When Brice told me he wanted to do a tour while in Peru to learn about potatoes, you can’t imagine my happiness. I always want to do food-focused activities, whether it is a fancy dinner or cooking class, while Brice usually only attends if I insist on having a travel companion that day, not usually out of his own interest.
But something about having over 4,000 varieties of native potatoes and several unique traditional cooking methods made Brice excited. I wasn’t going to let this moment pass.
I found a fantastic travel company, Cultural Immersion, who set up the perfect day of food-focused exploration in the Sacred Valley of Peru.
As Cusco is just over an hour drive, it made for an easy day trip. We got picked up around 9am and headed out for our adventure.
Salt Not Optional – Salt Ponds of Maras
Our first stop was the incredible salt ponds of Maras. With about 5,000 ponds currently, they take up a huge swath of the mountainside. Only about 1-2 feet deep, the small areas of blocked off stone are used to evaporate salty water that comes from the underground stream up the hill. Local families own and maintain the ponds and the stream’s flow, collecting the salt once the water has fully evaporated.
It is estimated the salt ponds pre-date the Incas, being built somewhere around 200-900AD. Since then, more ponds have been added. The high-quality salt that is harvested from the ponds is sold as pink salt, used for cooking.
It was gorgeous to see.
Exploring the Incan Moray Ruins
Later we explored the ancient ringed Incan ruins of Moray – three sets of massive bowl-shaped terraces. While it is still somewhat a mystery what these were for, it is most often believed this was an agricultural laboratory with each of the seven terraces mimicking the different landscapes of the Incan empire. The Incan farmers would experiment which plants grew best at various altitudes, microclimates and soil types.
Because of the size of the terraces (the largest being 98 feet deep) and how they are curved to block wind and sunshine, the temperatures can vary as much as 60 degrees from the top terrace to the bottom.
Another theory is selected members of each Incan tribe would come to Moray with plants from their villages as an offering, thereby also creating the different landscapes in each ring.
Either theory you choose to believe, it was fascinating and beautiful to view.
So Many Potatoes
For the cooking portion of our journey, we headed to the stunning Villa Maras. We got to learn about the thousands of different potatoes that grow in each altitude range of Peru, how the quinoa plant is harvested and some traditional cooking methods using the huatia and the pachaminca.
The Huatia is an old technique to cook potatoes using a traditional Peruvian earthen oven made of hot mud bricks stacked into an oven shape. This method dates back to the Incas. After placing the potatoes in the oven, you collapse the bricks atop of the potatoes and leave them to cook for about 90 minutes until the potatoes are dug out of the ground. The result were perfectly cooked potatoes, with a uniquely crispy skin and flavorful inside.
The Pachamanca is similar but uses hot river stones which are heated for hours over a fire before the food is added. Once ready, we placed about 10 different types of potatoes, lima beans, fruit, trout, pork and of course cuy (Peru’s traditional guinea pig) onto the first layer of stones. More stones were added on top, then it was all covered in a thick amount of alfalfa grass to keep in the heat and almost steam the food underneath.
About two hours later, we returned to dig up the pits and collect our lunch. Everything was surprisingly perfectly and consistently cooked through.
Our feast included of all the items cooked on the fire, with a side of the delicious Huancaína – a spicy, peanut and cheese based sauce – plus a dessert of the roasted pineapple, pears and bananas covered in chocolate.
It was all fabulous. Especially with a gorgeous view of the mountains in the background, it certainly wasn’t a shabby way to spend lunch.
Perhaps after a day like that, I’ll be able to get Brice to sign up for more cooking adventures.