Cuzco is one of the most interesting starting points for a visit Peru, once you have acclimatised to the height, with rest and lots of coca tea. There are a wide range of things to see nearby including ancient Inca remains such as Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley.
The Potato Park is an hour from Cuzco near a market town called Pisac. It has recently been established to preserve local cultures, the diversity of crops including potatoes and to be a centre for ecotourism. The International Potato Centre (CIP) is collaborating with local communities who are heavily involved in managing and developing the park. At harvest time in 2005 I accompanied journalists and members of CIP staff to visit the park.
Traditional potato plots in the park range in size and take into account early, mid and late planting, they rely on natural rainfall and organic fertiliser for production. The potatoes are often grown as mixtures of varieties – a contrast to the monocultures of commercial potato production around the world. When harvested they are sorted by size as well as varieties into big potatoes to use for eating, medium for sowing and little potatoes for drying. There is no mechanisation for planting and harvesting – people in Peru do use a plough – a foot plough or Chakitaqlla quite distinct from our tractor drawn ploughs in the UK. The local communities know about the medicinal properties of traditional potato varieties and other Andean root crops, in addition to medicinal properties of wild herbs.
We drove up the dusty track in the park through a mountainous landscape a patch work quilt of different crops. The most predominant were non Andean cereals. Maize at lower altitudes harvested and stooked – wheat and barley and a tiny bit of red Quinoa coloured a predominantly yellow landscape. As we climbed further the cereals disappeared.
We were now on Moorland and we came to a stop next to a lake with Green metallic Ibis and large geese at its edge.
The worlds original freeze-dried spud?
The lake high up on the Moorland had been used for soaking bitter potatoes prior to them being turned into Chuno blanca (freeze-dried potatoes). These special high altitude potatoes contain natural anti freeze that protect them against the low night temperatures. The anti freeze makes them unpalatable to eat – but local people process the harvested tubers by standing on them to break the cells. Later on my visit I caught a brief glance of a weather-beaten women by the roads side near Cuzco with tubers laid out neatly on the ground in front of her house – she was standing on some tubers twisting her body from side to side as if boogying to music to extract water. The natural freezing nights and warm dry days assist with freeze drying and the period of steeping the tubers in lakes to produce a chalky white dried tuber that can be stored and used in soups and stews.
An elderly local woman sat next a fence and was preparing an offering to Pachamama for a good potato crop next year). She was sorting carefully through a pile of coca leaves on a cloth in front of her and was intoning softly and almost kissing them as she put them down – Eventually her assistances passed her small wrapped pieces of paper which were carefully unwrapped with that appealing crinkling sound and added to a growing pile. Maize seeds, then quinoa, dry potato, dry water biscuits, what looked like pink sweets, gold pins.
Once all the many packages had been open they were placed in a bag. One of the local men dug a hole near a near by fence and the bag was lowered and buried and a large stone dropped on it with a thump.
Potatoes traditional beliefs
There are many customers before, during and after growing traditional crops of potatoes in the Andes and other issues associated with stewardship of the land.
The local communities philosophy (based on the Chacana the Andean cross) refers to past, present and future time and space.
They record cycles of time (500 (1 Pachacuti) and 1000 years) in which changes occur (cuti – “to turn upside down” or “to set right” again). Their traditional beliefs (linked to Pacha mama – mother earth) are that resources are used as a temporary measure “we borrow resources as long as they are returned in the same state.”
In the Andean World Pacha means two things time and space (or earth?). This is a Quechua word (the indigenous language of the Andean region of South America).
On returning to the communal building we were again greeted by piles of baked potatoes and Oca Oxalis tuberosa (which is available and can be grown as a vegetable in the UK) is really good it is nice and sweet and you can eat it skin and all and with bowls of green pepper sauce at the end of the meal.