerita Bucher and her husband, Valerio Fernandez. Emerita emailed me one day to say that a half-day workshop would be offered on April 12, and so I finally got the opportunity to learn about this fascinating subject first-hand from Apolonia Coronel, a sweet Quechua woman from the high Andean community of Ranra.

I arrived promptly at 9:00 am to find Emerita and Apolonia busy starting the fire and heating water over a traditional Andean stove. (I want one of those little stoves in my yard!) Emerita put me to work stripping the leaves from a chilca plant which would yield a green color. The other workshop participant, Yiqian, an artist from China, began crushing dried cochineal, an insect parasite of nopal-type cacti which yields bright red. The other dye we would be using was quiswar flowers for gold or yellow. 

A very interesting article on the history of cochineal can be found here. Because it is so difficult to cultivate and harvest the insects, the dye is very expensive.

Apolonia adds chilca leaves to the dye pot. 
After we finished stripping the chilca leaves, Apolonia filled one of the pots so full with them that I wondered if there would be room for the yarn. 

She had already prepared several hanks of her handspun wool from sheep that are raised at Apulaya. 

The Quechua women spin “singles” (unplyed yarn) and then, holding two singles together without plying them, they create a hank by running the two yarns in figure-eights. I learned later that this keeps the yarn from tangling so bad when it is stirred around in the dye bath. And because the yarn is not plied, the dye can penetrate more evenly through the fiber.  

You would not believe how easy it
 is to separate these strands!
Only after the yarn is dyed and dried, do they ply the two singles together. And despite how tangled the hank looks, believe it or not, it is very easy to pull the yarn apart to begin the plying process, particularly because the two single strands were hanked together.

Apolonia collecting molle leaves.
The chilca requires a mordant to help set the dye and to make different shades of green. Colpa, a local mineral, was the mordant we used. Later, eucalyptus and molle leaves were added to the dye bath to see if we would get a different color of green. Eucalyptus is not a native Andean plant, but has been imported for lumber and firewood and grows everywhere here in the Sacred Valley.   

We used lemon salt as a mordant for the cochineal. If you use an acid mordant, the color is brighter; if you use an alkali mordant, the color is darker. Our lemon salt mordant resulted in a nice purple. The quiswar did not require a mordant, and the bath can be used several times—each successive hank is lighter in color.

I brought a few sample hanks of some pure alpaca yarn that I had purchased in Arequipa to put in the dye baths. (See Revisiting Arequipa’s Fiber Mills.) One of them went into the chilca/eucalyptus/molle bath; one to the cochineal bath, and the third one to the quiswar.

The hanks were allowed to boil in the baths for about 15 minutes and when we fished them out, the colors were remarkable! 

Yiqian washing yarn in the canal.
We took them over to a canal with running water to wash out the excess dye and hung the hanks on a tree to dry. 

Along with my three little test hanks, I brought home one of Apolonia’s hanks from the quiswhar pot which turned out to be a beautiful gold. I almost could not wait until it was dry to ply the singles together. I am working it into a chullo (ear-flap hat) that I am making using Andean symbols and knitting techniques that I have learned here,

This was one of the highlights of my stay in Calca. I look forward to learning more about natural dyeing when I get home and finding out what colors our local plants in the Pacific Northwest US yield.


Tuesday, April 14, 2015

From Coca to Coffee and Cacao: Part 2

On the second day of our trip to the coffee and cacao plantations, Easter morning, we awoke to a delicious breakfast: a platanos con leche (bananas with milk) smoothie, fried yucca, fried plantains, cheese, bread, eggs, and, of course, coffee we had prepared the day before.

Then we walked about 20 minutes to Raul’s six-acre cacao plantation, Plato de Palta  (Avocado Plate), the only farm in this community growing cacao in the native way. But, many other plants grow here as well: papaya, bananas, avocados, coffee, mandarin, and more. Raul grows the native Chuncho cacao, whose fruit is smaller than the more prevalent hybrid varieties. Cacao is ripe when the fruit turns yellow and it is harvested here from December through April. Raul’s farm is a bit high in altitude for growing cacao, but even so, with climate change, his harvest is now being extended into May and his production is increasing each year.

Like coffee, cacao utilizes the potassium that is released to the ground when nearby banana tree trunks are cut.  

Peru grows only about 1.6% of the cacao in the world,
but is second
 in the production of organic cacao.
(Ecuador is first.)

A major disease of cacao, which causes the pods to rot, is carried by a small fly, and since this is an organic farm, and like Julia and Jose’s farm, must retain its organic status, a natural “brew” is concocted to spray on the fruits. Consisting of banana trunks and leaves from the Pacai tree, sugur, salt, ash, blood from chickens or cattle, and water, the concoction is fermented for two months. It is then heavily diluted and sprayed on the pods to prevent the fly from boring into them. This practice prevents about 65% of the disease.

We moved on to Raul’s compound to make and eat chocolate! After being fermented for 3–4 days, the beans are sun-dried to 8% humidity. Raul provided some fermented and dried beans to roast. Then we had to husk each bean by hand before they were ground (again, in a small molino) into 100% chocolate paste. You can tell from the photograph how much oil is in the beans—the paste is the consistency of room-temperature peanut butter.

While Raul prepared some traditional hot chocolate using water (not milk), we had the opportunity to try the paste on bread, bananas, and mandarin. But my favorite, above all, was the 100% unsweetened paste on perfectly-ripe avocado. It was like drinking good wine, with all the different flavors that continued  in my mouth for a minute or more after being eaten. 

Then we were served the luscious hot chocolate. A lot of jokes were made about it being Easter and a perfect day for eating chocolate. We were surely taking advantage of that excuse.

Raul and his mother, Margarita, send half of their crop to the cooperative or traders and keep the other half to process themselves into 100% organic chocolate bars. We walked to Margarita’s house in the nearby village to purchase some of this ambrosia and were welcomed with open arms. Margarita even brought out her dancing parrot to perform for us.

She, Margarita not the bird, gravitated toward me, I think, because I was so close to her in age. Smiling and laughing, she hugged me several times while we were there and seemed to be delighted that I came to visit. 

I purchased several 400-gram (almost a pound!) bars of the organic chocolate for 10 soles each ($3.20). Most will go to my daughter, Rebecca, who missed this tour last year. They were also selling local organic coffee, which I also could not resist.  

After one last hug with Margarita, we walked back to Julia and Jose’s farm to eat lunch and depart back over those windy-twisty roads home. 

I had had such a good time in this short weekend, that I almost cried as we waved goodbye to this remarkable family. 

Jose and Julia, with their sons Moises (left) and Miguel
Able, our guide, asked the driver to stop on the return trip at this mirador (lookout) to see the entire valley below us before we went over the Andean pass. 

Raul’s Bees. Check out the cute little hives on the right.
If you are visiting the Cusco area, I highly recommend this tour to Raul’s and Julia and Jose’s farms. Abel, our guide, told us that the ChocoMuseo does not make money from these tours—they have been created mainly to benefit the farmers and to educate others about these fascinating crops.

For more information, contact the ChocoMuseo in Cusco or Ollantaytambo.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

From Coca to Coffee and Cacao: Part 1

Last April, when Rebecca was here in Peru with me, we visited the ChocoMuseo, a chocolate museum where the held a “bean to bar” chocolate making workshop which she and I attended. We really had a lot of fun and learned a lot—roasting the fermented and dried beans, making two kinds of hot chocolate, grinding the beans, making chocolate candy. Delicious.

At the time, we learned about the excursions that the ChocoMuseo offered to visit organic coffee and cacao plantations, but we just were not prepared to spend the money. This year, however, I decided the excursion was something I did not want to miss out on. So on Saturday, the company had enough people to make a trip across the high (14,500 foot) pass and down into the high cloud forest where coffee grows so well. After a three-hour trip over the MOST winding and twisting roads I have ever been on, we arrived at the farm of Julia and Jose and their sons, Miguel and Moises. As we tumbled out of the car, all looking a little green from the trip, we were welcomed warmly and shown to our private rooms and allowed to rest a bit and get the dizziness out of our heads. Then Julia had prepared a hearty lunch, complete with passion fruit juice, for us before we started on our tour of the farm. 

One of the first things I noticed was the “Programa Organico” sign near the kitchen. Both the farms we were visiting are certified organic by the government. Two to three times a year, the farm is inspected to be sure it is following all organic standards. If they fail the program, they are removed from it for 10 years! 

Jose, and our English-speaking guide, Abel, pointed out some of the unusual plants and fruits on the farm. Everything is interplanted here. You don’t just see rows of coffee or cacao plants. It is a food forest where bananas, passion fruit, mandarins, achiote, limes, avocados and more, grow alongside the coffee plants. One colorful plant was the “Nariz del loro,” which is related to banana and the flower even looks like banana flowers, but it is only ornamental. The individual blossoms look like a parrot’s nose (nariz del loro). We also saw potato vine, which is a true potato, except that the potatoes grow above ground on the vine itself. Abel told us that they make good “papas fritas” (fried potatoes). The leaves from the guanava are made into a tea which is a cancer preventative and in Brazil, anti-cancer medicines are made from this tree. 
Coca Plant
And of course, coca. This entire valley used to be filled with coca farms until about 30 years ago.  At that time, which interestingly coincides with the beginning of the US War on Drugs, the UN began a program of crop substitution, to help local farmers learn to grow such things as bananas, coffee, citrus, and cacao. Despite the fact that coca is a more lucrative crop, many farmers have embraced the substitutes and now this whole valley is filled with new crops. A few coca plants crop up now and then, however. It is only in this area of Peru where it is legal to grow coca—the dried leaves from the plant are chewed throughout Peru for health and to acclimate to high altitudes. Farm workers also chew coca to give them more stamina so they can work longer hours.  (See my blog post: “The Benefitsof Coca”)
On to the coffee…The coffee here is shade-grown—a growing method which encourages the farmers to nurture the forest as a whole. Julia and Jose’s farm produces both red and yellow coffee. Harvest begins in March and runs through August; with most beans harvested in May and June. The chemicals used on conventionally-grown (non-organic) coffee affect the acidity and aroma. Some organic growing methods include: 
Interplanted Coffee and Banana Plants
  • Planting coffee seeds in river sand through which boiling water has been passed to kill insects.
  • Banana trunks are cut after each fruit stalk is harvested. The water in the trunks, which is high in potassium and other minerals, then flows down to provide enriched water for the coffee plants. 
  • Plants start producing after the second year and will have 5 to 15 years of good production. Then they are cut back, but in the meantime baby plants have been planted among the mature bushes to ensure a constant harvest. (Farmers save their own seeds for new plants—No GMO’s here!)
We harvested some beans to take back and learn how the beans are processed. 

Most of the coffee beans from this farm go to a local cooperative where they are processed to the “green bean” stage (see below). Julia and Jose’s family keeps only some of them for their own use and processes those by hand.  First the beans are run through a mill which removes the red fruit pulp. 

The beans are allowed to ferment for 12 hours in the large tank, and then they are washed to remove the slimy fermented flesh. After drying in the sun for 3-5 days until 12% humidity is reached, the hulls of the seed are peeled by machine and the “green” beans are ready for export. We peeled our own in a small molino (mill), and Jose winnowed them by hand. 

They were roasted for about 20 minutes. There are three ways to know the roasting is completed: by color, odor, and sound (crackling). Then same molino was adjusted to a different size and used to grind the beans for Jose to make us some delicious coffee.  

40% of Peru’s organic coffee goes to the US and most of the rest is exported to Europe.

Coffee Seedling
You can read more about the ChocoMuseo’s chocolate-making workshops and tours to these organic farms here.
Jose’s Bees – The honey we had for our meals tasted like bananas!

In my next blog post, I will share what our second day on this excursion was like.