It’s a whole new world beyond Machu Picchu
escaped invasion by Spanish conquistadors, and I still view the site’s terraces and temples with wonder; Machu Picchu radiates that largerthan-life quality only icons possess.
Kneeling in front of a diamondshaped rock, local guide Miguel is running through a series of complex calculations connecting Earth’s axis of rotation to what he believes to be a representation of the Southern Cross. The former schoolteacher is armed with scientific theories and explanations, shedding new light on a civilisation that existed 400 years ago.
But the greatest links to the past are found in the present, so I’ve joined a National Geographic Journeys tour with G Adventures that ventures beyond Machu Picchu into communities around Peru’s Sacred Valley, where traditional Inca practices have been revived, giving rise to a new form of sustainable tourism.
Last year, 1.5million visitors clambered into the clouds for a glimpse of the 15th-century retreat and 365 days of stomping footsteps have taken their toll, leading to concerns from Unesco that vibrations could be weakening stonework and damaging the site. Entry numbers have been capped at 5,940 per day, divided between morning and afternoon sessions, but tour operators are looking for new ways to spread the numbers – not to mention the wealth.
Responsible for bringing thousands of tourists to the region each year, specialists such as G Adventures, Journey Latin America and Intrepid have set a trend for supporting local businesses both through investment and by providing a guaranteed market. Coupled with their customers’ growing appetite for authentic experiences, it’s a win-win situation: travellers unlock the hidden heart of a destination and empowered communities reap tangible benefits from safeguarding their heritage and culture.
Shards of sunlight splinter through clouds when we arrive at Ccaccaccollo village, skating the agricultural terraces of gnarled slopes like a needle gripping grooves on a warped piece of vinyl. Ears of corn are bent by wind and the weight of a sky that seems so heavy at these elevations in the rising valleys between former Inca capital Cusco and Pisac Archaeological Park.
Walking through a valley of quinoa crops, an elderly lady is tugging at a spindle of wool, her stooping shoulders crushed by surrounding mountains and her trailing red threads lost in a haze of russet flower heads. Many years ago, scenes such as this were commonplace in the Sacred Valley.
“That’s how I learned to weave,” explains Timotea, a stocky, middleaged woman with thick black plaits trailing either side of a felt hat and perched on her gravity-defying bosom. “I followed my grandma into the fields to take care of the animals and I watched her; women in the fields always had wool in their hands.”
It’s a skill as ancient as Machu Picchu, yet decades of Westernisation and a switch to modern dress had eroded it almost into oblivion. Today, though, I’m struggling to hear Timotea speak above the clattering of looms from workshops built into the hillside.
In 2005, the Ccaccaccollo Women’s Weaving Co-operative was established with help from Planeterra Foundation, the non-profit arm of Canadian tour company G Adventures. The aim was to generate employment, safeguard a dying culture and give tourists an insight into an Andean way of life just as fascinating as the area’s ruins. Sixty women are employed in the cooperative and their woven socks, scarves, sweaters and rugs are all for sale, providing an income for households previously dependent on men. “Before, we were living in houses with straw roofs,” declares 63-year-old community leader Mercedes, her voice trembling with emotion. “Now we have better food and education and we can send our children to university.”
After listening to her impassioned speech, I’m led into an open-fronted