It was day 2 of the Sacred Valley and Lares experience with Mountain Lodges of Peru (MLP), and it was that time again to check out the day’s “a-la-carte” activity menu. Sacrificing the challenging hike from Cuncani to Huacahuasi, I decided to opt for the cultural activity: visiting the tiny mountain village of Choquecancha, the home and studio of one of the most famous weavers in the Andes. It was a tough decision: a full-day hike across epic mountain passes or the opportunity to interact with remote, rarely-visited Andean communities. Did I make the right choice? The answer is yes.
We started the day by visiting the bustling market of Lamay village. Lamay is a small, quaint town just a 10 minute drive from where we had stayed the night before, the mountain-backed, llama-roaming Lamay Lodge.
Llamas roam outside your room at the stunning Lamay Lodge | © Jessica Vincent
This was exactly what I’d hoped from any working Andean market: the smell of freshly baked bread oozed from the entrance, bursts of colour from stacks of bananas and oranges lit up the narrow, jam-packed corridors, and chitter-chatter of the ladies filled the air. No tacky souvenirs, no one approaching you to sell you anything, and not a single other tourist in sight aside from our small group peeking into everyday Lamay life.
The bustling food market of Lamay, located in the Sacred Valley of the Incas | © Jessica Vincent
Our mission here was simple: buy as much bread, fruit and coca leaves that we could possibly carry because this day, our guide told us we would be visiting some of he most remote villages in the Andes where bread, bananas and children’s toys are a rare luxury. As a way to give back to the local communities that we would be visiting, the plan was to hand out these precious goods to as many locals that crossed our path as possible. I was yet to find out how such a small gift could offer such a special cultural exchange.
Our guide, Teddy, buying coca leaves for the Choquecancha and Huacahuasi communities | © Jessica Vincent
Once we had a van full of Lamay goodies, we started our two hour journey towards Choquecancha. Our route took us past the rarely visited, yet one of the most important archaeological sites in this region: the pre-Inca ruins of Ancasmarca. Spending almost an hour here, we learnt the fascinating theories behind these expertly built stone cylinders, most likely used for farming and storage more than 2,000 years ago (some even still show perfectly preserved animal pens!). The best part? Apart from a local lady walking through with her two llamas, we had this entire mountain-backed paradise to ourselves. Every whisper, every whistling sound of the wind, and every rustle of the long grass could be heard echoing through the stone structures. There is an energy, it seems, that can only be felt in these magical Andean temples.
A guided tour of the perfectly preserved pre-inca ruins in Ancasmarca | © Jessica Vincent
Climbing slowly but surely to 12,500 feet, we hit the road once again. As the path got windier and the cliffside drops steeper, the landscape around us transformed into one of the most stunning sights I’d ever seen. Llamas roaming bright green mossy lakes, dark volcanic mountains backed by shimmering icy glaciers, and beautifully dressed women herding their 100-strong herd under a piercing blue sky. This was, without doubt, the Andean wilderness at its best.
Stunning scenery between Ancasmarcas ruins and Choquecancha | ©Jessica Vincent
Within a few minutes of driving, our guide spotted a group of little ones playing in the mountains. We approached as they splashed each other in the icy cold water, jumped over the mossy green plains, and tugged on eachothers’ hats. These mountains were their playground and, for a minute, it was as if they were in their very own neverland. No rules, no one telling them no, just them and their never-ending expanse of pristine paradise. A scene that -in a society where kids are more interested in their iPads than their surroundings- you just don’t see where I’m from.
Giving out bread to the local kids en route to Choquecancha village | © Jessica Vincent
Giving out bread to the local kids en route to Choquecancha village | © Jessica Vincent
Our guide spoke a few words in Quechua to them, and they suddenly got very excited and started giggling and pushing each other to the window. “You go first!” one said. “No, you!” another replied. We gave them all a couple of freshly baked loaves of bread each. The smiles on their faces, their nervous giggles as they saw their picture on my camera, and the way they clutched that bread as if it was a little nugget of gold will stay with me forever.
We continued on our journey to the town of Choquecancha. We arrived on a Monday, which is market day in this tiny village and the only day of the week where families here can buy simple, yet hard to come by items such as pasta, soap and kid’s school books in the town square.
Locals come to Choquecancha from neighbouring villages on Mondays to sell fruit, bread and other essential items | © Jessica Vincent
What drew my attention almost immediately, however, was a van parked in the middle of the square. It was surrounded by kids. It was hard to decipher what was going on. Maybe they were selling sweets? I got closer and noticed they were all crowded around a very small, grainy television barely visible from where I was standing. Our guide explained that most homes here don’t have their own TV, so Monday afternoons are the only time where the kids get to watch a film. That day, just like every other Monday, they had run home from school to catch this week’s movie: an Andean documentary. I took a photo of them, but they were so engrossed in the film that they didn’t even notice. A beautiful, rare moment that stayed with me that day.
On market day, kids from Choquecancha run home from school to watch a movie on the town’s only television | © Jessica Vincent
After we’d walked around the market, it was time to meet the famous weaver of Choquecancha. Just a short walk from the main square, we spotted her: like a colourful bird guarding her nest, she was standing under a beautiful wreathed archway full of blooming flowers from the mountains. Dressed as colourful as the flowers that surrounded her, she proudly welcomed us into her home by sprinkling rose petals over our heads and embracing us as if we were old friends.
The most famous weaver in the Andes welcoming us into her home in Choquecancha | © Jessica Vincent
She showed us the way to her studio, where immediately she sat down and continued working on a beautiful weaved blanket. Depicting ancient scenes of farming, cooking and chicha-drinking (a typical Andean drink made from purple corn), she expertly weaved fine, colourful threads of llama wool as she talked us through the process. I couldn’t see a single drawn out design or carbon copy to follow close to her as she was weaving this completely from memory (and at times not even looking down at her hands!). It really was some of the most impressive artisan work I had ever seen.
These designs and ancient techniques, she said, are in danger of being lost. As focus shifts to fast and cheap production, the younger generation seem less interested in this intricate work. However, this lady, generating interest and demand through immersive tourism with companies like MLP, is once again making traditional weaving cool again. Working almost 12 hours a day weaving and teaching, her mission is to pass on these beautiful techniques to as many women in the community as possible, in the hope that this ancient tradition won’t be lost when she dies. While we were there, two apprentices were in the studio, watching and listening closely to their master as they got to grips with spinning the wool ready for weaving. A hopeful sign for the future of a beautiful Andean tradition.
Women from the Choquecancha community learning ancient weaving techniques from the master | © Jessica Vincent
So here I am sat in a steaming hot tub overlooking the Andean mountains, reflecting on this beautiful day. What did I just experience? It’s hard to put into words.
Today I saw otherworldly landscapes, but what really stuck with me are the people, along with their colourful traditions, their deep connection with nature, and an intense love for the simplest
of things. When I started this trip, I was most looking forward to visiting Machu Picchu. But now I understand: however stunning Machu Picchu is, Peru is not characterized by its number one tourist attraction. Instead, it is defined by the humble farmers, weavers and children who call these magical mountains home. Against challenging odds, they passionately fight to preserve the traditions that give this region its infectious energy. I’m forever grateful to MLP for opening my eyes to this, and so much more, throughout these unforgettable five days in the Sacred Valley.