Livin’ la Vida Local

Today was really different from any other day we’ve had in our travels abroad. I’ve always avoided planned “cultural experiences” because I’m afraid they will feel forced and a zoo-exhibit-like experience. I always turn my nose up at them and prefer for cultural experiences to be organic, to come out of chance meetings. Today was a test of that disposition.

Chichubamba is a small community not far from where we are staying in the Sacred Valley. Most of the people who live here could not afford to buy land today if they had to—because the Sacred Valley has become such a tourist destination, the price of land has greatly increased. Despite growing tourism, this community feels untouched in many ways. People are still going about the business of regular life, and we were the only tourists walking around. It was like walking around any small town anywhere else.

Our first stop was at a small home with an amazing backyard that included a ceramics studio. The artist who lives there has been making pottery since he was a child, first learning the art from his grandparents, then traveling to other villages to learn more sophisticated techniques. He told us the process of creating the clay he uses, then we watched him create an Incan ceremonial cup and were impressed with his speed and skill on the wheel.

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After we watched him, he gave us an opportunity to throw our own bowls. (One of us was better at it than the other, but both of us got plenty of assistance from the pro.)

After throwing the pottery on the wheel, we went to the next station and had the chance to create our own designs on damp clay, painting it with pigments created from grinding stone for minerals.

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Throwing and painting pottery was such a peaceful way to start the day, especially with the view of the mountains just out the studio door. The artist was generous and answered all our questions, then encouraged our guide to leave us to our “creative genius.” 🙂

After pottery, we went to our next stop, Melanie’s house, where we learned about chocolate production in Peru (and were also smitten by her adorable puppy!). Melanie grew up in the region of Peru that produces the most cacao. She said she has been processing beans and making chocolate since she was a little girl.

After showing us how they harvest the beans, she took us into her kitchen and we all took turns roasting the beans. What a surprise that cacao beans “pop” like popcorn—the outside shell bursts as it roasts.

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Melanie stokes the fire.
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Tim helps roast the beans.

After roasting, we went to the table and removed the shells. We agreed that this was another peaceful kind of activity, pulling hulls and listening to her talk about her daughter. We snuck a few of the beans to munch while we worked.

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Next, we helped her grind the beans. It was harder than it looks, especially once she added sugar into the grinder to mix with the beans. As a reward for the grinding, she made us small cups of hot chocolate that were perfect.

Melanie walked with us to our next stop, Josepha’s house for chicha, a fermented corn drink. This adorable woman makes chicha and serves it in a “bar” room she has at her house, indicated by a red plastic bag on the end of a long pole outside her home. This was probably our favorite experience of the entire day. She described her entire process, still made with some of the same equipment that Incas would have used when they first started making chicha.

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After the demonstration, we moved into the “party room,” and she poured us a strawberry chicha and a basic chicha.

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As we sampled the drink, she told funny stories about her regular clients and the fun that they have when the bar is open. Tim said he loved her so much that he wanted to take her home. She was so much fun.

When the time came to leave, she hugged us both so tightly. It was really such a sweet moment. Tim said he will remember this as one of his favorite travel experiences ever.

We finished our time in Chichubamba having lunch in another local home. We had the most delicious four-course meal, starting with fresh avocado, followed by an amazing quinoa soup. The main dish was chicken with rice and vegetables. Dessert was a real surprise: tomato! But this was unlike any tomato we’ve ever had. Nick told us they were tree tomatoes, one of the oldest varieties of tomato. With the syrup they were soaked in, the closest flavor comparison I can make is baked apple. It was delicious! Who would have thought of tomato as a sweet dessert?

Today’s experience has changed my mind a bit about those cultural experiences I had written off as too touristy. We wouldn’t have gotten to meet these really fun and interesting people had we stayed at our hotel and waited for something organic to happen. Instead, we had the opportunity to meet them, learn about the things that matter to them, and share so many laughs. It didn’t feel forced or like they were putting on a show for us. They were just doing what they do every day and showing pride in it. And because it was just us, no larger group being herded around, we really got a chance to carry on conversations (with the help of an interpreter) and get to know them.

Even after only two days here, we’ve decided we could come back here with little hesitation. So far, we’ve found Peru to be beautiful and interesting, and we’ve found the people to be genuine, kind, and open. We love it here!

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