This past March, my wife Nancy and I had the good fortune of spending 23 days in Peru and Ecuador. We hiked Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley leading to it, sifted through the Amazon basin, and explored the Galapagos Islands where Charles Darwin came up with the theory of evolution and natural selection in the 1830’s. My wife and I covered many miles and took many flights. Our tour group returned home with pictures and memories, as well as a newfound sense of respect for the ancient art of irrigation.
For all of the time we spend innovating the way we water our crops, it’s amazing to see how irrigation has both evolved and stayed the same in Peru. All of us irrigation buffs will be taken by the fact that the farming methods of contemporary Peruvian culture are very similar to what the ancient Incas did in the 1400’s.
The Andean territory where the Incas lived is considered one of the eight centers from around the world where agriculture originated. The Incas native to Peru compensated for the steep terrain in the Andes by constructing terraces that overcame problems of water supply, soil erosion, and unstable climate.
In the rough terrain of the Andes my wife and I saw mountains terraced from top to bottom, but that wasn’t their only achievement. In a little more than 100 years (from about 1400-1532), the Inca Empire ruled more than 12 million people from 100 different cultures, consolidating its rule over thousands of square miles in Peru and Ecuador using a superb highway system. These intermittently paved roads were up to 24 feet wide, with tunnels, bridges, and stepped pathways cut into existing rock. This technology was very sophisticated, very exacting and its construction methods are still a mystery as there were no written records. It ran atop the spine of the Andes and down into the valleys for 3,450 miles from the Colombia-Ecuador border to central Chile.
We saw terraces along the entire stretch through the Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu through towns with exotic names like Urubamba an Ollantaytambo, and Aguas Caliente. The bottom layers of these terraces were filled with different strata of crushed rock and small river rock. These stones provide drainage and also filters water to the terraces below. The farmers were also able to take advantage of microclimates by situating crops so they received optimal sunlight and temperature. The Incan terraces follow the form of the hillsides and the mountains and are supported with beautiful, precisely stacked stonewalls. The Incas considered these stonewalls utilitarian but we saw them as awe-inspiring.
After the plants produced their mature seed, the Incas harvested a portion of each crop to ensure the success of the next planting season. Some seed was often given to the local chiefs from neighboring communities in exchange for loyalty. Food was life, seed was sacred, and a variety of crops meant security.
Growing with the Land
The main crops of Peru are potatoes, quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wa), cotton, cocoa, corn, fava beans and barley. On our trip we had potatoes at every meal for 23 days. In Peru there are between 3,000 and 4,000 distinct varieties of potatoes varying in size, color, and taste according to where they were grown. The elevation range where they are grown varies from sea level to about 14,000 feet. As Peru is near the equator, farming goes on year round. There are wet and dry seasons, but not much variation in temperature.
The Amazon basin is a rainforest but large areas in southern Peru are desert, and then there are huge elevation differentials so crop varieties change from region to region. This reality has been the norm for the last thousand years. Mono cropping is unheard of, with small farms and gardens near every home the rule. Recently the government of Peru said “no” to the cultivation of genetically modified foods to protect this rich diversity that has sustained the many civilizations of Peru for millennia. The people of Peru and its government know that GM seed would greatly reduce the biological diversity that has always been its hallmark. They feel that GMO crops would contaminate traditional farms that grow by traditional, time tested, and organic methods. Peru is the first country in the Americas to ban GMOs.
Quinoa (the leading crop in acres planted) is an extremely valued valued grain because of the high protein it provides. Potatoes in every size, shape, and color imaginable were tasty, interesting, and are a staple of the Peruvian diet. Huge fava beans, very large starchy kernels of high altitude corn, and even lupine beans grown on two-foot tall gorgeous deep blue flowers native to Peru, added to this unique culinary experience. Fortunately for us, we burned thousands of calories every day as we hiked the Andes mountain trails and the smaller towns of the Sacred Valley leading to Machu Picchu at high altitudes. We also walked the high altitude (11,000 feet) traditional city of Cusco and crowded coastal capital city of Lima, Peru (population 11,000,000). After that we hiked the historic mountain capital of Ecuador, Quito, which sits 9,350 feet above sea level. In all, we were between 8,000 feet and 12,500 feet for two weeks.
I highly recommend visiting this part of the world. Traveling was safe with just enough comfort and plenty of exercise. The culture is truly fascinating, the sites extraordinary, and the history worth investigating. The people were very sweet and helpful. The huge stone structures in their magnitude and beauty will leave you with some real sense of wonder.
Part II: The Beginning and the End of Our Trip: Not Exactly Farming
When we’re working in irrigation it’s easy to get caught up in the day to day routines. But trips like this, if we let them take us away, are life changing. We spent the first six days of our trip in the Amazon basin, the headwaters of the Amazon River. These tributaries of the Amazon emanate in the high mountains of Peru and Ecuador. The rivers start in the highest mountains of the Andes, giving them an incredible amount of force. The water was opaque brown because it carried so much silt, and so we never went swimming.
The jungle walks, boating on the longest river in the world, and visiting local villages and learning about their cultures made this experience enriching. The end of our journey in the Galapagos Islands was equally stimulating. The Pacific Ocean was clear, warm, and inviting. We found comfort living in a trimaran for a week and then challenged ourselves trekking the exotic and rocky (volcanic) landscape and going face to face with a treasure trove of unique species of animals.
The Amazon Basin
We started our trip in the hot, steaming jungle by the Amazon River. Our challenge was living with the humidity and the mosquitos. It took a few days to get acclimatized for most of our small group, and then a few days to recognize whose hiking abilities in our group matched up with our own. There were many opportunities to shoot startlingly beautiful, chance-of-a-lifetime pictures of birds, creatures such as sloths, and see an amazing variety of trees and vines. Hiking at night through the jungle, we saw caiman (small alligators) and huge, I mean HUGE lotus flowers that spanned four feet across. In the day, we motored in small boats (called pangas) to an eddy off to the side of the Amazon. There, we fished for, caught, and later ate piranhas. On another day our guide took us to a tributary where the pink dolphins (Amazon River dolphins, Inia geoffrensia) lived in an estuary. We only saw them breach for a split second in an OMG moment. Nearby, there were grey dolphins in greater numbers. Those were eye-opening experiences.
Located 600 miles off the west coast of Ecuador, this was a unique experience for us as we lived on a large trimaran boat for five days off the coasts of three of the islands in this chain. The Galapagos are an archipelago of volcanic islands located in the Pacific Ocean 600 miles off the coast of Peru on both sides of the equator. First, we hiked to a refuge where the largest land tortoises in the world lived in their native habitat. These reptiles can live for more than 100 years, grow to 800 pounds, and are five to six feet long and four feet wide. They are an astounding site to behold. Their relative, the sea turtle, are just as big as we found out during one of the daily snorkeling trips when Nancy and I swam alongside one mesmerizingly beautiful and graceful gliding turtle for a full two minutes. This was all in 80-degree water surrounded by beautiful fish. On land our hikes took us to see very picturesque indigenous seabirds called boobies and large and colorful iguanas. The unbelievably bright blue footed booby are most visible and recognizable as they fish close to shore, the red footed booby that has brown plumage, and the Nazca booby with the whitest white plumage in the natural world were all easily recognizable (duh!). The iguanas came in many hues too and were very large and prehistoric looking and not afraid of humans. It was an amateur photographer’s dream come true.
– Leon Springer
A special thanks to our tour company Overseas Adventure Travel!