Overlooking the agricultural patchwork below, Puma sets up an altar for Pachamama consisting of rocks, seeds, grains, and a llama fetus “It represents that which is yet to be born,” he says. This offering ritual is common practice among Andean people and farmers, like the ones in Marcacocha, during harvest, bloom, or solstice. “They use flowers, they pour chicha de jora (an ancient, fermented beverage made from germinated corn) in the ground, and they give candies, food, play music, and they dance,” in the hopes of a successful agricultural season, similar to ancestral ceremonies. In the Andes, Pachamama gets the first sip of any drink, whether ceremonial or not, out of respect and under the Andean principle of ayni—balance or reciprocity. As such, Puma pours wachuma (also known as San Pedro—St. Peter) into the earth. A concoction made from a cactus native to the Andes, San Pedro is considered a “master plant,” to be used for spiritual healing but only under the supervision of an experienced paqo. Puma says that baptizing it with a Catholic name during colonization kept it from being wiped out. And interestingly, under Spanish rule, Pachamama was syncretized with the Virgin Mary.
As the ceremony wraps, Puma leaves us with one last parting wisdom that resonates profoundly: “When you sleep and wake up and stand on your two feet, Mother Earth is holding you, always.” There is a real grounding and connecting quality to the earth that often gets neglected in our busy lives. Puma says we are being called to be with Mother Earth in a more conscious way, in order to take better care of ourselves, our community, and our planet. As a nurturing and ever-present source of vitality and wellbeing, it is believed that losing our link to Pachamama creates disharmony in the world and disease in our lives.
This is something Nicomedes Yupanqui can attest to. He believes too many people are seeking a quick medical fix these days, but nothing can bypass the power of nature—a lesson he learned the hard way. Across the valley, he takes us for a medicinal plant walk in a dense, misty forest of unka trees, outside of Choquechaqa, 75 km Northwest of Cusco, with his nephew, and, as I’ve learned, the most important plant foraging companion—the Andean flute. The family is dressed in colorful ponchos, mantas, and traditional headwear, creating a kaleidoscopic effect when the light flickers through the trees.
When debris from a highway construction job left Nicomedes with damaged lungs, he bounced between hospitals, clinics, and pharmacies for years, until finally, a curandero, or native healer, encouraged him to swap pills for plants. After his miraculous recovery, he traveled throughout the Andes and Amazon, becoming a self-taught encyclopedia of botanical knowledge. These days, he uses his regional backyard as his personal pharmacy.
“This is called chiq’llur. It’s best fresh,” Nicomedes says. His protégé, Lorenzo, chimes in, “It’s for stomach pain.” The plant preparation varies—some they boil and drink, or chew directly, while others are mixed with other plants or even bathed in. As stewards of sacred reclaimed knowledge, Nicomedes and Lorenzo guide us through the forest, searching in unison and identifying at least 25 different species along the way. Chewing mutui fronds or drinking its infusion is for calentura or fever. “It has a lot of juice in its leaves—the higher you go, the more juice you have,” Nicomedes says. A lowlying plant topped with a coral flower is yawar chúnqà. “It’s good for when you cut yourself,” he says. With a Quechua name that translates as “blood sucker,” its oral ingestion counters wound inflammation. Salvia, or wild sage, helps to lower fats and heal empacho, a folk illness similar to a post-meal intestinal blockage. Getting dizzy or “when the wind grabs you,” is best treated by steaming qaqa sunkha, a tangled moss, that also produces a natural orange dye for textiles. Nicomedes and Lorenzo have leafy treatments for everything from cramps to tuberculosis. Often, they bring back samples to plant in Nicomedes’ garden—bringing the “pharmacy” shop to his actual backyard.
Back at the home of their relative, Juan, a potato farmer, lunch awaits the crew of hungry foragers. The meal consists of charqui, chuño, and moraya, foods preserved using ancient processes. The Incas stored these same varieties of non perishables in hilltop storehouses, called qullqas, for food security in the event of war or famine. At high elevations, these meals help maintain warmth—“Like a coffee,” Juan says. Charqui (lending origins to the word, “jerky”) is dried llama meat prepared with exposure to icy elements, while chuño and moraya are freeze-dried potatoes, with years long shelf lives. “The freeze comes in June and July. We walk two hours with llamas up to 4,200 meters, where it’s colder,” Juan says. “We make the chuño and moraya up there.”
For chuño, the cold temperatures naturally freeze and thaw selected potatoes, until they shrivel up and are stomped on to remove moisture (“They freeze like rocks and then dry like figs,” Juan explains). Making moraya, on the other hand, is a little trickier. Potatoes must be placed in frigid mountain rivers before sunrise (“If the sun catches them, they become sour,” he says), which means a grueling 3am start. After two weeks immersed in water, they are left to dry, then trampled by foot—a healthy outlet, no doubt, given moraya’s tendency towards moodiness.
Meanwhile in Huatata, beneath the shadows of the looming Andes and the apu guardians, Manuel Choqque wants us to continue rethinking the potato.
“Pachamama’s Land’’ is an essay in the 2021 issue of Directions, our annual magazine that looks at movements in travel, art, design, food, and wellness. This year’s issue “Odyssey’’ explores the central theme of Walking by inviting a broad range of voices to take a conscious exploration of this simple act.