Category: Blog Articles

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). 

Walk into an average natural foods store, and you’ll encounter many a product label lavishly employing such terms as “enchanted,” “spiritual,” “mystical,” “aura,” “kharma,” and so on.  Far be it from us to judge, but for our part, we don’t really think salt possesses the requisite level of sentience to merit association with such enlightened wording.  Still, read our website, and this “Sacred Valley” term keeps popping up everywhere, sounding suspiciously like a phrase worked up by a marketing firm.


Never fear, it’s legit.  The Valle Sagrado de los Incas (Sacred Valley of the Incas) is simply the name that’s been used to refer to a particular region of Peru for the past several hundred years, ever since the Incas started viewing it as, well…sacred.

Sacred Valley of the Incas
Photo from Wikipedia by Charles Gadbois

Map of Sacred Valley Region

The map above gives a good, simplified overview of the general area. In general, the Sacred Valley Region refers to what you see on this map, the heartland of the Inca Empire.  This includes many areas that are not technically in the valley itself.  The ancient Inca capital of Cusco, for example, is in its own valley, separated from the Sacred Valley by a mountain pass.  Likewise, the spectacular ruins of Machu Picchu are perched on the side of steep mountains which descend into a narrow gorge.  There is no valley in the immediate vicinity.


The Sacred Valley proper refers to a stretch of the the river known as the Urubamba, the Vilcanota, or the Willkamayu, depending on where you are and whom you talk to.  In Quechua, Willkamayu means “sacred river.” This stretch of river, shown in a Google Earth screenshot, below, has flat, fertile ground alongside, a rare commodity high in the Andes.

Satellite view of the Sacred Valley

For the Inca Empire, part of what made it sacred was its fertility. It was one of the most important areas for maize production. The climate is very good for agriculture, and the ruins at Moray (look for more on this in a future blog post) seem to have functioned as an ancient government agricultural laboratory and seedling nursery.  Today, in addition to maize, quinoa is widely cultivated. 

Quinoa crops in the Sacred Valley

And last, but by no means least, the salt pools at Salineras de Maras were the empire’s primary source of salt.  

Salineras in the Sacred Valley

Thus, “Sacred Valley Salt” is actually a very matter-of-fact product name.  Of course, we’d love for you to give this salt a try, and just to tempt you, here’s a link to purchase some.


But whether or not salt interests you, the Sacred Valley’s natural beauty is sure to impress.  Here are a couple of photos to enjoy.

Sacred Valley of the Incas

Photo from Wikipedia
Photo from Wikipedia


Urubamba flowing through the Sacred Valley

If you’ve visited our “Hype-Free Zone,” you know what we think of wildly exaggerated or even blatantly false claims about the supposed curative properties of certain types of fancy salt. We specifically mention Himalayan salt, simply because no other salt’s hype has infested the internet to such an extent. But just because a particular type  of salt is nauseatingly hyped-up doesn’t mean the salt itself is no good or that there isn’t an interesting story behind it. Many people really like the flavor of Himalayan salt, and we think you’ll also enjoy reading its story.

Himalayan salt doesn’t actually come from the Himalayas.  It comes from the Khewra salt mine in Pakistan. 

City of Khewra, a bowshot away from the salt mine. Not very mountainous.

Of course, “Pakistani Salt” doesn’t conjure up quite the same majestic mental images as “Himalayan Salt.” Thus, the magic of marketing combined with the average consumer’s poor knowledge of Asian geography work in tandem to erase a gap of hundreds of miles between where something is said to come from and where it actually comes from.  For our story, though, it’s quite fortuitous that the Khewra salt mine sits at a mere 1,000 ft elevation 100 miles south of Islamabad.  Because if it actually was tucked in some inaccessible nook high in the Himalayas, it wouldn’t have such an interesting history.


Going back 23+ centuries, Alexander the Great’s campaigns had come about as far eastward as they were going to get.  He had just won a victory over Porus at the Jhelum River (better known by the Greek name, Hydaspes, among historians). 

Jhelum (Hydaspes) – One of Alexander’s toughest battles.

If you search for the Khewra salt mines on Google Earth, you’ll notice that they’re real close to the Jhelum River.  According to Alexander’s crack team of geography experts, the end of the world was now only about 600 miles away.  If he could finish conquering India, he’d have reached his modest goal of conquering the world.  But as they marched a bit further, and they heard repors of 300,000 coalition troops sharpening their lances on the other side of the Ganges, his army’s confidence began to wane.  But I’m getting off topic.  Long story short, Alexander didn’t get to conquer the whole world.


At some point during his coming or going past the Jhelum River, as the story goes, some of the horses from his cavalry started licking the stones, and his men quickly discovered that the stones were salty. And so the salt was discovered in the string of hills known today as the Salt Range. Whether or not this story is true is anyone’s guess. During the British occupation of this region, it was quite the “in” thing to attribute anything and everything to Alexander the Great.


No organized mining is recorded until a millennium-and-a-half later by the Janjua-Raja tribe in 13th century. Given salt’s value in the ancient world, though, once people knew there was salt to be found, they were probably gathering it all along in small-scale operations. In the 16th century the Mughal Empire swept through, led by its first Emperor, Babur.

Babur – Chuck Norris is afraid of him.

From the moment he was born, he was destined to be one bad dude, descended as he was from Genghis Khan on his mother’s side and Tamurlane on his father’s side! But again, I’m off on a tangent. Back to the salt mine.


The Mughals made good use of the mines until their empire ran out of steam.  The Punjabi Sikhs finally kicked them out and took over the mines in 1809.  They’re the ones who named the salt mines “Khewra.” Unfortunately for them, another empire moved in only 40 years later: the British.


When it came to business, the colonial British meant business.  They quickly had it whipped into a shape to run as a proper salt might ought, complete with a good Christian name (it was renamed Mayo salt mine after Lord Mayo, the Viceroy of India), tunnel excavation, and local forced labor.

“Now that’s a proper salt mine!”

It was not a nice place to be subjected to forced labor.  The workers (men, women, and children) were locked inside and not let out until they’d filled their quotas of salt. In 1876, during a protest, 12 were shot and killed.


It could have been still worse, though, if it hadn’t been for the engineer in charge of the main tunnel.  He employed the room-and-pillar method of excavation.  Old-fashioned methods often wound up involving just blasting a bigger and bigger cavern until it either collapsed, burying everybody inside, or the mineral deposit ran out.  The room-and pillar method deliberately leaves about half of the mineral deposit undisturbed in the form of pillars to keep the cavern’s ceiling from landing on your head.  Given that estimated reserves of salt in the Khewra mine run into the several hundreds of millions of tons, and the mine itself produces around 350,000 tons of salt per year, it’ll be a few hundred years before anyone is tempted to start chipping away at the pillars.

Entrance to Salt Mines

After the first world war, heavy equipment began to be used, first in the form of steam engines, and then in the form of electricity, produced by two 500 horsepower diesel generators installed in the 1920s. This modernization brought production into the hundreds of thousands of tons annually. At present, the mine’s tunnel network extends about 25 miles through 19 different levels.


Despite the immense scale, the mine has struggled financially in recent years.  In order to try to make the mine profitable, the Pakistani Mineral Development Corporation, which owns the mine, has also been working the tourism angle, with considerable success. I haven’t been there, but it looks to be well worth seeing if you happen to be passing through the Punjab region of Pakistan. Wikipedia estimates the mine receives 250,000 visitors a year. The main shaft has now been converted to a tourist attraction. Some of the highlights are:


…an underground mosque built from blocks of salt,



… a model of the Minar-e-Pakistan (Tower of Pakistan), built from blocks of salt,



… and, of course, a food court.


For the health-conscious visitors, there is a ward with 20 beds for salt-therapy. Many believe that inhaling salt particles in the very sterile environment inside the mine helps with respiratory ailments. Some swear by it, others say it’s quackery. Controversy notwithstanding, it’s certainly affordable. A 2010 article by The Telegraph stated a 10 day treatment costs 42₤ (Currently $52 US). Some critics of alternative health treatment have pointed out that the salt mines are somewhat radioactive. While this is true, the level of radioactivity isn’t much out of the ordinary, according to this research paper.


But beyond the development of tourism, since with withdrawal of the British in 1947, further modernization has, for the most part, ground to a halt.


This article, from the Seattle Times, addresses the plight of miners in the Khewra Salt mine today.

At Asia’s oldest salt mine, the march of technology stopped generations ago. Bare-chested laborers use hand-cranked drills and gunpowder to blast away the pink and orange-colored rock crystal, lucky if they earn a couple of dollars a day…


…Mohammed Buksh works alongside his son Shezad, 24, and three cousins, by the light of a lamp mounted on a gas cylinder. For three years they have been digging the same cavern. It is now about 30 feet high and wide, and 120 feet deep.


Buksh complained that the mine management withdrew mechanized rock-cutting and bore machines in 1998 to save money. The team gets 164 rupees ($2.75) for every ton of rock salt excavated. If they work hard, he said, he can earn about $50 a month — a poor but living wage in Pakistan…


…“The miners are living in medieval conditions,” said Farooq Tariq, secretary-general of the trade-union-affiliated Labor Party of Pakistan. “They have no advantage from technological advancement. They just use their bodies and labor.”…


Muhammed Saifullah Qureshi, the chief mining engineer at Khewra, conceded that little has changed since British times — and that little is likely to.


Speaking inside his colonial-vintage office, complete with a polished desk bell for summoning his secretary, Qureshi said it doesn’t pay to modernize because industrial-grade salt produced worldwide is cheap and the mine has been operating in the red for the past 10 years.

$7.63 on
Working for their .014% of the selling price.
Photo by Luke Duggleby


It’s rather sad when you do the math. When you pay 8 bucks for 4.5 ounces of this salt at Trader Joe’s, the guys risking their necks underground are making a tad over 1/10 of one cent.



Eveworlds-ugliest-dog-trophyry year, in Petaluma California, a contest is held.  It receives extensive media coverage, and over the years has even featured scandal related to hacking and vote tampering.  What, you may ask, is so important that it drives contestants to such skullduggery?  This coveted trophy, awarded to the “World’s Ugliest Dog.”  


In recent years, this contest has been dominated by the Chinese Crested breed.  These hideous little monsters are often hairless except for the top of their heads, their paws, and their tails. 

But while the Chinese Crested has been getting all of the repugnance accolades, Peru boasts a breed that can give it a run for its money.


I give you the Peruvian Hairless!


The Peruvian Hairless is one of three breeds of hairless dogs that are internationally recognized as such, the other two being the Chinese Crested, and the Xoloitzcuintli, or Mexican Hairless, to us non-Nahuatl speakers.


I don’t know who sits on the International Board of Guys who Decide whether or not to Recognize a Dog Breed (actually, the Fédération Cynologique Internationale), but the criteria are actually pretty simple. The breed has to have a dominant hairless gene.  Thus, while there are some other dogs that can be bred to be hairless, like the American Hairless Terrier, these three lucky breeds are the only ones that can be that ugly all by themselves.


Interestingly, though, they all have a recessive “furry” gene.  In the case of the Peruvian Hairless, each litter usually contains a 2:1 ration of hairless vs. coated puppies.  Here’s what a coated one looks like – proudly flaunting his hair and general overall good looks:


The genetic combination resulting in hairlessness also often results in missing teeth.  While the puppies are born with a complete mouthfull of teeth, they often don’t get all of their adult teeth.  Maybe this has something to do with why they’re often seen with their tongues hanging out of the side of their mouths:

Miley Cyrus

Oops!  Wrong picture!


Not having hair, they’re also liable to get sunburned.  In Peru’s Sacred Valley and the surrounding area, at only 13° south, and 10,000-14,000 feet elevation, this is a real issue.  And when you don’t have any fur, you get cold.  Thus most Peruvian Hairless owners in the Sacred Valley region make or buy little sweaters to help their pets stay warm.


Of course, it’s not who we are on the outside, but on the inside that counts, right?  The Peruvian Hairless is all about inner beauty.  They are friendly and affectionate with their owners, but wary of strangers.  They are especially protective of women and children.  And they’re smart.   So at least they’ve got something going for them.


Apparently, Peruvians are not shallow people, because the Hairless has been a popular pet for many hundreds of years.  Prior to the Inca, the Peruvian Hairless was common among cultures located along the Peruvian coast (where it’s warmer).  For them, it was a pet as well as a source of meat.  Once the Inca empire got rolling, the Peruvian Hairless was one of the most popular dog breeds, although only as a pet; the Inca prohibited eating them.


And honestly, can you blame them?  Who would want to eat such a cuddly critter?


Before refrigeration, salt’s #1 use was to preserve food. Nowadays, it’s most commonly used, instead, as a flavor enhancer. This is common knowledge. But it’s also pretty remarkable how universally it works. Whether you’re eating a chocolate bar, a serving of steamed broccoli, a steak, a grapefruit, a piece of toast, a handful of peanuts, or a plate of pasta, most people agree that the flavor is improved by adding salt, either during cooking (as with bread or chocolate) or to the finished dish (as with the steak or steamed veggies).

So the question arises: How is salt able to enhance such a wide range of flavors?

There are a couple of different mechanisms. 

One is the denaturing of proteins in food. Denaturing is basically a change to the 3D shape of a protein molecule – they go from being tightly folded up to being more just like crooked strands. 

 When the shape changes, the molecules then bond together differently. It’s often visible as a physical change to a food, and it’s most commonly a result of heat from cooking. Think of an egg white. It’s clear and liquid  until you cook it, and then it becomes white and solid. This is because the 3D shape of the protein molecules changed.  Proteins can also be denatured by a strong acid or base, or other chemical elements found in food.

 If you put lemon juice in milk, it curdles.  And some proteins are denatured to an extent by the presence of salt in solution.  So what does this have to do with enhancing flavor?  When many proteins are denatured, aromatics are released.  And of course, our sense of smell contributes to our sense of taste. So when our food has more aroma, the flavors become more vivid. 

This mechanism is relatively minor, though, compared to what salt does really well: cancel out bitterness.

There are 5 primary flavors that we can detect: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami. That last one is often described as “savory.” 

Of these, bitterness is the black sheep. Although there are exceptions, most of the time, bitterness is a flavor we try to avoid. We often associate bitterness with a fruit or vegetable that was picked at the wrong time, or a dish that was improperly prepared. 

Just how effective salt is at suppressing bitterness was demonstrated in a scientific study published by P.A.S. Breslin and G.K. Beauchamp. They prepared a a water/sucrose mixture to serve as a benchmark for sweetness and a water/urea mixture to serve as a benchmark for bitterness.  So on a sweetness scale, the sucrose solution was 100, and on a bitterness scale the urea mixture was 100. 

Then these two solutions were mixed together. Text subjects gave the mixture a sweetness rating of around 55 as well as a bitterness rating of around 55. So far, this seems pretty natural and predictable. 

Now here comes the interesting part: they then added some salt to this mixture. Without adding or removing any sucrose or urea, the sweetness rating shot up to around 80, while the bitterness rating plummeted to roughly 11.

The affect is pretty remarkable. And it works similarly with sour and umami.  By reducing the level of bitterness, the rest of these flavors are “freed up” and stand out much more. A good analogy might be a good pair of polarized sunglasses on a bright snowfield.  With the naked eye, the glare tends to drown out colors. But with the dark polarized lens, colors appear more clear and vivid.

Salt enhances flavors through one other mechanism, which is much more obvious. Salt, being one of the primary flavors, simply complements the others very well. Think butterscotch (salt/sweet), soy sauce (salt/umami), or a margarita (salt/sour).

No wonder top chef Jacob Kenedy states that “correct seasoning” is “getting as much salt into a dish as you can without it tasting too salty.”

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.

Salt versus Gold

You’ve probably heard the oft-quoted fun fact: “Back in ancient times, salt was worth its weight in gold!”


But is it true?


The answer is a definite “maybe,” but only in very specific places under very specific circumstances.


Regardless of how true this claim is or isn’t, though, the history associated with it is pretty interesting.


Here goes.


In the early middle ages, trade started to develop in west Africa through the Ghana empire. Plenty of commodities changed hands, but the most important were salt and gold.  Don’t let the name fool you, the present day nation of Ghana is a ways off from where the Ghana empire was.


The map below shows the pertinent places we’re talking about.

Gold Salt Trade


So if you were to head north from the Ghana empire, you’d soon find yourself in the middle of this:

Sahara Desert

Not much to see here.


But, in certain places in the Sahara, like Taghaza or Taoudenni, if you dug through a couple feet of sand, you’d hit halite deposits (salt).  So traders from north of the Sahara started crossing the desert to trade with the people south of the Sahara.  Among other things, they were interested in gold.


Conveniently, the people from Bambuk region, west of the Ghana empire, as well as the people from the Wangara region, south of the Ghana empire, had lots of gold.  But wouldn’t you know it, they were a little short on salt.  You see where this is going.


Pretty soon, Arab traders set up salt mining operations in Taghaza and Taoudenni.  They brought in slaves, and left them there to get blocks of salt ready to load on their caravans when they rolled in from the north.  Since there was literally nothing in these places except for salt, water, and sand, they brought in all the food for the slaves on these caravans.  They lived on dates, camel meat, millet, and of course, all the salt they could eat.  Once the caravan left, there was no need to worry about the slaves running away, they had the only food and water for many miles in any direction.  They even built their houses out of salt because there was nothing else to build with. 


The Ghana empire ran a tight ship when it came to commerce.  They policed their travel routes to provide traders a safe strip though their territory (in exchange, of course, for some hefty duties levied and everything going in and out of their borders.)  So if the Arabs traders could make it through the Sahara, it was then smooth sailing to get to the Bambuk and Wangara regions where the gold was.


But once they got there, instead of meeting face to face and haggling, they engaged in silent barter, which is exactly what it sounds like.  Nobody says anything, and often the parties don’t even see each other.


It often went more or less like this:  The Arab traders show up at a designated trading location.  They lay out the salt they want to trade.  Then they beat on some drums so that the Wangarians know they’re ready to trade, and they withdraw back to wherever they’re camped out, a fair distance away, but within earshot of drumbeats.  The Wangarians show up, take a look at the salt, and then put a pile of gold next to it that they think is a fair price.  They then beat on some drums and withdraw from the trading location.  The Arab traders come back, check out how much gold the Wangarians have left, and decide whether or not it’s enough.  If they’re satisfied, they take the gold, leave the salt, beat on their drums, and leave.  If they want a higher price, they leave everything, beat on their drums, and head back to camp, so as to give the Wangarians a chance to offer more.  The process continues until a deal is reached.


This process sounds a little strange, but it served a couple of purposes.  First, language differences were no barrier because speech simply wasn’t used.  Perhaps more importantly, it ensured that no trade secrets slipped out.  For example, the Wangarians traders kept the locations of the gold mines strictly secret to prevent the Arabs from simply bypassing them and going straight to the gold.  It is said that if a miner was captured by traders, he would die before revealing the location of the gold mines.  One story holds that a miner was captured and killed in an effort to discover the location of the mines, and when the Wangarians found out about it, they refused to trade for 3 years as retaliation.  When you are that serious about keeping something secret, the less direct human interaction the better.


So this brings us to our original question.  Was salt traded, pound for pound, for gold?  Wikipedia thinks so.  Under the topic “Silent Trade,” it says:


Also in West Africa, gold mined south of the Sahel was traded, pound for pound, for salt mined in the desert.


This sounds doubtful, given that salt was so plentiful in Taghaza that they used blocks of it to build houses, whereas the Wangarians had to work hard to obtain relatively small quantities of gold. (They certainly weren’t making solid gold cinder blocks.)  Also, while salt wasn’t plentiful in the Wangara and Bambuk regions, it did exist there.

On the other hand, shipping and handling fees on a 200lb block of salt all the way from Taghaza were steep.  One traveler from the late middle ages noted that the price of salt quadrupled between the northern edge of the Ghana empire and an area just north of the Wangara region.  And that was the easy part of the trip.  The other half of the journey was through the Sahara. 


Still, I tend to agree with Mark Kurlansky, the author of Salt: A World History.  His take:


It was said that in the markets to the south of Taghaza salt was exchanged for its weight in gold, which was an exaggeration.  The misconception comes from the West African style of silent barter… From this it was reported in Europe that salt was exchanged in Africa for its weight in gold.  But it is probable that the final agreed-upon two piles were never of equal weight.