As we entered the house of one of Mickey’s two sisters, Adee, we were greeted by the soft smell of burning herbs and fresh corn and the shrill squeaks and scratches of the guinea pigs running around their pens. It was a bit overwhelming at first, as it was a hot morning, and the exhaustion from our trek through the Salkantay Valley had not quite faded yet.
Although this was only the second stop on our tour of the Sacred Valley, I could already tell that this adventure wasn’t going to be your typical tourist trap bus ride. This was to be expected, given our tour guide, Miguel (or Mickey, as he had invited us to call him early on in our travels) Rozas. He had recently guided us through the Salkantay Valley and Machu Pichu, in what turned out to be one of the most enjoyable and exciting treks of my life. When we arrived at the small town Mickey had grown up in, Media Luna, we were all nervously excited, not really knowing what to expect. Our nerves eased as we were introduced to his family: his sisters Marleni and Adee, along with his Aunt Carmen and his Uncle Wilbur. As our tour began, Adee welcomed us into her home, and her cuy farm.
Adee told us that the burning herbs that we smelled as we entered her home were a mix of fresh sage, coca leaves, rosemary and quinoa, a combination that when placed on top of hot coals produces a sort of incense that is believed to be valuable to the fertility and the stages of pregnancy of the guinea pigs. The fresh corn smell was their feed, which the family grows and mashes themselves, on site. All of the cuy raised here are meant for eating, save for the ones with black fur, which serve a surprising purpose.
Adee told us that cuy with black fur were used for sacrifice, as an homage to “Pachamama” or Mother Earth. When performing this sacrifice, the family traditionally removes the skin and fur, which is later boiled and used as a strengthening agent in the production of adobe bricks. After the cuy has been stripped of its skin, it is laid in a woven bowl filled with fresh, aromatic flowers and is offered up as a celebration of the earth and all of its gifts to us.
Adee explains that it takes the other cuys about three-to-four months in order to get to edible size, and to our excitement, she had prepared one for us to eat and that it was being roasted as we spoke. We were all particularly excited about this aspect of our tour, as from the moment we had arrived in Peru, everyone had implored us to try the guinea pig, and this was finally our opportunity— and an incredibly fresh and unique one at that. While we waited for our lunch, we were ushered into the next house to visit with another of Mickey’s sisters named Marleni and learn about her trade: textile production.
Marleni welcomed us into the backyard of her home, where we could see spools of spun wool, clumps of fresh wool waiting to be spun, and long lines of colored thread being hung up to dry. All of the thread on site, a surprising amount, had been produced right there by hand, through a tedious weaving process.
Marleni then showed us that all of the dyes that she uses on her thread were natural items. They ranged from flowers that produce vibrant yellows to a fungus found on cactus that produces deep, dark reds. A special oven, referred to as a ‘cancha,’ sat on top of hot coals, with two large bowls of boiling water on top.
Once the water boiled, the weaver inserts the leaves, flowers, or other ingredients that would give the water its color and allow that mixture to boil for several hours. After the water boils with the dying agents, she inserts the wool into the mixture for 15 to 30 minutes, allowing for variance depending on the depth of color one would hope to achieve. At the end of the process, we were shown the finished product: two spools of yarn, once white, were now a dark green and purple. This process and the speed through which it is achieved were very impressive. Marleni has been doing these tasks since she was a young girl, and her love for them is clear, which only made our experience with her more enjoyable. It was here that we left Marleni and followed Wilbur in the direction of his home
Wilbur’s passion is plants, specifically ones that can be used for medicinal purposes; as we would soon find out, that included a shocking amount of them. As he led us around the terrace, we were amazed to see many plants that we recognized, both from our time on the trail with Mickey and even ones from back home. Wilbur informed us that the common flowers of the ‘geranium’ plant could be brewed into a tea that, according to him, would aid in a woman’s fertility. While I cannot attest to this medicinal effect myself, his confidence in saying shown through any translation.
Another plant common to us in the States was ‘rosemary,’ which he informed us could be used as an anti-inflammatory, can help with stomach aches if brewed in a tea, and can even be used to whiten teeth when applied directly. He also introduced us to other plants such as ‘Andean mint’, which is used as a digestive aid when brewed in tea. Our time with Wilbur, while brief, was enlightening and as we exited his home, we eagerly anticipated our final stop on the tour.
At last we approached the home of Carmen, Mickey’s sweet aunt and one of the main chicha producers of the town. Outside her home was a large stick poking out towards the road resembling a flag pole, with a red plastic bag containing flowers securely fastened at the end. Mickey informed us that this was a sign for passersby that this home was a place where traditional chicha was produced. After a brief introduction, Carmen began regaling us of the now ancient, but still prevalent process through which one brews chicha.
Initially, the brewer will take the yellow corn off the cob and allow it to soak overnight, which causes the tough kernels to soften. At this point, these softened kernels are covered in husks and buried under a light layer of dirt and left to dry for eight days. This process causes the kernels to grow fresh, green sprouts. These sprouts are then dried once more through the same burying process and then ground to produce a sort of corn mash. This mash is then boiled for a full day with other plants and flowers, which produces a sort of paste that floats to the top of the mixture. After allowing this liquid and paste to separate in a strainer, it ferments for nearly a week, producing a bubbly, sweet-but-bitter liquid called chicha. Carmen served it to us in large glasses with our meal, and we were introduced to a classic Sacred Valley combination, chicha and cuy. The meal was fresh and delicious and Adee’s daughters ran laughing around our dining table, perhaps enjoying the novelty of our enjoyment of the life that seems so very normal to them.
Our day was capped off with a hike up into the hills of the Sacred Valley, examining Incan ruins and providing us with a sweeping view of the countryside. In full, this experience provided us with unique and authentic insight into the lives of the people of the Sacred Valley, and allowed us to meet the kind and welcoming members of the family of our new friend Mickey.
To learn more about tourism in Media Luna, please visit: turismoruralmedialuna.wordpress.com/en-breve/.