Urubamba, the Sacred Valley (1)

P1370074The valley of the river Urubamba was a sacred place. It was a fertile valley that gave food to the most cherished man of the empire, Inca himself, the Son of the Sun. Here the crops for the highest social class were cultivated and here was also the centre of the Inca administration.

Nowadays the valley still lives from agriculture, especially from the production of maiz. The Urubamba is a fast growing little town, busy mostly with commerce, crops and tourism. It is touristic but in a less obvious way than Cusco. Whereas Cusco is all set up for the luxury travellers, Urubamba seem to attract more the hippie-type from both Lima and abroad. It became THE place for those you cherish the alternative lifestyle – I have seen both gringos and rich Limeños, who moved here to enjoy the relaxed life and  an afternoon joint.

Urubamba region is also probably the basis to explore the Inca sites around – more quiet and more friendly than Cusco. We stayed in the local house of a friend in Yucay, a little village short ride away from Urubamba. Just a simple house but as I have already seen in Cajamarca – the simple houses in Peru are usually the most hospitable ones.


Local market in Urubamba



In the streets of Yucay


Waiting for a bus..


With Eusébio in his house in Yucay


Andahuaylas – the depths of Peru

Andahuaylas is out of the main tourist track. Nobody comes or stops here if they are not truly interested in knowing those deep and seemingly boring parts of the country. There is even not a proper road leading to this place. The connection to the main cities of Ayacucho and Abancay is via trocha, the nasty bumpy mountain road. To run the 240km separating Andahuaylas from Ayacucho a bus needs normally over 8h. In our case it was almost 11h!  The rain season has begun and the road already started to deteriorate. Crawling through the mountains, we were passing wet passages one after another, sometimes getting out of the bus to avoid it getting stuck in the mud. Packed into an old crowded vehicle, bouncing on the very last back seat, every minute feeling sicker and sicker (instead of the pills), I just wished this journey to end. I had even no will left to admire the views outside (unusual for me). And the views were beautiful – as all around these wild parts of the Andes.




Andahuaylas itself is a small town – there is basically nothing to do there apart from observing the always colourful and vivid central market. But the locals is proud of two things: Sondor – the ruins of the Chanka people and Laguna Pacucha – a large lake around 30min drive from the town.

Signs along the road advertises Laguna Pacucha as the “Most beautiful lake in Peru”, which is obviously not true. But it is still a nice and quiet spot and a perfect place to have a look at the ‘depths of Peru’, where people still live as they used to 50 years ago. We tried to talk to an old lady who was taking her cows down to the water. Turned out …. she didn’t speak Spanish! Her only language was Quechua, the language of her father, grandfather and grand grandfather. So she just laughed in our face, said something we didn’t understand (there is a chance it was offending – how would we know?) and left. P1360455

Hundreds of years ago this area was inhabited by the Chanka people, at that time the power of Andes. It was a strong and brave nation, famous for being bloody in the battles and scalping their captives.  And the only one that was close to beating the Incas, feared by them so much that the Inca ruler, Viracocha, flew from Cusco when he saw the approaching Chanka army. But in the battle that took place the Chanka were defeated and the Inca imperium started to grow.

The ruins of Sondor are just the rests of the houses and a celebration pyramid. There is not much more than stones left after this powerful nation. P1360403


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Science comes to Catache


Students in Catache learn also traditional Andean crafts

Ten pairs of frightened eyes are staring at me. There is total silence in the classroom. I ask: ‘Why is air important? Why do we need air?’. No answer, just silence. The scared eyes are still watching me. Finally a shy voice, so low that almost impossible to hear, says: ‘We need air to breath’. It was the first day of my workshops in Catache.

In the city the kids are loud and selfconfident, making the work of the teacher as hard as possible. In the campo the problem is different: the kids are so scared they hardly ever speak. They need time to adjust, to get used to new people. A friend of mine, Anne Bernhardt, who spent almost a year as a teacher in Catache was telling me that for the first week the kids didn’t say a word, they were just looking at her from behind of their blankets. My experience was not so extreme, but I didn’t achieve much more than a whisper.


Together with Profesora Ana of Catache

Although difficult, it was still one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had in Peru so far. The highschool of Catache is tiny, there are not more than 30 kids attending it. Some of them come from far away and need 2 hours of climbing the hill every day! The school is lucky to have two wonderful teachers: Profesora Ana y Profesor Carlos, who follow their mission in Catache already for 5 years. They’ve been living with the campesinos, sharing their everyday life and problems, trying to improve the life of the community. With their arrival the campesinos started to take more care about environment and the education of their children. Profesores Ana and Carlos are truly inspiring people and I admire their work.

But not all the teachers are so good – many of those that come lack imagination, initiative and new ideas. It’s understandable – who dreams about being a teacher in the middle of nowhere for 200€ per month (if you have family it is not enough to survive!)? I give you an example: the science teacher has a school microscope at her disposal and she says she does not know how to use it! Just think how many great science lessons you can make with a microscope, and it just sits on the shelf and collects dust… The students learn about magnetism without seeing a magnet, about electricity without ever touching a cable..

P1340090I wanted to change it, at least for a while. Show those kids that science can be fun. And we really had fun! At the beginning shy, with time they started to do the experiments with more self-confidence. And all of them were fascinated by the microscope. So fascinated, that they started to kill small flies and insects around the classroom to see how they look like under the microscope! I tell you, it is a wonderful feeling to look at the kids and teenagers amazed by the world of science!

Finally – the village wants to hire me as a teacher for next year. What do you think? Should I accept the offer? 😉

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The lost world of Catache

Far far away, deep in the Andean mountains, at the edge of the awe-inspiring cliff, lays a little village…

The people living there are simple but have great hearts and know what is love, respect and hospitality. They live quietly, with their sheep, and eat what the earth is giving them. They wake up early with the sunrise and go to sleep with the sunset. Most of them have never seen or touched a computer in their lives. Internet for them is a virtual world they have never entered. How could they if the electricity has not yet reached their homes? When the sun goes down each house lights a candle. And the village goes to sleep in total darkness and total silence, since there is not a single car in this place…

Sounds like a fairy tale? This village really exists, it is called Catache. From Cajamarca one needs to follow  bumpy mountain roads for 90 min and then walk almost 1 hour. I visited Catache a week ago, to give science workshops in the communal high school. It is a place where the time has stopped. Some would call it uncivilized and undeveloped, others ‘the third world’. I say it is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. In all the sense of the word ‘beautiful’: regarding the landscape, the traditions and the people themselves.

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Día Internacional de los Pueblos Indígenas

Coming back to the topic of my last post, most of the stories about the discrimination in Perú I heard directly from the campesinos, Andean villagers. Two  months ago, in August, world celebrated International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples (Día Internacional de los Pueblos Indígenas). I was lucky, and a friend of mine invited me for a debate organized by the local Academy of Quechua in the nearby village.

Here are some interesting facts and stories I learned that day:

  • Soem claim that the word ‘ indígena’ has a different meaning that English ‘indigenous’. It comes from quechuan Inti –which means sun and Spanish gentepeople. So literally the indígenas would be the people of the sun.
  • There are over 1500 medicinal plants in Perú. Many of them are slowly getting forgotten. But the older campesinos still believe in the power of natural medicine. True story: to one poor villager, to solve his problems with prostate, doctor in a clinic recommended operation that costs more than 4000 soles (over 1300 EUR). A price impossible to pay by a campesino. So the sick man instead turned to the traditional medicinal plants – a cheap therapy that cost him 1% of the price of the operation. He is healthy again, no operation needed.
  • In Perú campesinos used to cultivate more than 200 different plants.This number of course excludes different kinds of the same plant, as only of patato there are over 3000 different types! One of the campesinos I met still breeds over 60 different types of papas! As he says – just to prevent them from getting lost.
  • Regarding the discrimination, a man present in the debate tested himself the effect of tie and sombrero I was writing about. To prove the point, he went to the doctor dressed once in the sombrero and a poncho, and another day dressed in a suit and a tie. You can of course guess the result!

The International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples was established by UNESCO in 1995 and is celebrated every year on August 9th, with the idea to promote and protect the rights of the world’s indigenous population.

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I planted culantro

I cannot distinguish the seeds of carrots from those of lettuce. I can barely tell coriander from parsely when they grow. But that day I ended up planting vagetables, including culantro, a plant I have never heard about before.

Segundo, one of the Peruvians from the intercambio, took us to visit his grandmother and his cousin at the countryside. The house that belongs to his family stands in the middle of the land, there is no road leading directly to it. There is no car standing next to it, no tractor. Everything is done by hand, eventually with mules or horses. The machines are anyway almost useless in the Andes, where the fields so often climb the slopes of the mountains. Many of the houses are still built in a tranditional way – out of adobe, a mixture of sand, water and straw. (Certain resources might be missing here, but the dirt is plentiful!)

The main plant cultivated in the region is patato. Or rather patatoes because most families harvest more than one type (out of over 3000 existing in Perú!). Apart from that, the family of Segundo plants corn and every-day vegetables, like carrots or lettuce. They also breed animals – nothing too exotic, just a couple of sheeps, cows, chicken, two huge rabbits, and … a small herd of cuyes i.e guinea pigs (the tiny animal I am holding in the picture has maybe 3-4 months more to go..).

Our task for that day was to start a vegetable garden. With dry Andean ground it turned out to be quite exhausting. With a hoe in my hand and my back hurting I couldn’t help but wonder that out picture of the campo gets distorted, that we loose the link between the land and the physical labour. What comes up to your mind when I say ‘countryside’? Silence? Beauty? Quiet, green, close to nature? All true, but for the campesinos, it is first of all hard work, it means getting your hands dirty with soil and your back acking. In sometimes unfriendly Andean landscape, where every small piece of the land has to be torn out with the bare hands, this connection, so often forgotten, becomes very clear.

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Colors of Huaraz

Blue, green, turquoise, red, cardinal, pink, bronze, maroon, scarlett, yellow, orange, lila, magenta, lime, purple. The list has no end. There seem to be no rules apart from one: colors must be strong and contrasting. Nothing limits the imagination, no combination is taboo.

I admire the traditional peruvian feeling for colors.  Shirt in vivid red, dark green pullover, skirt in intense blue, pink blanket filled with medicinal plants, two thick black braids under the bright hat with a large brim. That’s a typical picture of a Quechua lady from the Sierra. The whole outfit is accompanied by the thick wool leggins (usually in a different color than the rest). The Quechua lady would ask: “How can a woman ever wear a skirt without leggins?” : )

Sadly, as anywhere else in world, the young do not follow the customs of the elderly. In the cities, the vibrant colors have been displaced by the pale blue of the jeans and the grey of the sporty jumpers. It is the comfort, substituting the tradition.

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