Pacaraos: Nothing quite as unique.
I was recently invited to explore a small, undisclosed district within the regional department of Lima. A little over 2 hours outside of Huaral, heading high up in the Andes, is a collection villages called Pacaraos. The people were welcoming, anxious to share their culture & their profoundly rooted tradition. Some of the villages we visited, were once Incan villages. Others had routes that were once part of the Qhapac Ñan (The Incan Road). Something about this place is just so unique, from the foods to the people. The mist plays with your mind. Cold air creeps into your lungs pulling along with it annotations of aromatic herbs. An impression is made within the first few minutes and I realize that, although my journey was short, I’ve surely been transported.
Pacaraos is the conglomeration of varied farming communities that continue agricultural practices that extend back to the Incan civilization. There was one woman who was pointing towards the mountain range stating, “We farm in one section of the mountains per year, starting at one point and ending in an another. Once finished we start back at the beginning. We do this in 7 sections, that way before we start cultivating in that section again, the earth would have rested for 7 years.” To them, these mountains are chartreuse sentinels that were once revered as gods. “Apus” they were called, and although Catholicism has a strong hold on the surrounding communities, everyone pays their respects to their ancient protectors. While we would prance from valley to mountaintop, we would stop for a “pago a la tierra” or payment to the earth. A simple gesture of pouring out a little bit of your liquor on the ground, dispersing some tobacco over it, then after grabbing a handful of coca leaves, embedding your gratitude towards the mountains unto them, you blow them into the wind. Magic really does exist in these parts. Superstition is also common. When we were taking pictures of the native dancers of the Quiuyo (dance inspired by a local bird’s mating ritual) we were interrupted by the female dancer because we were trying to take a photo with only 3 people. She humbly informed us that, “In this village, we don’t take pictures with only 3 people. We believe that if so, someone in one of our families will die.” Although her prediction was a tad eerie, I couldn’t help but inquire about the cloth tied over her abdomen. I saw women in the other villages wearing something very similar. It’s called a “Manta Cajonada”. Basically it’s a cloak that the locals use which has a specific pattern to determine where they come from. Minute detail changes will specify exactly which village, but the general design is the same for the whole district.
The food of this area is but a simple reflection of the surroundings. It’s cold outside for the most part, so there are plenty of soup and stew recipes to keep you comfortable. 2 that really stood out to me were the Chupe Verde and the Patache. The Chupe Verde looks like a humble potato soup, but it goes way deeper than you think. The potatoes of this region are more spoiled than an upperclass american teenage girl. After generations of perfecting the art of growing the potato, these traditional Peruvian farmers have given so much depth to the flavor profile of these potatoes not to mention the variety of their harvest. Anyway, the chupe verde is made up of these glorious potatoes, cut into thin slices, cooked inside the broth and flavored with cilantro and muña (something of an Andean mint.) The patache was the hefty one out of the 2. Wheat, local cheese, and sun dried meat makes up the skeleton of it. One can add fava beans or potatoes to make it even heartier. Something that you can always run into on a traditional Pacaraoen dining table, are boiled potatoes, fresh unpasteurized cheese, and a sauce to dip (typically a mixture of huacatay and yellow aji.) I’m told it’s a rather nostalgic combination for those who choose to leave their homeland. I personally view it as a romantic relationship between the farmers innovation, the fruits of their labor, and the very earth on which they toil. There is also a culture of foodstuffs elaborated based on the diet of the shepherds. The shepherd will leave his house with what he calls the “fiambres.” A word typically associated with elaborated meats here it refers to the Andean working man’s lunchbox. It’s usually made up Kancha (Similar to an inside-out popcorn) Capcho, which are dried fava beans toasted to a dark caramel and then taken out of their protective layer to be sucked on until soft enough to chew. Baked potatoes, which they bake within natural earthen ingredients directly on the ground, underneath the coals; these potatoes develop a crust around them which is too be peeled off. Sun dried meat tops off this lunch pack. We can observe that the foods are dry, meant to last long hours without refrigeration, and are meant to keep the shepherd entertained while on his journey. Pacaraos also has some produce that I’ve never heard of or seen in other parts of Peru. The Laccpi (La-j-pi) is like a sweeter, white carrot. Mito is petite & green. It resembles something of an unripe cacao bean but it tastes more like white passion fruit. The most interesting of all their homegrown ingredients though, would have to be cacho. Cacho is a root, when cut open it expulses a milky liquid. When placed in a mold, the liquid will grab a consistency similar to that of chewing gum. A natural vegan chewing gum, hiding away in the Andes after all this time.
In good conscience I could say I’ve been humbled. Not because I was in a village who stopped practicing a barter system recently only 30 years ago. Not because I’ve seen how such simple, tender people can be fervent with perseverance. Not because I had to drive pass ageless Incan agricultural terraces. Not even because I ate potatoes for every meal (I’m warning you, it wasn’t enough). It’s because I found something new in this country that I already claimed as familiar. It’s because the last place I thought any of this could happen, would be so close to a city like Lima. But I was wrong, so I learned. Here’s to hoping for a limitless tutelage on the hidden treasures of Peru.
You can get there driving from Huaral on the highway Alberto Fujimori Fujimori for about 2 1/2 hrs (warning the paved road stops at about 40 min and the roads are steep) another option is to take a colectivo (collective bus) from the city of Huaral until the village, which is passing by some hot springs. For more information speak with the Pacaraos Municipality about hotels and food options.