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Circular terraces of Moray, the agricultural "laboratory" of the Incas (Personal Archive)

“Plants are raised in the chacras by man, and in a reciprocal way plants raise man, they give us daily food, medicines and shelter. Similarly, the tutelary Apus (sacred mountains) raise the wild flora and fauna, which, with the permission of these deities, can be used by humans.”[1]

How to perceive our territory sensorially through food? What human-nature relationships develop around cultivation and harvesting? How to reciprocate this knowledge exchange?

With these questions flittering on my palate, I visited the MATER and Moray laboratories during the dry season of Cusco’s Sacred Valley 2022. But my immersion in the chacra and highland botanical route’s would begin a several meters below, in the wholesale market of Urubamba on a Wednesday at 6:00 am.   Manuel Contreras, MIL beverage researcher, tells me that in the market dialogues with caseras[1]  and hierberas[2] the word sacha not only means hill or silvestre, but also domesticated. In the act of recollection, several rural communities identified, cultivated and finally domesticated several fruits of the Cusco region in their chacras. Thus, we find the sachatomate and the sachapapaya, two fruits that when tasting their fresh and sweet acidity, one perceives all the meanings of sacha: a wild hill flavor, rounded while domesticated.

[1] «caseras» colloquial word for a familiar seller (often women)
[2] «hierberas» colloquial word for the woman who is knowledgeable about plants and commercializes them.

Plantas medicinales recolectadas en el Mercado de Mayoristas de Urubamba – temporada seca
(Herbario de campo – Archivo Personal)

As we go deeper into the market, Manuel introduces me to Mrs. Hilda, his casera and master herbalist. I am immediately impressed by the variety of medicinal plants she offered, their different shapes, sizes and colors. She and Manuel are fluent in the familiar names (commonly in Quechua) of each plant, and discussed their origin, properties and preparation. It is clear that, in order to recognize the tremendous variety of floral beings, both have cultivated the skill of botanical recollection, as part of a daily relationship with the wild nature of the Valley.

For me, this practice is called foraging, a word that describes the act of searching for edible plants and fruits in the wild. I started this activity during the pandemic of 2020, with a small community of foragers in Germany, in the forests of the Biosphärenreservat Mittelelbe. For me, each season marks an edible relationship with my natural environment, either as a recipe or preservation method. Today in Switzerland, between the walks in Landschaftspark Wiese and the gardening labor in the Gemeinschaftsgarten Landhof, I practice to be able to recognize at least ten “unkraut” (German for weeds) per season.

What I have learned in both territories, is that the very essential aspect about foraging is the collective enjoyment of the plants. The story that these beings tell us over dinner, the knowledge that the gatherer shares through a ferment or a pesto.

I would venture to say that sallqa encompasses the ecosystemic and ancestral relationship of the Valley’s botanical recollection, where human and plant enter into a dialogue of care. When the human takes care of nature, this then nourishes and provides the plant (medicine), which reciprocally takes care of and heals the human. In this cyclical exchange, a delicate balance is necessary between experimentation and precision, between curiosity and moderation, between emotional and physical, to distinguish between what heals you and what kills you.

In Cusco, the rural communities preserve, share and sustain this human-nature relationship. Is the devoted labor of the master healers and herbalists, who practice traditional herbal medicine.

In the MIL immersion I experienced the tension and enjoyment in the sallqa (botanical route) and the sacha (chacra) relationships, surrounded by the beings of the Moray ecosystem. Thank to the dialogue between cultivated and wild plants, different communities weave knowledge and collaboration links -scientific and ancestral language coexist. Thus, Jan Brack (forestry engineer MATER) and Cleto Cusipaucar (leader of the rural community Kacllaraccay) guided me around the restaurant and introduced me -among others- to the Cabuya (Furcraea Andina). One told me about its ecology and plant physiology, while the other complemented the introduction with its traditional and medicinal uses. Both allowed me to understand the variety of dimensions of the cabuya being, which Manuel then transformed into a syrup to put into a drink. As I ingested it, the cabuya became one again: botanical, medicine, cure.

Plantas medicinales recolectadas durante la Ruta Botanica MIL en Moray – temporada seca
(Herbario de campo – Archivo Personal)

I invite you to be part of this dialogue:


Inhale at the top of your lungs, and exhale slowly.

Allow your body to get used to the altitude.
The wind blows strongly and swirls around the rings of Moray at 3,385 m.a.s.l.
The tutelary Apus, Chicón and Verónica, bless us with fertile soil.
It is August, and the fruits of the main harvest
have been distributed and stored.
The earth is resting and the fields wear yellow, ocher and brown hues.
The dry season is not barren, it only has other rhythms.

We are in the middle of the steppe highlands and the puna.
The plants of this altitude stick to the warm soil, developing deep and mighty roots.
Between asteraceae and agaves, warm and fresh plants
we recognize medicine among the wild grass.

For more than 10,000 years, the plants shared their cure
with the healers and herbalists of the Sacred Valley.
Today their great granddaughters preserve and share this caring knowledge: they know how to smell the terpenes, and to taste the flavonoids with the dexterity acquired in botanical recollection
as a daily and indispensable habit.

Listen, exchange.
It is six o’clock on a Wednesday morning in the Wholesale Market of Urubamba.
At 2870 m.a.s.l. we enter a river of trucks, sacks, barrows, selling and buying chants that sing the freshness of their products,
which come from different ecosystems of the valley.

The trading stream takes us to the space of the hierberas.
These are the masters, the plants adorn their hats,
as they extend, diversify, and gather in their llicllas: seeds, stems, flowers, barks, water and earth roots.
Quechua taxonomies, plural in form and healing properties.
Some herbal ensembles cure you from cancer, and others cure your heart.

Taste, and weave relationships.
We return to the high-altitude laboratories, and at the bar, I reach for a little glass.
A sweet, slightly bitter, thick liquid: it is cabuya honey.
Uphill, the skillful hands of the rural master extract from the same agave a fiber as fine as it is strong – the needle and thread of the Incas.

Take another deep breath,
slowly and with gratitude…return.

[1] Mantilla Holguín, Justo (2018) “Revalorización de la medicina tradicional en el Sitio Arqueológico de Wayna Tawqaray“. Dirección Desconcentrada de Cultura de Cusco, Coordinación de Patrimonio Inmaterial.
Gabriela Aquije
Mater team author

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