An extraordinary local journey guided by shamans, farmers, chefs, and healers through vertical archipelagos of high-altitude ecosystems to discover ancient learning in Peru’s Sacred Valley.

Words Carla Bragagnini
Photography Antonio Sorrentino

When Bacilia Cruz Medina leaves her house, she only has two options—walk straight up into the mountains or straight down into the tributary valley below. With steep climbs and oxygen-deprived altitudes, life in the Andes is not for the faint of heart. In fact, Peru’s vertical range is so vast, it contains 28 of the world’s 32 classified climate zones, all filled with robust ecosystems and unparalleled biodiversity. It was here where, over thousands of years, the pre-Incas and Incas utilized the richness of the territory and their ingenuity to tame unlikely wild plants into what later became world-dominating staple foods. People who live from the land here, like Bacilia, zigzag craggy paths effortlessly, thanks to equal parts grit, ancestral strength, and superhuman lung capacity. Don’t even try to keep up.

Physically I am up two flights of stairs as I write this, sitting in my apartment in Montreal, but through the power of technology, I am also worlds away, at 3,355 meters above sea level, in Bacilia’s tiny village of Marcacocha, in my homeland of Peru. It’s a place that feels so far from my current reality—yet so familiar. To create this Travel Diary remotely from my Canadian apartment, I connected virtually with photographer Antonio Sorrentino, who works and lives in the Sacred Valley. Together, via audio recordings, high-res visuals, and real-time interviews, we joined forces on the ground, traveling through the region to gain further understanding of this incredible vertical archipelago and the relationships its people have with the plants that grow here.

The first time I visited the Sacred Valley of the Incas, the mystical region between Cusco and Machu Picchu, I was in awe of living tradition coexisting with nature and the remnants of ancient civilizations. Once sprawling noble estate lands, outside of the Inca capital of Cusco, the Sacred Valley is characterized by terraced temples and the remains of royal palaces. The Incas were agricultural experts, building on the work of previous cultures they engulfed. They inherited crops like corn, potatoes, and quinoa from their predecessors, experimented with them and perfected their growth at different altitudes, extensively increasing their varieties — there are over 4,000 types of potato, for example—to create products whose history in the region spans thousands of years. The pre-Incas and Incas also overcame harsh weather conditions and rugged terrain with stone contained terraces (andenes) that maximized land space and daytime heating, planted companion species, and installed irrigation lines that harnessed gushing waters. At its peak, there were one million hectares of arable andenes throughout the Inca Empire, which spanned most of South America. Remarkable, considering they hadn’t even invented the wheel.

The village of Marcacocha boasts some of the highest concentrations of pre-Inca- and Inca-built terraces in the region—a paint-by-numbers landscape of green, yellow, and brown hues—some abandoned but many still active. In Marcacocha, the ruins of Huchuy Aya Orqo (dating back to 800 BC) and a small colonial church with a thatched roof are the only other date stamps. Otherwise, this is a place where time stands absolutely still. Livestock graze freely, tended to by townsfolk dressed from head to toe in traditional and vibrantly woven and embroidered attire—blooming like bright flowers on the land’s fertile soil. Children in fringed ponchos play outside homes perched on hilly slopes, while sheep cuddle up on historic stone walls. Women use the Quechua-named llikllas or mantas on their backs to carry the day’s harvest and forage for flora like the red-petalled kúpuysu, as a way to jazz up their monteras—traditional hats tied with sanq’apas, white-beaded straps. They complete the ensemble with a pollera, a Spanish-influenced folk skirt.

The Spanish colonization of the Incas in the 1530s imposed everything from clothing to religion. The Incas’ weaving art form did fuse with Spanish symbolism, but most indigenous crops and traditions were shunned and replaced with European counterparts, creating stigmatizing narratives. Along with this cultural rejection, it forced civilians to trade agriculture for mining. With no written language, the Incas had relied on oral storytelling. Their Quechua language was used to evangelize, causing the disappearance of dialects. Later, in the 20th century, a violent guerrilla war again ousted Peruvian farmers from their lands and drove them into bigger cities. And modern-day cultural assimilation and ecological changes also pose a threat to many long-standing traditions. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how or why certain cultural idiosyncrasies disappeared, but

thankfully in recent years, there has been a growing sense of pride in reclaiming indigenous identity, restoring diversity and in rediscovering what was lost.

Considering all those challenges, it’s incredible that people in villages like Marcacocha not only continue to live among history but continue to embody it as well. Villagers speak Quechua, as opposed to Spanish, and still grow Inca staples using ancestral methods that remain unchanged—they grow on restored terraces, farm using crop rotations and still use tools like the chakitaqlla foot plow, for example. Despite having lost some diversity of farmed crops and knowledge of foraged plants, they have somehow been able to safeguard other ancient practices for thousands of years.

My journey with Antonio began at 3,762 meters above sea level by enlisting the guidance of Fredy Quispe Singona (Puma), a paqo or medicine man from Chinchero, who in turn has guides of his own. “We believe that she is conscious and that she is intelligent,” he says, of the feminine goddess, Pachamama, revered in Andean culture since pre-Hispanic times. Pachamama, or Mother Earth, is said to sustain life on the planet and preside over harvest and agriculture, lending her abundant fertility.

Stretching from deep roots to mountain peaks, her ground is said to hold the wisdom and memories of our ancestors.

“Caves are the womb of Mother Earth,” Puma explains later, as he leads us into the opening of a jagged rock face and sits down to select coca leaves. “We use the coca leaves, as the most powerful medicinal plant. They have roots and flowers that we use for healing our bodies.” Coca leaves were sacred for both pre-Inca and Inca cultures. Regionally, chewing coca leaves gives strength for hard labor and alleviates altitude sickness on long treks. As a ritual observed with others, it is a bonding practice and people gift their most beautiful coca leaves as a sign of gratitude—a k’intu.

Puma holds the leaves tightly, while setting an intention for our global healing and our rebalance with nature. Soulful music fills the cave, courtesy of his quena, an Andean flute, which belonged to his grandfather, who began training him as a paqo when he was struck by lightning at age six.“We believe that plants are spirits and when we play music to them, they connect with us,” he says.

We begin the climb from the cave to the mountaintop, greeted by the sky-grazing Andes and their mountain deities (apus). Overlooking the agricultural patchwork below, Puma sets up an altar for Pachamama consisting of rocks, seeds, grains, and a llama fetus “It represents that which is yet to be born,” he says. This offering ritual is common practice among Andean people and farmers, like the ones in Marcacocha, during harvest, bloom, or solstice. “They use flowers, they pour chicha de jora (an ancient, fermented beverage made from germinated corn) in the ground, and they give candies, food, play music, and they dance,” in the hopes of a successful agricultural season, similar to ancestral ceremonies. In the Andes, Pachamama gets the first sip of any drink, whether ceremonial or not, out of respect and under the Andean principle of ayni—balance or reciprocity. As such, Puma pours wachuma (also known as San Pedro—St. Peter) into the earth. A concoction made from a cactus native to the Andes, San Pedro is considered a “master plant,” to be used for spiritual healing but only under the supervision of an experienced paqo. Puma says that baptizing it with a Catholic name during colonization kept it from being wiped out. And interestingly, under Spanish rule, Pachamama was syncretized with the Virgin Mary.

“When you sleep and wake up and stand on your two feet, Mother Earth is holding you, always.”

— Freddy Quispe Singona Puma

As the ceremony wraps, Puma leaves us with one last parting wisdom that resonates profoundly: “When you sleep and wake up and stand on your two feet, Mother Earth is holding you, always.” There is a real grounding and connecting quality to the earth that often gets neglected in our busy lives. Puma says we are being called to be with Mother Earth in a more conscious way, in order to take better care of ourselves, our community, and our planet. As a nurturing and ever-present source of vitality and wellbeing, it is believed that losing our link to Pachamama creates disharmony in the world and disease in our lives. As the ceremony wraps, Puma leaves us with one last parting wisdom that resonates profoundly: “When you sleep and wake up and stand on your two feet, Mother Earth is holding you, always.” There is a real grounding and connecting quality to the earth that often gets neglected in our busy lives. Puma says we are being called to be with Mother Earth in a more conscious way, in order to take better care of ourselves, our community, and our planet. As a nurturing and ever-present source of vitality and wellbeing, it is believed that losing our link to Pachamama creates disharmony in the world and disease in our lives.

Puma plays his quena, which he inherited from his grandfather. “We believe that plants are spirits and when we play music to them, they connect with us,” he says.

This is something Nicomedes Yupanqui can attest to. He believes too many people are seeking a quick medical fix these days, but nothing can bypass the power of nature—a lesson he learned the hard way. Across the valley, he takes us for a medicinal plant walk in a dense, misty forest of unka trees, outside of Choquechaqa, 75 km Northwest of Cusco, with his nephew, and, as I’ve learned, the most important plant foraging companion—the Andean flute. The family is dressed in colorful ponchos, mantas, and traditional headwear, creating a kaleidoscopic effect when the light flickers through the trees.

When debris from a highway construction job left Nicomedes with damaged lungs, he bounced between hospitals, clinics, and pharmacies for years, until finally, a curandero, or native healer, encouraged him to swap pills for plants. After his miraculous recovery, he traveled throughout the Andes and Amazon, becoming a self-taught encyclopedia of botanical knowledge. These days, he uses his regional backyard as his personal pharmacy.

Thanks to the altitude-diverse microclimates and the bounties of Pachamama, his options are endless—if he needs a different “prescription,” so to speak, he just climbs higher or lower into a different climate zone with a different habitat.

“This is called chiq’llur. It’s best fresh,” Nicomedes says. His protégé, Lorenzo, chimes in, “It’s for stomach pain.” The plant preparation varies—some they boil and drink, or chew directly, while others are mixed with other plants or even bathed in. As stewards of sacred reclaimed knowledge, Nicomedes and Lorenzo guide us through the forest, searching in unison and identifying at least 25 different species along the way. Chewing mutui fronds or drinking its infusion is for calentura or fever. “It has a lot of juice in its leaves—the higher you go, the more juice you have,” Nicomedes says. A lowlying plant topped with a coral flower is yawar chúnqà. “It’s good for when you cut yourself,” he says. With a Quechua name that translates as “blood sucker,” its oral ingestion counters wound inflammation. Salvia, or wild sage, helps to lower fats and heal empacho, a folk illness similar to a post-meal intestinal blockage. Getting dizzy or “when the wind grabs you,” is best treated by steaming qaqa sunkha, a tangled moss, that also produces a natural orange dye for textiles. Nicomedes and Lorenzo have leafy treatments for everything from cramps to tuberculosis. Often, they bring back samples to plant in Nicomedes’ garden—bringing the “pharmacy” shop to his actual backyard.

Back at the home of their relative, Juan, a potato farmer, lunch awaits the crew of hungry foragers. The meal consists of charqui, chuño, and moraya, foods preserved using ancient processes. The Incas stored these same varieties of non perishables in hilltop storehouses, called qullqas, for food security in the event of war or famine. At high elevations, these meals help maintain warmth—“Like a coffee,” Juan says. Charqui (lending origins to the word, “jerky”) is dried llama meat prepared with exposure to icy elements, while chuño and moraya are freeze-dried potatoes, with years long shelf lives. “The freeze comes in June and July. We walk two hours with llamas up to 4,200 meters, where it’s colder,” Juan says. “We make the chuño and moraya up there.”

For chuño, the cold temperatures naturally freeze and thaw selected potatoes, until they shrivel up and are stomped on to remove moisture (“They freeze like rocks and then dry like figs,” Juan explains). Making moraya, on the other hand, is a little trickier. Potatoes must be placed in frigid mountain rivers before sunrise (“If the sun catches them, they become sour,” he says), which means a grueling 3am start. After two weeks immersed in water, they are left to dry, then trampled by foot—a healthy outlet, no doubt, given moraya’s tendency towards moodiness.

Meanwhile, at 3,740 meters, in Huatata, beneath the shadows of the looming Andes and the apu guardians, Manuel Choqque wants us to continue rethinking the potato. “It is believed the potato is a filler, a food that’s low in nutrients—that is a myth we are trying to change,” he tells us, after a long day working in his blooming fields on Pachamama’s soil. As a fourth-generation farmer, affectionately nicknamed “The Potato Whisperer,” he grew up playing with the potatoes, ocas and mashuas he now cultivates. “I am an agronomist but I don’t know if I should also call myself an investigator or a very restless entrepreneur,” he jokes. His friendly demeanor is so quintessentially Peruvian (“he is more Peruvian than the potato” is a popular national saying).

You’d never know it to look at them, but rainbow treasures are tucked beneath these muted potato skins.

The path to tuber technicolor began 15 years ago, when Manuel and his father, a fellow agronomist and conservationist, visited Andean communities and gathered 350 native potato varieties with different flavors and textures and thousands of years of regional history. When Manuel observed that pigmentation was linked to nutritional value, he started playing genetic matchmaker. He cross-pollinated ultra-pigmented varieties by hand (“I transfer the pollen from A to B”) and thereby intensified the color generationally with a simple method possibly used for millennia. In creating biofortified potatoes rich in vitamin C, iron, zinc, and antioxidants, he believes he can combat illness and childhood malnutrition, prevalent in remote villages. Even the peels are vitamin C-packed, a fact, Manuel says, that surprises most. “Two years ago, we had a red potato that looked like a beet,” he tells us proudly. According to Manuel, beet-red potatoes are high in beta-carotenes, while their purple cousins contain anthocyanins, thought to prevent ocular disease and cancer, respectively.

His efforts in rescuing dwindling varieties and revaluing Andean crops were not always recognized. Locally, people tend to favor big and bland peeling-friendly potatoes, with little nutritional content. Manuel’s tubers can be vibrant and intricate, looking more 3D-printed than naturally grown, which initially garnered him strange looks at markets. His varieties include the leona negra (black lioness), puma maki (puma’s paw), and kachunwakachi, which resembles the love child of a potato and a pine cone. Its Quechua name means “make the daughter-in-law cry” because peeling it can be arduous (and emotional). Kitchen knives aside, bringing back native species from obscurity and encouraging their widespread cultivation is essential, not only for nutrition, culinary innovation, and cultural heritage but also for a changing climate. “If you have diversity, there’s certain varieties that tolerate changes—that can survive pests, diseases, droughts, frost,” Manuel explains.

On his farm, Manuel Choqque holds out one of his nutrient-packed potato varieties, characterized by an intense shade of purple.

Over lunch, where the potato is not a side dish but a well-deserving main, Manuel sips from his own label of oca wine. Oca, one of the oldest Andean crops, is a sweet and tangy tuber with sunset shades—yellows, oranges, pinks, reds, and purples. Growing up, Manuel ate them like apples. To achieve ultimate sweetness, his father would use inherited sun-drying techniques. “He would wash the ocas and lay them out to concentrate the sugars,” Manuel recalls. The idea of then fermenting those sun-bathed tubers took hold, resulting in oca wine, the first of its kind. It is on the wine pairing menu at the acclaimed fine dining restaurant Mil Centro in Moray, 50 km Northwest of Cusco. “When I read that they were going to open and were dedicated to research, I think that’s the part that most caught my attention.”

A few years ago, when I first traveled to Moray myself, my breath was taken away, and not just because it’s located at 3,481 meters. Moray is an otherworldly Inca complex in the Sacred Valley, made up of excavated concentric circle terraces. Studies suggest it served as a research center for the Incas, where they experimented with crops at diverse elevations and temperatures. On the edge of Moray sits Mil Centro, a concept restaurant and microdistillery, housing a modern-day research center, Mater Iniciativa—whose location could not be more fitting.

Travels in his native Peru—and specifically to the ruins of Moray—inspired world renowned chef Virgilio Martínez to present Peru’s gastronomy in his select group of fine dining restaurants as ecosystem-based dishes, which vary according to altitude. Mil, for example, focuses on Andean-specific ingredients. Mater Iniciativa is the investigative arm of the group and is overseen by his sister, Malena Martínez. Mater extends beyond gastronomy into arts and culture, reincorporating techniques and rediscovering native products—ingredients, medicinal herbs, and botanical dyes.

“There is knowledge that has been lost and that we have been finding. As part of our culture, we understand we have to rescue it.”

— Virgilio Martínez

“Our most important resource is the human resource,” Malena says of her interdisciplinary team of experts and the communities they visit. “Each community has a different way to connect to their products. And has the wisdom to apply different techniques.”

Teams are guided in gathering local histories and uses and return with intriguing findings for analysis, cataloguing, and experimentation. Their evolving and far-reaching registry (500 products plus 100 traditions, and counting) works to preserve and protect national culture.

Mil Centro carefully integrates with its environment—from the earth-plastered walls to the ichu grass roof applying Incan weaving techniques) and the artisan ceramics (some crafted by neighboring villagers in a Mater-led workshop). Rows of foraged flora, like kjolle flowers, tiklla warmi plants and cjuñu muña bunches, hang to dry, while meticulously-labeled mason jars hold products like krameria lappacea root and cushuro cyanobacteria. “When the identity is very well rooted, it allows us to be able to better transmit things,” Virgilio says. “We don’t have to use special effects or rethink things so much.” The concept works organically because it is as clear as the nearby Andean glacial lakes.

Surrounding farmlands allow them to grow crops, such as potatoes, ocas, kiwicha, and tarwi, and run community workshops. “We wanted to create a space for an honest conversation, so we decided to do it in the fields. Our farm work became our table,” Malena says, of this dialogue and exchange. “One of the things that makes me proud is that Peruvian gastronomy is closely linked to agriculture,” Virgilio adds. Mil Centro collaborates with adjacent communities, Mullakas-Misminay and Kacllaraccay, and farmers like Manuel Choqque Bravo. “We learn a lot from the relationship with the producers and their environment. From their craft and art,” he says. “This, for us, is vital.”

As for the tug-of-war between tradition and innovation, Virgilio says it’s not necessary. “We see that there shouldn’t be a struggle between the two. That’s why we see tradition as the root of everything, of the knowledge itself. And we give it a very important place.” Therefore, each dish not only uses indigenous altitudinal ingredients, but also relays a thoughtful cultural translation of a place—for instance, the huatia, a large earth oven used in communal harvest celebrations, is reimagined as a potato-centered table experience (“You are eating what comes from the earth in the earth,” Malena says, of its significance).

Mater and Mil are part of a growing movement that uses gastronomy and the arts as important platforms for showcasing, honoring, promoting, and preserving Peru’s heritage in the region and on the world stage. “There is knowledge that has been lost and that we have been finding,” Virgilio says, of this effort. “As part of our culture, we understand we have to rescue it.”

Initiatives like these demonstrate that the key to Peru’s sustainable future is a symbiosis between tradition and innovation, rooted in the deep respect and understanding of its biodiversity and cultural identity. As evidenced, successful models recognize the equal importance of everyone involved—a concept that extrapolates to Andean culture.

Pachamama’s dramatic landscapes in the Andes may stretch vertically but the dynamics of its people are always horizontal.

Whether it is the villager, the medicine man, the forager, the farmer, the researcher, the restaurateur, the ancestors, or the visitors themselves—they all hold equal value in keeping these stories alive. Perhaps Peru’s greatest richness after all, is its humanity.

Design Hotels recommendation

The hotel Andenia, nestled within the Sacred Valley, is the perfect place to slow down and immerse yourself the unique and ancient palette of ecosystems that is the Andes. Try their hyperlocal dining experience made with ingredients from nearby farms. Ask to join a long and leisurely pachamanca cookout with Andean ingredients using an earth oven; or participate in a haywarikuy cere­mony of offering to the apus, the spirits, and to Pachamama—thanking the Earth Mother for her abundance.