Keeping the Sacred Valley Sacred

Once upon a time, around 500 years ago, the Inca Empire stood as the largest nation on the planet.  The four districts, or Tawantinsuyu as they called it, that constituted their rule covered an absurd distance that reached as far north as Colombia, went as far south as Santiago, Chile, and even stretched inland into modern-day countries like Bolivia and Argentina.  As a result, the Incas have their stake in history for having erected the biggest native state to ever exist in the Western hemisphere.

In the midst of this impressive expanse of land lies the Sacred Valley, and out of all the valleys that carve into the Andes it’s the only one that earned the name “Sacred”.  Hundreds upon hundreds of other prodigious locations could’ve scored that designation, and yet this modest 37-mile tract of land takes the gold.  Why?

The most commonly known reason is for the Valley’s agricultural benefits; the soil is rich in nutrients, the rain pours, and the sun shines – the obvious criteria for cultivating good crop.  Yet, the fact it had such wonderful farming properties in the region it’s in is what separates it from all other valleys.  Cusco, which was the capital and centerpiece of the Tawantinsuyu departments, was only a day’s trek from the Sacred Valley, thus making it a crucial pipeline of trade, transport, and rest; a pivotal artery that delivered nourishment to the Inca’s heart.

With food production at its core, the Sacred Valley allowed an easy passage for those from the Colla Suyu (southern) district to reach noteworthy municipalities like Ollantaytambo, Cusco, and Machu Picchu.  Such access gave convenient lines to Chinceros and Urubamba, which fostered an industry of exchange for those passing through.  This was especially significant since the Incas didn’t do business with hard currency, it was with commodities like food and tools.  In turn, the abundance of resources that made their way across the valley provided ample means for citizens to have downtime on longer treks and recuperate.

But, as you’re probably aware, it didn’t last.  The Spanish conquistadors made sure of that.  With its destruction the Sacred Valley was in danger of getting lost in the annals of time until the accidental discovery of Machu Picchu (a topic in which I’ll touch on later).  Instead, it continues to be “sacred” in another sense; it’s beautiful, rich in history, teeming with a vibrant culture, and brings mass amounts of tourism to an area of the world that could use the economic support.

While that may not have the same ring to it, it’s importance in the present shouldn’t be understated.  It’s not just about marvelous landscapes or money, it’s a source of pride for the native population.  Here, where conditions aren’t as glorious as they are in developed countries, being able to point to the hillsides and share their ancestor’s ingenuity is an indispensable aspect of life for the locals.  I hear it in their voice each time they talk about it, they speak with passion and conviction, fully aware of the triumphs that are scattered over their cherished land.

A lot of families here operate differently than I’m accustomed to, the whole concept of “opportunity” and “career-growth” is often lost amongst the necessity to farm, work, and provide for your household.  As an adolescent it’s way more problematic to branch off, pay for an education, and leave your parents on the highland to do backbreaking labor; sadly, the future rarely shines as bright here as it does in other parts of the world.  With little to look forward to except years and years of toiling in the soil, what do they have?  The glory of a time past, reminiscing in the marvels that their own bloodline created.

If something as simple as a venerated homeland can offer someone a sense of belonging in an otherwise tedious lifestyle, wouldn’t you still consider it “sacred”?  I know I do.

The Business of Misrepresentation

The house we use here in Urubamba is falling apart, it has been since the very beginning.  The list of defects seems boundless; the showers are of glacial temperature, all of the faucets run, our stove shoots plumes of ash, and within our first week here the sink in the boys bathroom fell off its hinge and shattered on the floor.  We’ve been confronting our landlord about these problems around twice a week for two months, pleading with him to get all the facilities running properly.  “Yes, of course,” he says, as if his responses are always pre-recorded, “I’ll have someone on it tomorrow afternoon.  The most important thing for me is that you’re comfortable!”

To this day, nothing has been fixed.  It hasn’t even received inspection.

Our trash collector is a five minute bike ride away from where we live.  With a house that lodges 25 people, 20 of which are teenagers, you can imagine how much garbage we accumulate (it’s a lot).  We’ll call him in the morning to confirm the pick up: “Please come by in the afternoon, we’ll be waiting here with your payment.”

“Great!  I’ll be there!” he usually replies, only to never show up.  His excuse?  “Oh, my apologies.  Today wasn’t a good day.”

You may be starting to sense a pattern, so allow me one more parable.  Last year when I was traveling around South America I would always tell the bus company I wanted a direct route, no stops whatsoever.  I’d buy the ticket, and the common outcome would be six or seven stops, the complete opposite of what I had requested.  A girl I met was telling me her tagged luggage was stolen from under the bus during one of those unspecified stops and how nothing was done about it.  Their reaction towards our complaints?  Essentially, it went like this: “Whoops!”

I find this aspect of the culture, how businesses function, to be one of the most curious.  That’s because if any of the aforementioned situations transpired in the United States, they’d be out of business.  Fast.  The landlord wouldn’t be able to find tenants, someone who actually collected trash would collect the trash, and the bus company would have zero passengers.  Yet here it seems as though falsifying information to please the client – and subsequently not following through – is accepted.  Even when I ask directions for somewhere simple, like a restaurant, the person I ask will point off into the distance and say: “It’s over there.”

“Over where?” I’ll inquire further.

“There,” they’ll point.

“Do I need to turn anywhere?” I’ll ask, confused.

“Just go that way,” they’ll reply, finger still outstretched, “you can’t miss it.”  And needless to say, I always seem to miss it.

Over the course of my time living in Urubamba, though, I’ve come to the conclusion that this distorted truth stems from a good place; that they want to please you.  No one wants to look you in the eye and say I don’t know, instead they’d rather give you an answer and try to lead you down the right path.  As Southern Peru is a shy culture, perhaps they just feel uncomfortable letting you down.  As for some of the larger companies, it could be that there isn’t an infrastructure to deliver astounding customer service; like in the example of the bus company, maybe there simply isn’t a way to recover the bag.  “Whoops!” just might be the best answer they have.

I don’t know what the real answer is, and maybe I don’t need one.  Cultures differ, and this is just one of those characteristics that contrasts what I’m used to.  It’s these small nuances, the pockets of diversity, that make our species so interesting; I don’t have to understand it to enjoy it.  In the interim, I have no problem taking advantage of “Peruvian time” and showing up 30 minutes late.  Instead, I finally might have found a culture that goes by my schedule!

“I climbed all the way up the mountain with a torn knee so I could feel the land’s spirit.  I was hoping its energy would help me heal faster.  When I arrived at the top and pressed my body against the snow I could sense a power from within the ground revive my leg, urging it to rehabilitate.  It was then I knew all the pain and agony from the ascent was worth it.”

-Nico Jara, Program Coordinator

The Underrated Dominance of the Andes

Last year, I made it my goal to hike up Mt. Chicon and touch the glacial snow that stared down at me every single day.  The massive, imposing peak had been dangling a carrot in front of me since the moment I arrived in Urubamba; and I was taking the bait.  I am going to touch snow, I thought to myself, I am going to conquer the summit.  I had a vision – or even better, a dream – of myself standing high above the Sacred Valley laughing at the mountain that had taunted me since day one.

The thing is, I failed miserably.  I didn’t come close.  By the time I needed to turn around my lungs felt as though I had chain-smoked 5 packs of cigarettes earlier that morning, and I wasn’t even halfway up.  I couldn’t take ten steps without keeling over and gasping for air.

I was completely clueless at the time, but I had the foolish expectation of climbing a mountain with an elevation of 18,175 feet.  That isn’t a typo; Mt. Chicon, which casually exists in Urubamba’s backyard, is nearly 4,000 feet taller than Mt. Elbert, the tallest mountain in the Rockies.  Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States, sits 3,670 feet lower.  Even Mont Blanc, the pride of glory of the Alps, stands at a mere 15,780 feet.  Chicon towers over other ranges and still only holds the title of 11th tallest mountain in the Cusco Province, or 126 tallest in all of Peru.  For as enormous as it is, it’s nothing in comparison to the rest of the Andes.


You’re pathetic, Chicon.

The point I’m trying to make is this: the Andes are gargantuan.  At 4,300 miles end-to-end they’re the longest continental mountain range in the world, stretching over 1,000 miles further than the United States is wide.  Within that impressive distance lie more than 50 volcanoes that rise above 19,700 feet (which is taller than Mt. Kilimanjaro, by the way).  Additionally, within approximately 1,333,000 square miles of territory, the Andes possess an average height of 13,000 feet.

I’m not trying to knock the Himalayas, I know it’s the most immense mountain range by far, but the Andes don’t get the credit they deserve.  Having trekked the Altiplano previously I can say from experience they’re relentless; the landscape is littered with rocky, serrated ridgelines as far as the eye can see.  It’s almost claustrophobic being so inescapably enclosed by the numerous snowcapped peaks that boast their supremacy, perpetually bursting skyward like they’re trying to make a statement.

They’re tall, cold, dry, and deprived of oxygen; an impressive creation to say the least, a prime example of Mother Nature’s brute strength.  They’re capable of taking the most determined human and putting them on all fours – trust me, I would know.