Valuable taters and tourism in Peru


Our ‘hairy neck’ in Peru, David Knight, has shared with us many wonderful insights into Peruvian life the past 6 months. But now as his time as Intrepid’s Community Based Tourism researcher is drawing to a close, it’s hard not to wonder if his alternative career ambition is to be a world food writer!

We’ve heard all about spicy aji on the side of soup, the delights of cuy (guinea pig), chicha (corn beer), ceviche, the best quinoa soup around, fresh honeycomb and ‘spider’ punch. Now David shares with us the triumph of the humble tater…

“The potato and I have shared many agreeable moments through the years. Given the delights and duration of our acquaintance, I might go so far as to call us intimate friends. I am thus ashamed to admit that I was entirely unaware of my friend’s birthplace until quite recently. Make no mistake: the fourth largest food crop in the world originated in the Andes of South America.

In the Sacred Valley of the Peruvian highlands, folks have been cultivating and consuming taters for more than 8,000 years. Not the two or three types with which much of the Western world is familiar, but over 4,000 varieties native to the region.

It is no exaggeration to say that potatoes have tremendous ecological and cultural significance for the Quechua communities sprinkled around Machu Picchu and across the Andean landscape. In 2011, testifying to their value on a global scale, the seeds of some 1,500 varieties were shipped from Cuzco’s so-called Potato Park to be stored in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault east of Greenland. There, the seeds are currently and comfortably conserved in a cold arctic clime for future generations.

The epicenter of Cuzco’s Potato Park (or Parque de la Papa) happens to be in the small Andean village of Sacaca where I and my research assistant, Nilo, have been working in recent weeks. The focus of our efforts has been to explore perspectives of tourism impacts among local peoples, and initial findings have been nearly as varied and complex as the assortment of starchy spuds we’ve been consuming on a daily basis.

From April to December, Intrepid groups are hosted several times per month in Sacaca by the tourism association Sumaq Warmi (Quechua for ‘Beautiful Women’). The nine members of the association – one of whom, quite amusingly, happens to be male – provide a hot, sumptuous lunch for the visitors, supporting local livelihoods. Intrepid groups also have a chance to purchase traditional weaves from the associates and to participate in activities related to daily life in the community.

While tourism associations in other Andean villages have taken great pains to improve members’ homes in order to receive visitors, not one of the 160 households in Sacaca currently offers overnight stays. At least, not officially. Staying with Sumaq Warmi’s President and his family, Nilo and I have been sleeping on sheep skins beneath heavy blankets, washing our undergarments with a touch of tepid water every now and again, and learning how to properly squat in the latrines without staining our pants or disturbing the bellowing bulls looking on.

Thankfully, government funds from the nearby municipality of Pisac have supported recent development efforts in Sacaca, leading to the construction of a village library, soccer field, and center for infant health. Bathrooms with toilet, sink, and shower are soon to be completed for every household in the village, as well.

Interestingly, rather than use tourism income from Intrepid visits to improve their homes, Sumaq Warmi associates are currently pooling all their funds to complete the construction of a restaurant. Intrepid travelers are currently served lunch in this unfinished, rustic locale which sets atop a ridge and offers breathtaking views of the Sacred Valley in the distance. Hoping that Intrepid groups will visit the restaurant more frequently in the coming years, Sumaq Warmi members expect to see increased benefits for their community as job opportunities become available for non-associates as well.

Nilo and David at the ceremony where they become Godfathers in Peru

While exploring local views of tourism in Sacaca, Nilo and I recently received an unexpected invitation to become Godfathers of a three-year old girl. After asking numerous questions as to what this might entail – and with visions of an austere, lantern-jawed Don Corleone passing through my mind – I said that I would be honored to share such a title with my friend, Nilo.

Gift giving, cake eating, beer drinking and a hair-cutting ceremony ensued in the subsequent celebration. Thinking of all I have learned of tourism and taters in recent days, I offered my Goddaughter a commemorative potato. “Here”, I said, a playful twinkle in my eye. “This spud’s for you.”

To read more of David Knight’s engaging blog installments and observations of life in Peru, click on the responsible travel theme. We expect to publish David’s research findings (excerpts of his PhD dissertation) by mid 2014.

Follow in David’s footprints and explore this remarkable region on Intrepid tours of Peru.

Photos © David Knight. Researchers David and Nilo enjoy discussions about tourism impacts with some men from Sacaca; and Nilo and David at the ceremony where they become Godfathers.

About the author'
Jane Crouch - Jane is a responsible business guru who writes about all aspects of how travel can bring positive environmental, social and economic benefits. Informed through travel on seven continents, leading Intrepid trips through SE Asia, work in outdoor education, energy conservation, international development, philanthropy and climate change action, plus a big love of walking, mountains and world music.

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