The air smells sweet. There’s definitely a hint of mint but it’s more complex than that. It’s a vivid smell that you might only have here in this particular place. Herbs and fresh mountain air infused with sunshine. It’s warm out and I take off my jacket to feel the sunshine on my arms. We’ve just followed trails up a beautiful mountainside and will relax here while the artisans weave like they do many days of their lives here in Huilloc Alto. We’re surrounded by green hills that are covered in crops like potato, carrots, onion and herbs. Where we are seated there are 360 degree views of rolling hills and below us a natural spring glimmers and sheep graze on the soft, green grass. You can catch a glimpse of some alpaca high up in the hills. A huge glacier towers above reminding us that we are high in the Andes of Peru around 10,000 feet above sea level and just a couple of hours outside of Cuzco. It’s absolutely calm and beautiful and one of the more peaceful moments I’ve felt in months.
Huilloc Alto sits above Ollantaytambo about a 45 minute drive up a winding dirt road that follows the flow of the river and passes by several small communities. We made our way up early in the morning and spent time learning about the natural dye processes that the artisans have been using for generations. The many different plants (and bugs) that will turn alpaca and sheeps fiber into bright vibrant colors when added to hot water. The most important part is that it’s all from nature. No synthetics and 100% harmless to people and the environment. It’s mind blowing just how many different colors can be made and when you look over the complex textiles that the women have woven. It’s hard to fathom that the colors all come from the earth.
The artisans of Huilloc Alto had a beautiful lunch prepared for us cooked in an earth oven underground. Chicken, plantains, beans and a variety of potatoes filled our plates and bellies with cups of fresh mint tea to wash it down. I wasn’t the only one who mentioned that the chicken was some of the best that I had ever tasted! After our Pachamanka (earth oven) lunch we follow the artisans to a quiet patch of grass next to a stream and witness how they set up their looms and threads to create. When Companera Josefina offers her loom to me to try out I’m stunned by how complicated it is to weave and absolutely understand how it can take months to finish a large design heavy project. Watching Josefina’s fingers move in, around and under the threads you see that it is second nature to her. She is comfortable and confident in creating the patterns and her hands move as if she doesn’t have to think twice about it. She is relaxed and has most likely been weaving since she was a young girl. An art that is passed down to each generation.
We head up the mountain while the sun is still high and follow trails that were created during the time of the Incas. You can reach the nearby communities by this system of trails and they are indeed a part of the infamous Inca Trail that thousands of tourists come to Peru each year to hike. The difference is that there is no one around. Not a single soul. It’s just our small group hiking up into the green hills with each corner you turn a more breathtaking view than before. This is sustainable tourism like I have never experienced before. A group of organized and savvy women inviting travelers into their community to share their life and art. Companera Josefina is stopping every so often to pluck a flower or plant from the side of the trail. By the time we reach our resting place she has gathered an armful of beautiful plants that all have medicinal properties and are used often in the community. She’s laid the plants out atop her beautiful and colorful manta that I imagine she made by hand while taking in these amazing views somewhere peaceful and beautiful on this mountain top.
Hours pass as we settle into relaxation and quiet conversations about our lives. The women weave, time passes and everyone is calm and rested. It’s time to make our way back into Huilloc Alto to settle into our homestay for the night and to get ready for another beautiful meal. You can feel a chill come into the air as the sun gets lower and we cross the trails back into town. We part ways with some of the other artisans who will climb higher to their homes where they will prepare dinner and settle into warm wool blankets for the night. I look forward to a cozy nights sleep after more cups of hot mint tea of course.