Carved into the hillside facing cosmopolitan Cuzco are the words El glorioso Perú. South America's most popular destination is indeed glorious, with its Inca foundations, pretty plazas and broad colonnades. But the city also cocoons you from the rest of the country. Cappuccino bars and ciabatta sandwiches are as easy to find as roast cuy, the unofficial national dish. After a few days in the city, there comes a time to go in search of a deeper, darker Peru.
To encourage tourism in the rural villages of the Sacred Valley that surrounds Cuzco, the local agency Peru Treks has launched Quechua home stays, whereby visitors are welcomed into the homes of local families. Quechua is an indigenous language of the Andean region and is spoken by around 13 million people. Many Quechua speakers are directly descendents of the Incas and live as subsistence farmers in remote high-altitude areas.
Señor Pascual Sallo and his family live in Chinchero, a weaving community high in the Urubamba valley, an hour north-west of Cuzco. Woven cloth was a highly prized commodity in pre-Columbian times, and the Incas continued the tradition. Like many villagers Señor Sallo is an artist by trade, painting earthenware jars to sell to tourists. His wife, Fortunata, and daughter Miriam both weave richly embroidered mantas, or shawls, and chuspas, small shoulder bags used by men to carry the coca leaves that they chew to combat the effects of the altitude.
From Cuzco, you can take a taxi to Chinchero. But the bus journey here is a real joy - if you don't mind being jammed against sacks of vegetables. For 1.5 nuevo sols, around 25p, the bus takes you out past the fruit stalls on Avenida Antonio Lorena, winding up a long road flanked by Inca terracing before dropping down into the valley. Looking back on Cuzco, you can clearly make out the ornate cathedral and the impressive ruins of Sacsayhuaman.
Once over the brow, you can see the snow-capped peaks of the Cordillera in the distance. Lush hills fill the foreground and cotton wool clouds float over the wheat fields. All the houses have a pair of terracotta bulls planted squarely on their roofs to ward off earthquakes. At the edge of the road, elderly women wrapped in striped blankets sit tending their sheep. Blue and yellow Inca Kola signs dot the route, and poking out of many buildings are sticks topped by red handkerchiefs, showing the houses that sell chicha, a fermented maize drink.
Chinchero is a fairly small and unassuming village. But follow the streets up to the plaza and you come to a magnificent Inca wall that divides the square into two levels, with a 17th-century church on the upper terrace. The little whitewashed building boasts Inca stonework at its base and, just below, are the remains of the palace of Tupuc Inka Yupanqui. Miriam, Señor Sallo's 20-year-old daughter, is studying tourism in Cuzco and she takes all home stay guests on a tour of the ruins.
An imposing range of hills looms opposite. The largest is Antakilka, which the locals believe was once the head of a serpent whose tail can be found miles away at Sacsayhuaman. The smaller one is known as Antanomaq, Antakilka's wife. Legend has it that every night he calls across the valley to her. On a clear morning, it's possible to see Salkantay and La Veronica, the highest peaks in the Cordillera. Miriam also shows me scorch marks on the rocks where offerings of incense, beer and coca leaves have been burnt to feed Pachamama, mother earth.
We make our way to the Sallo's house for dinner. Señor Sallo and his wife still haven't returned from their field, which is a two-hour walk away. Here, they cultivate potatoes and beans and, sure enough, Miriam prepares soup using a spud called moraya. The fertile soil around Chinchero makes potatoes the easiest crop to grow, along with the super-grain quinoa, which is packed full of protein.
We retire early. The next day is market day and Miriam will be up at dawn to lay out her pitch, where she sells the cloth she has woven. The accommodation, an annexe of the main house, is basic with stone walls and no heating. A small cactus hangs above the door for luck.
By the time I rise at 7am, Miriam and her father have already left for market. I breakfast with Fortunata and then we head off to join them. It's still early but pan-pipe music is blasting outand stallholders are swilling down glasses of pink chicha frutillada in preparation for the day ahead. Like other women in the community, Miriam is dressed in a traditional gathered black skirt, or pollera, and an embroidered red jacket. Business is slow, as many tourists choose to visit the larger market at nearby Pisac, but the quality of Chinchero textiles is superior and the prices more reasonable. Miriam shows me a fine tablecloth that took her five months to weave, which she will aim to sell for 120 sols (£20).
The stalls display pretty much the same wares. Hand-woven blankets, bedspreads, ponchos, belts and shawls alongside painted gourds, terracotta bowls and cedarwood plates. While they wait for visitors, the women pass the time spinning wool or knitting hats. A small boy goes round the market handing out a sprig of yellow flower called ruda to bring the vendors good fortune.
At the church, a bell tolls for the morning service and a voice can be heard asking Santa Maria to watch over the weavers. Although rather plain on the outside, the church's interior reveals strikingly painted beams and walls covered in red and blue floral designs. Every inch of the ceiling is decorated with vivid frescoes. On the back of the pews are the names of resident families.
When I leave to catch the bus back to Cuzco, Miriam presents me with an alpaca scarf to remember her by. She won't take any money for it and asks only that I visit again one day.
Most travellers reach Cuzco via the Peruvian capital, Lima. Routings from UK airports, include flights via Amsterdam on KLM, and via Madrid on Iberia. Specialist agents such as Journey Latin America (020-8747 8315; www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk) and South American Experience (020-7976 5511; www.southamericanexperience.co.uk) can advise on the best deals, and also on onward travel to Cuzco. The main airlines on this route are LAN Peru, Nuevo Continente and Taca.
Peru Treks (00 51 84 805863; www.perutreks.com) arranges home stays in Chinchero. These cost around $3 (£1.60) per person per night plus $1 (55p) for a simple meal such as soup or breakfast. All the money you spend goes direct to the host family.
The Embassy of Peru, 52 Sloane Street, London SW1X 9SP, (020-7235 1917; www.peru.info)Reuse content