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Experience Peru and the Sacred Valley

Written by Milly Whitehead on 17 / 03 / 2022

Gap Year Advice


From Ancient Ruins to guinea pigs. Kerri, one of our lovely leaders in Peru, describes how the weeks roll on our 4 week gap year program in Peru's Sacred Valley.

This adventurous volunteering gap year program provides the opportunity to be so much more than a tourist and gets you right under the skin of this ancient culture.

Week One in Peru

Community projects + hikes and jewelry in the Sacred Valley

To start this gap year program in Peru, we kicked off the week with a scavenger hunt around town to help them get acquainted with Calca. They are a competitive bunch! The winning team was awarded with choclo con queso, giant boiled corn with a piece of cheese. Although it's a favorite among the AASD staff, we're realizing it might be something of an acquired taste as the winners seemed a little nonplussed with their spoils.

The team has been doing service work at EcoHuella each morning, with tasks ranging from preparing the soil of a greenhouse for the upcoming strawberry harvest to the biointensive technique of excavating beds for the next harvest. In the afternoons we've enjoyed some local hikes - one up to a chapel that overlooks Calca, and another along an ancient irrigation canal that leads to an Inca site called Urco. Yesterday we participated in a jewelry workshop with the Urco Youth Association; everyone was super engaged and loved working alongside the local kids, who later beat them handsomely in a game of futbol. This afternoon they'll be exploring one of the local markets in Pisac, a few towns over.

Week 2 in Peru

Exploring Ancient Ruins of Peru's Sacred Valley

Last Friday we visited Huamanchoque, a high - altitude community outside of Calca and in the direction of Lares (a place we will visit this coming week). The group learned about some of the traditional farming practices used by residents and participated in preparing and seeding the ground for the upcoming sebada (barley) harvest. Cuy (guinea pig) are part of a traditional Andean diet, and sebada is one of the main foods cultivated to raise them. We enjoyed a lunch prepared by the community, took a short siesta in the little bit of sun that peaked out that day, and then challenged the farmers to some fútbol. Although the pitch was certainly the highest our group has ever played on, it was probably also the rockiest and muddiest. Jolyn and I held our own – she on offense and me a sort of modified midfield committing all sorts of offside errors (and apologetically accepting an informal yellow card Henry threw my way).

The students set off for their free weekend on Saturday. Based on their reports and photos, they seemed to really enjoy taking advantage of Cusco’s many museums, cafes, and other attractions.

On Monday we kicked off “ruins” week, as in our exploration of some of Peru's Sacred Valley’s main Inca and pre-Inca archeological sites. Our first stop was Chinchero, a community known for its distinctive textiles. Just beyond the city square is a large church that sits atop restored Inca terraces and the remnants of an important pre-colonial urban center. The group indulged me as I entered professor mode and gave them a quick overview of the site and the politics of the archeological and historical record. We then hiked down a portion of the Camino Inca to Urquillos, a small pueblo in the Sacred Valley, stopping along the way for lunch and photos.

Tuesday morning, we visited another set of ruins in Ollantaytambo, a small town at the end of Peru's Sacred Valley where most visitors en route to Machu Picchu catch the train to the jungle. We’ll return here next week when we begin our own journey to Aguas Calientes, the Machu Picchu pueblo. After a lunch stop in Urubamba, the group traveled up to Moray, a stunning set of circular terraces, believed to have been used in agricultural experiments (the depth of the terraces creates microclimates such that a wider variety of crops can be cultivated within a small area). We also visited Maras, the salineras or salt flats, in the region.

Yesterday we stopped briefly in Pisac to visit the ruins above the city (Inti Watana) before making our way to Chaywatiri for lunch and a weaving demonstration. We spent time with Felipe and Hilaria, a couple who, along with their children, raise alpaca to make and dye yarn for their intricate textiles. We observed their process of using natural material such as flowers, moss, and cochneal (an insect) to develop brilliant tones for their yarns. We also watched Felipe demonstrate two techniques where he weaves various symbols into the textiles. At the looms, Daisy was brave enough to try her hand at one of these techniques!

Today we are headed up to Huchuyqosqo, a tucked away set of ruins above Calca. It’s a steep hike but one that rewards with amazing views of the valley and archaeological remains that relatively few visitors get to experience given how challenging they are to access. We’ll be staying overnight at the top of the climb at a family run inn.

Peru's Sacred Valley

Find out more about this off grid adventure to Peru's amazing Sacred Valley

Find out More

Week 3 in Peru

Living with local campesino communities high up in the Peruvian Andes

This is the week of campesino communities where Leap participants were able to visit communities where the AASD has worked on agriculture projects in the past and have relationships with local community members. This week was focused on building a worldly perspective for the Leap participants about the remote places up high in the mountains above the Sacred Valley. These visits put a real lens on how rural communities live and where their values lie especially in terms of sustainability and simplicity.

On Monday, we went to Quencco, a community that the AASD has worked with since 2016. This community implemented our greenhouse model and took it to a new level of taking full ownership of the project and building their own greenhouses. This type of project is exactly what we aim for as an organization, something where community members can easily replicate to improve their livelihoods and thrive in their communities. For example, over the past couple of years, Quencco community members were able to transition to growing strawberries in greenhouses in place of growing potatoes. At higher altitudes, greenhouses create the perfect environment to grow produce that would otherwise be impossible at such high altitude. Strawberries are profitable over the long term because growers can harvest strawberries weekly vs. having one pay per year through potato harvesting.

The Leap visited the community center where they have hosted foreigners pre-pandemic. It was beautiful to see the space utilized again that has a gorgeous view of their lake called Cocha Qori (Golden Lake in Quecha language) The community of Quencco welcomed us by flower petal blessings on our heads and a beautiful song of traditional flute, charango (Peruvian ukalayee), and an accordion. Afterwards, we made introductions where the Leap learned how to introduce themselves in Quechua and then we started to plant native trees by their sacred lake. Most of these trees will reach full maturity in about 30 years so it is beautiful to see how reforestation can make a long-term impact. After planting trees, we were served a local lunch with fresh fried trout from the lake. Post-lunch, we visited a farmer's strawberry greenhouse to learn more about the work the AASD has done with strawberry farmers.

On Tuesday we visited a campesino community above the Lares pueblo called Quishuarani, a first for the AASD and a collaboration we hope to build in the months and years to come. Quishuarani is located high above the tree line where farmers primarily cultivate potatoes. This community is also part of a government initiative to enhance the nutrition of campesino communities through trout fisheries. Upon our arrival we met with the president of Quishuarani and took a brief tour of the trout hatchery before we hiked along the Siete Cataratas (Seven Waterfalls) trail to reach a lagoon the community considers sacred. On our way, two community members brought their herd of llamas to meet us and demonstrated the process of corralling them and loading cargo on their backs. Llamas are used primarily to transport harvested potatoes from high in the mountains. However, they are only able to carry around 25lbs at a time, so it takes a herd to transport the many sacks of potatoes in a typical harvest. When we returned from our hike and demonstration, the community treated us to an incredible lunch of soup, ceviche, chicharron, and stew made with trout from the fishery.

Later in the day we left Quishuarani and headed down into Lares, a larger pueblo lower in elevation. There, we visited the baños termales (hot springs) to warm up after a chilly, rainy morning. This is a favorite spot among locals and tourists, but we were luck enough to visit on a weekday and had run of the place for a good while. After dinner we settled into a local hotel for the evening.

On Wednesday we continued our campesino community visits with a trip further down in elevation called Choquecancha, a place along the Inca Trail but tucked away enough that relatively few visitors find. We visited the childhood home of Ruben, one of the AASD local guides, and were treated to a tour of his family's farm by his mother and father. Ruben's mom spoke about the varieties of corn she harvests, what each are used for, and the importance (and difficulties) of preserving this type of knowledge. Many of the types of corn that these communities have traditionally harvested are nutritionally dense such that their slow fade from the local diet contributes to malnutrition that plagues these communities. We were all mesmerized by the amount of knowledge about each corn variety Ruben's mom shared, and perhaps even more so by the beauty and utility of each. We then walked along the main road to a community garden and tree nursery that support reforestation efforts in the surrounding communities where the group helped weed the beds that were recently harvested. Lunch was enjoyed in the garden, prepared by a local cook with ingredients fresh from the greenhouse.

Week 4 in Peru

Complete a 4 day Machu Picchu Trek

On Friday we set off for our Machu Picchu journey...

Peru's Sacred Valley

Find out more about this off grid adventure to Peru's amazing Sacred Valley

Find out More

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