The turns on the narrow mountainside road were so sharp, our tour bus would stop on the hairpin curves, back up, and then reposition itself to continue up the steep muddy slope. We were all holding our breath. We rode the bus until the road faded into a dusty path, and then we continued on foot up a steep, rocky trail to Isaac’s village, a few hundred feet higher than where we left our bus. The journey was long, and just a tiny bit terrifying, but no one’s enthusiasm flagged for a second. Step by step, we climbed our way to Huilac, where we had been invited to share in a pachamanca.
In Peru, a pachamanca (in Quechua, pacha means “earth” and manka means “pot”) is a traditional way that food is roasted and enjoyed. First, a large hole is dug in the ground, in which a fire is built. Stones are added, which are heated by the fire. Once the stones have reached the proper temperature, meat, potatoes, corn and vegetables are layered between the hot stones. Covered with more stones and hay, the heated pit slowly roasts the layered food. After an hour or so, the meal is removed from the pit and shared banquet style among family and friends.
The community of Huilac is where Isaac’s family lives. We had gotten to know him as he was the head cook for our catering crew as we crossed the Salkantay Pass. His family members showed us how they farmed, how they weave textiles, and how they lived. We also got to know the next generation of Huilac, their kids.
We were invited to share a bowl of chicha, and I have to say, it was the best I had in Peru. Sweet, sour, earthy and fruity, I was only able to drink a few sips before the clouds burst open and flooded our banquet. Heavy rains positioned themselves over Isaac’s farm for the rest of the day. But the stones in the pachamanca were already heated, and if we were going to eat, we had to get the food into the pit, in spite of the downpour.
Students, farmers, PhD’s, and kids all pitched in to get the pachamanca layered and loaded. Meanwhile, the less intrepid members of our group camped out in an adobe dwelling. (I scurried between camps with my camera.) Around 40 people huddled together next to the Huilac community’s gargantuan drum of fermenting chicha, and their muddle of guinea pigs. The Huilac kids played video games on the students’ smart phones, as we watched water pouring off the roof in sheets. So much rain.
It was determined that the pachamanca was ready. A piece of corrugated aluminum roofing appeared that acted as an emergency shelter while the same students, farmers, professors and kids unloaded the pachamanca, keeping our precious food warm and dry. Huge basins of roasted potatoes, oca, lamb, chicken, corn and fava beans began to appear on the low, makeshift banquet table in the adobe shed. We all ate too much. The pachamanca was an amazing success, I especially loved the roasted slices of cheese and pineapple.
As we said goodbye, I was so grateful for Isaac’s generosity of spirit, and kindness. The day felt a little like Thanksgiving. Some meals that fill more than your belly, and I am still savoring time the time we spent together around the table.