Waiting patiently for our meal to be prepared, I sat with friends and watched Peruvian cholitas toil over baskets of potatoes in the morning sun. Young men stood stoking burning rocks in a hole in the ground – a smell followed of something, not fowl in nature, but of a pungency so unusual and bitter that it seemed unleashed from the deepest, darkest depths of the earth. At my ankle a small, grubby kitten lay wide eyed and curious. Hanging in the distance the watchful peaks of the Cordillera Huayhuash glinted like bared teeth below an unblemished sky.
We had been honoured with an invite to this isolated place by a friend from Huaraz on one of the rare Sundays we hadn’t dedicated to hiking the ranges. Our hosts: local farmers, relatives of our friend. Our meal: Pachamanka, aka ancient Incan BBQ, or “Earth pot” in Quechua. This organic oven, made of red-hot rocks, soil, hay and corn husks, baked layers of meats, potatoes and other vegetables at its centre. The process has been used for centuries by indigenous people to celebrate their relationship with nature. By cooking their food inside the ground, they believe they are sharing their meal with Mother Earth.
To say the location felt like the end of the earth wouldn’t be such a wild exaggeration. The tiny habitation sat sliding from the crest of a sloping hill far from anywhere. The distant mountains glinted below a pressing sun like the pearly gates to an adjacent heaven. And all around me was the silent drum of nothingness bellowing out across empty space.
As we tucked into our lunch, I was overwhelmed by the amount of food in front of me. Lamb, chicken and fish sat stacked on our plates among a small forest of potatoes, each a different, earthy shade. I just want to stay here for a while, I kept thinking. I want to wait for the stars to come out and sprinkle themselves upon this untouched gateway, and to eat until I can’t eat anymore. But we have to leave, almost as quickly as we arrived, to make the long journey home. Back to congestion, to neon light, to uncontrolled noise.
The Ancash region of Peru is a place of immeasurable splendour, but, I knew experiencing something so distinctly Andean was a unique privilege. To be invited to share the meal of these people who had little, in this wonderful, desolate place, far away from the commotion of city life, felt humbling. It was a slice of Andean culture that guide books don’t fully capture. But, that’s why the Cordilleras feel so limitless: there’s no end to discovery.