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Exploring the Sacred Valley of Peru to Expand Knowledge of Food Systems and Farming

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Editor’s Note: Each year, Manhattan Country School provides its staff with professional development opportunities in the form of fellowships and grants. For the summer of 2015, MCS Farm Program Director John McDaniel was granted a senior fellowship to travel to Peru. The experience was one he hoped would expand his knowledge of world food systems and farming practices and open up new thinking as MCS expands its farm-based education program. The following is his account of his journey.


As a recipient of a Manhattan Country School summer fellowship, I was able to travel to the Cusco region of Peru. Accompanied by my 14-year-old daughter, Claire, we spent the first three days acclimating to the 11,200-foot elevation of Cusco, a city that extends through the Watanay River Valley.

Cusco was built by the Incas and evidence of their architecture is everywhere. When the Spaniards occupied the city, they built lavish cathedrals on the same stone foundations as the Incas. The blending of architectural styles is truly remarkable.

We then spent three days trekking through the Lares Valley, which had us traveling through some remote villages of farmers and weavers. We spent the first night in a schoolyard in Cancha Cancha, named for the many stone enclosures for the sheep, llamas and alpacas that dot the landscape.

We were greeted by some children of the village and were able to share a few school supplies that we had packed. The village is home to approximately 35 families who shepherd their flocks and tend the dizzying hillside terraced gardens. In this one village alone, they grow more than 200 varieties of potatoes! Most potatoes are dehydrated and stored.

The first morning we woke in our tent to temperatures in the lower teens and brilliant blue skies. After breakfast we left for Cancha Cancha Pass, which sits at an elevation of more than 16,000 feet. Along the 10-mile climb we met children on their way to school, shepherds tending their flock and a puma hunting chinchillas. Surrounded by snowcapped mountains and glacial lakes, we tried to distract ourselves from the thin air that required a break at times after 50 to 100 steps. We stopped at the top of the pass to honor Pachamama, the Earth Goddess, with a stone shrine, coca leaves and rum. We descended past a large waterfall that provides hydro-electric power and fresh glacial melt water for a trout farm in the connecting lake. We spent the night in another schoolyard and had the opportunity to talk with two graduate students from Paris filming a documentary about the village and the impact of tourism.

Our third day was a little shorter—only seven miles but we had another 16,000-foot pass to climb. We ended the trek in Lares Village and were greeted by many schoolchildren and their teachers.

We celebrated our finish with a soak in the Lares hot springs, a series of pools of varying temperatures. After lunch we traveled by bus and train to Aguas Caliente, the jumping off point for Machu Picchu. We arrived at our hotel at 10 p.m. and woke at 3:30 a.m. to get in line for the earliest buses in order to arrive at Machu Picchu before sunrise. Our lack of sleep was quickly forgotten as the sun rose and the fog lifted.

My brain still hurts trying to figure out how these people built these incredible structures. Our guide, Elvis, who had been amazing during the mountain trek, was equally talented in sharing his knowledge of the place and its people. We explored for a few hours and then made the climb up Huayna Picchu, the mountain that towers over the site. We traveled three hours back to Cusco on a luxurious train with huge vista windows.

We had two more days to explore the city markets of Cusco, its amazing and growing food scene and a number of fiber shops before heading home.