Category: Local Living

What do Star Wars and the Sacred Valley have in common?


To start with, I invite you to enjoy this controversial little clip from the original Star Wars episode.  If you can set aside you existential angst about who actually fired first, you might notice that the language Greedo speaks in sounds strangely . . .realistic.


This is because he is speaking Quechua: the indigenous language of the Sacred Valley.  Quechua actually comprises an entire language family that spreads from Ecuador to Chile.  Just like the Romance languages, the Quechua languages have definite similarities to one another, but can only make themselves mutually understood with great difficulty.  The form of Quechua spoken in the Sacred Valley is Quechua Cusqueña.  (Quechua of Cusco)


You might have heard recently about the fact that many small indigenous languages are slowly being gobbled up by the larger languages of English Spanish and Mandarin.  This is absolutely true in the case of Quechua.  I came to know numerous families in which the grandparents speak only Quechua, the parents speak Quechua and Spanish, and the grandchildren speak only Spanish.  Not only is it sad to see the language itself dying out, but the fact that so many grandchildren are unable to speak to their grandparents puts a human face on problems associated with language transition. 


This having been said, it is quite clear that some Quechua words are here to stay.  Machu Picchu, for instance, is not just the name of a tourist destination.  It actually means “old mountain”.  Huyna Picchu (sometimes spelled “Wyna Picchu”) is the smaller mountain right next to Machu Picchu and means, “young mountain.”  While most tourists think of these only as place names, Picchu (pronounced peek-chew), Huyna, and Machu are all words frequently heard in everyday conversations. 

Huyna PIcchu as seen from Machu Picchu
Huyna Picchu as seen from the summit of Machu Picchu

One of the most interesting things that you will observe in the Sacred Valley is the strange mixing of Quechua and Spanish.  If you buy a kilo of potatoes in the market, it is customary to receive yapa, which is a little bit of extra product thrown in after the weight is taken as a show of good faith to the buyer.  It is not uncommon to hear people asking for their yapita.  This is the Quechua word yapa mixed with the Spanish diminutive suffix ita. The net result is a hybrid word.  Most local people couldn’t tell you the origin, but it is universally understood to mean “Hey, don’t forget to throw in a little extra!”


Here is a clip that I filmed from a typical town meeting in Ollantaytambo that contains a typical slurry of Spanish mixed with Quechua. 


As a tourist, you will be an instant celebrity if you remember to bring miski (candy) to share with children, guides, store clerks, or anybody who you want to make friends with.  Wasi is probably the most common word you will see as it means house, and nearly all hotels find a way to include it in their names.  Hatun Wasi (the big house), Sumak Wasi (wonderful house), Inca Wasi, and Gringo Wasi are some of the names I have seen.  I used to live near a kindergarten called Wawa Wasi (wawa being the word for child).

Wawa is Quechua for Child
Wawas waiting for the bus to leave

While the number of Quechua speakers decreases, it is also clear that some words have already been lost completely.  I have never met anyone, no-matter how isolated or elderly that knew the Quechua word for the color blue.  Nor does modern Quechua have a word for “friend”.  The word for brother (huayak’ay) or a modified Spanish loan-word (amigon. depending on the sentence structure) is employed for the task. 


To add to the confusion, there is still no consensus on spelling conventions for Quechua.  I have seen the word for one with spellings ranging from “huk” to “juj” and many people consider it improper to ever use Spanish loanwords even when no Quechua word or phrase exists that will convey the same idea. 


A final, noteworthy result of this recent language transition is the localized deficit of vocabulary.  Imagine if every single person that you ever met in your entire life were either first or second generation English learners.  It would be very difficult to ever build up an ample vocabulary.  The Sacred Valley region finds itself in this very situation with Spanish.  Thus, while many children who speak only Spanish, their vocabulary is very limited and they struggle with even basic spelling and grammar. 


Here is a welcome sign.  It should read Bienvenidos. But since “b” and “v” are pronounced similarly, they are mixed up. 

Spanish spelling issues
When Spanish is EVERYBODY’S second language, spelling starts to go by the wayside.

After some posts centered on the socioeconomic conditions in rural Peru, it’s now time to address a topic of real importance.


What do they drink in Peru? 


To begin with, sugar is the name of the game down here.  It seems that few beverages can be viewed as complete without a boatload of extra sugar dumped in.  Consequently, soda (known here as “gaseosa”) is very popular.  There is, of course, the standard line-up of Coca-Cola products that are bottled in Peru.  If you buy these in glass bottles, you need to either drink it on the spot or pay a hefty deposit on the bottle.  This is because the bottles are not recycled, they are washed and re-used.  While some flavors that have been extinct for many years in the states, like Tuti-Fruti, still exist here, the hands-down soft drink of choice is “Inca Kola” (a bubblegum-flavored bright-yellow syrupy concoction which is sweeter than anything you’ve ever tasted in your life.)

Inka Cola Truck
Inka Cola delivery truck overlooking Cusco
Corn Kernels used to make Chicha Morado
Dark purple corn kernels used to make chicha morado

While soda is well-liked by all, it is also pretty expensive.  Most people make their own chicha morado.  It is made by boiling some dark purple corn in water (along with a little cinnamon, pineapple rinds, apples, and whatever else looks tasty) until the water turns a deep purple color. 


At this point, the requisite boatload of sugar is added and then the drink is chilled to enjoy later.  Doctors say that chica morado is great for reducing blood pressure and some people are looking into exporting it for that reason. 


Beer is also available, and is drunk in large quantities at religious festivals, but it is actually rather expensive and the selection is limited.


So then, the most widely consumed beverage, by far, (doubtless exceeding water) is called chicha.  (This is not to be confused with chicha morado or chicha de quinoa or any of the other drinks with chicha in their names.  This is just plain old chicha, or sometimes chicha de jora if you want to be precise.)  One of the first things that any observant traveler wandering the narrow streets of a small town in rural Peru will notice is that nearly every street has at least one, often two or three, houses with a long pole that has a small red garbage bag tied to the end of it sticking out over the street. 

Street with Chicha Flags
Calle Comercio in Urubamba. If you look closely, you can make out 3 chicha flags within about 50 yards.

If that observant traveler were to boldly walk into one of these houses, after sidestepping the chickens and cuyes running  around, he would likely see a huge clay pot filled with a frothy foamy sour smelling (and tasting) liquid.  If he were to pay the owner of the house about 20 cents, they would give him a gigantic glass full of this frothy liquid called chicha, which he would gulp down before continuing on his way.  The doctors here claim that drinking chicha is good for your prostate.  Who knew?

So what exactly is this frothy foamy stuff?  This is what I endeavored to find out.  The following (as well as an exceptionally healthy prostate) are the results of my painstaking research.

Don't Cap a Chicha Bottle
Don’t cap chicha. It’ll keep on fermenting and pop your bottle.

The formation of ethanol (drinking) alcohol is typically the result of a biological process in which yeast cells consume simple sugars and convert them into carbon dioxide and alcohol.  If you let all of the carbon dioxide escape you end up with a flat drink such as wine.  If you cork the sugary mixture right at the beginning of fermentation, you end up with a nearly nonalcoholic drink like homebrewed soda pop.  If you cork the fluid in mid-fermentation, or near the end of fermentation you end up with a fizzy alcoholic drink like champagne or beer.


 If you are attempting to make wine or champagne, all you need to do is add some yeast to some grape juice and away it goes.  This is because grapes are loaded with natural sugars for the yeast to consume and turn into alcohol.  But what if you live at 10,000 ft elevation in the Andes Mountains and your vineyard isn’t exactly flourishing?  In that case, you start looking for something else to feed your hungry yeast.  And your eye happens to fall on the bag of dry corn sitting in the corner.  Hmmm.

Pervuian Corn with Huge Kernels
Corn is big in Peru

Assuming you lived in the Sacred Valley in the year 1500 AD (the ancient Incas actually had chicha factories) and you had a pretty good knowledge of chemistry,  let’s say you happen to know that corn is made up of starches.  And you also know that starches are nothing more than a bunch of simple sugar molecules stuck together in long chains.  Yeast cells love to eat simple sugars, but can’t break down starches.  Hmmm.


So you decide to talk to your pal who is in charge of the agricultural lab in the small town of Maras (This is no joke, archeologists have uncovered a huge Incan agricultural laboratory near the present-day town of Maras.)

Moray - Incan Agricultural Research Center
These ruins were once used by the Incas as a laboratory to study agriculture.

He informs you that, in order to grow; tiny little plants need a supply of sugar from the seed in order to give them a good start in life until they can start making their own sugars using photosynthesis.  The trouble is that sugar doesn’t store very well.  Therefore, plants store starches in their seeds, and then when the little seeds start to sprout, they make some enzymes that start to break down the starches into simpler sugars that the tiny little plant can use.  Hmmm.

So now you have your plan. First, you soak your corn kernels in water until they start to sprout.  Now you know that they have a bunch of enzymes that are breaking down the starches in the corn into simple sugars.  But you don’t want the plants to eat the sugars, you want your yeast to eat the sugars.  So  you put the little sprouts out in the sun until they dry out and the sprouts die.  Then you grind them all up, mix them with water, and start cooking them.  The enzymes from the corn sprouts rapidly start breaking down the starches into simple sugars (incidentally, a very similar process is used to make corn syrup).  Now that you have a big pot of simple sugars and water all that you have to do is throw in some yeast and away it goes! 

Chicha brewing pot
The large clay pot in the background is full of chicha. The blankets draped over the top of the pot are to keep the flies out.

Traditionally, folks wait about three days to drink the chicha.  The fermentation is not entirely complete at this point (as the yeast has not been able to consume all of the sugars) so it is still foaming and slightly carbonated when you drink it.  Also, some people will mix in a few strawberries and sugar just before consumption to make a product called frutillada (this drink typically costs 30 cents instead of 20).  Incidentally, in the United States, a similar process is used to make what amounts to chicha (mash beer).  This is then distilled to make bourbon whiskey.  So there’s your answer to the question in the title of this blog post.

Inside a Chicharia
Inside a typical chicharia

So next time you’re wandering through the towns and villages of the Andes and you find yourself tired and thirsty,  just look around for the little red garbage bags on the end of long poles.  If you are willing to acquire a taste for the sourdough of beers, I highly recommend the naturally fermented, home-brewed, deliciously corny taste of CHICHA!

A man who had too much chicha
This is definitely not this fellow’s first bottle of chicha. It takes an average-sized Peruvian around 10 bottles of chicha to reach this state.

What ever happened to the little family farm anyway?  You know, the Laura Ingalls Wilder style that we all like to picture in our minds when we hear the word ‘farm.’ Put simply, this is what happened to it. 

Large Scale Farm Equipment

(Thanks to for this photo)

Without modern machinery, it took a whole family of workers to cultivate your average 150 acre farm of 100 years ago.  With the birth of the tractor however, everything changed.  The only limit to how much land a farmer could cultivate was the size of his tractor.  Every time a larger tractor came out, fewer workers were needed in the field.  It became advantageous to merge small farms into bigger ones to keep those tractors busy.  The result is obvious, as you can see in the following graph from the USDA: 

Average Farm Size and Number of Farms since 1900

Image though, a place where it was physically impossible for this trend to occur. 

Enter: The Sacred Valley of Peru.  Once the bread basket of the Inca Empire, (the corn basket really, but let’s not get bogged down with all the details) the Sacred Valley is known for its mild year-round temperatures, abundant water, and good soil.  What it does not have however, are large open plains.  Nearly all the farming is done in small terraces like these. Many small farms are built on the same terraces, that were made centuries ago on the sloping valley walls. 

Terraces for Farming near Pisacacucho

Because a large tractor cannot physically fit onto these terraces, people still use bulls to plow their fields.  Two bulls will pull a long wooden plow that has a metal tip on it.  This is a close-up of one of the wooden plows.

Standard wooden plow with metal tip

Here is pair of bulls yoked up to one of these plows.  This picture was taken while both the bulls and the family driving them were taking a break. 

Bulls plowing the field in Peru

There is another other reason why a small farm can survive today in the Sacred Valley: wages.  In the US, it is rarely profitable to engage in any type of farming other than industrial scale farming.  This is because, relative to wages, food prices here are very low. 

For example, a 10lb bag of potatoes in the US will normally cost less than $3.  Minimum wage in California is over $10 per hour.  In the Sacred Valley, where potatoes are the cheapest in the entire country of Peru, 10lbs of potatoes will cost you about $1.75 (this will vary quite a lot depending on the time of year and the success of the growing season).  Minimum wage is less than $1 per hour. So in California, you would have to grow more than 30lbs of potatoes per hour worked in order to make minimum wage.  In Peru, you would only need to grow 5lbs per hour worked.  That is why families can actually make a living plowing their fields with a pair of bulls yoked to a wooden plow. 

Few of us would be willing to accept the very high food costs vs. wages that would be necessary in order to go back to the old, Little House on the Prairie-style farms.  It does strike a nostalgic cord, though, to see how many people are still able to keep the small family farm alive in The Sacred Valley. 



Farming by Hand near Chichubamba Peru
Farming by hand near Chichubamba, Peru
One Bullpower farm implement-Chichubamba Peru
A one-bullpower farm implement

While concrete and brick construction is growing more and more popular in the Sacred Valley, the mainstay for nearly all construction has remained essentially unchanged for the past 500 years.  This bread and butter of construction is the ubiquitous, biodegradable, locally sourced, handmade, sun dried, universally accessible. . . . ADOBE. (If you’ve visited our photo blog, you may have noticed the post “Building a House with no Nails,” which mentions adobe construction.)

The basic unit of adobe construction is the adobe brick as shown here.

Adobe bricks drying in the sun It is basically just mud mixed with a little straw that is packed into a mold and then allowed to dry in the sun. To build your house, all you need is a little more mud for mortar and voila! – you have a nice, solid wall. One small problem: When your wall gets wet, it turns into mud again and begins to erode as shown here.

Adobe wall eroded by rainTo solve this, people often put a little roof on their adobe walls:

Adobe wall protected from the rainThis solves 90% of the problem, but the bottom of the wall can still get soft and erode as the rainwater lands on the ground and spatters onto the base. To solve this problem, many adobe walls have a sort of foundation made of stones or concrete as you can see below.

 Adobe wall with a protected base

Of course, not everyone wants to be bothered with protecting the base of their wall – with predictable results:

Adobe wall with eroded base

An adobe wall that is kept dry like this can last for many, many years. If you are building a house out of it though, it may be somewhat unappealing to have all of your walls made out of dirt. At this point, you can spruce things up a little by putting on a layer of plaster and paint. It can come out looking pretty sharp. Here we see the contrast between a plastered and bare wall:

Finish on adobe wall(If you look carefully you can also see in this picture where a power line enters the house and is patched with yeso, a locally made plaster.  You’ll also notice that the building is two stories.)   Adobe construction can look so well finished that the only way to tell that it was used is the width of the walls.  Typical adobe wall width ranges from 4 feet in old, colonial style buildings to about two feet in most modern, private homes.  Whenever you live in an adobe home, you always have built-in shelving on all the window sills.  On the whole, adobe construction provides excellent insulation and is just as comfortable as any stick-built house that you would find in the States. (Only WAY cheaper). 

I am stuck inside today due to a strike.  This makes it a good day to write a blog; especially a blog about a strike.  For the next 48 hours the entire provencia (roughly equivalent to a county) of Urubamba is on strike.  (Additionally the provencias of Calca and Pisac are striking as a show of support to Ururbamba.  These three provencias comprise the entirety of the Sacred Valley) Due to the fact that both Machu Picchu and the Maras Salt Pools are within the provencia of Urubamba this strike will have a large negative impact on tourism and the roughly 2,000 tourists trying to visit these sites for the next couple of days.  What exactly does it mean when an entire region is “on strike”?

-It means that NOBODY works and all the shops are closed.

Urubamba Closed Shops

-All the roads are blocked with rocks, branches, tires and whatever else people decide to drag into them.

Urubamba Blocked Road

-And lots of people marching around protesting.

Urubamba Peru Protesters

What exactly are people protesting? This time (there are typically at least a couple strikes per year) there are 3 principal complaints.

1-electric bills are too high. ($0.21 per kWh when converted to US dollars)

2-There is a bus service that takes tourists up to Machu Picchu that is a privately owned monopoly that local residents want to be run by local municipalities so that they can benefit from the profits.

3- There is a large portion of land is owned by a local private luxury hotel (Tambo del Inka) and was sold to them from the municipality by a corrupt mayor under shady circumstances.  The current municipal administration wants to retake possession of the portion of the land that is owned but not being used by the hotel.

The real irony of this great display of freedom and democracy is that anybody who doesn’t participate is fined severely.  Is freedom of expression really free when you are forced to do it?

In all elections voting is mandatory: failure to vote is punished by a severe fine.

Every day that a child comes late to school, his or her parents are given a small fine.

Nearly every week, there are small local community improvement projects (digging sewer lines, installing power lines, etc.): once again, every household that does not send a representative is fined severely. (This is even the case when members of the family are severely ill or disabled.)

Nearly every single trade in existence (from the women who sell fruit and vegetables in the markets to taxi drivers) requires membership to a union that forces one to pays dues, attend very frequent meetings, and sponsor/organize massive religious festivals to various saints.  As always, failure to participate results in fines and or loss of employment.

Such “mandatory expressions of freedom” as today’s strike remind one of the delicate balance between individual rights and the will of the majority.  Everyone has their own views on the where that balance is, but this is pretty certain in any case:  Liberty is not simple.  Democracy is not simple.  Freedom is not simple.