Dear travelers to Peru

1. Machu Picchu is not a photo opportunity or a trek to cross off the bucket list, but a chance to learn about a unique time in human history.

Please avoid spending all your time behind the lens of a camera. Immerse yourself in the beauty and atmosphere of this spectacular site. Machu Picchu deserves human reverence and respect, which treating it as a photo op does not represent.

Machu Picchu was the zenith of a civilization that placed the needs of its people and mother earth “Pachamama” above everything else. This site is perhaps the most beautiful open-air classroom in the Western Hemisphere to learn about human resilience. Machu Picchu is not for selfies.

To ensure you get the best experience out of your visit, watch this video before you make your trip; if you are a reader, these books might get you on a good footing to fully engage with the lessons from your guides.

2. Coca leaves are not cocaine. 

Despite what so many believe, the coca plant is not cocaine as it is usually portrayed in the western world. For the people who live in the Andean mountains of Peru and Bolivia, coca is an ancient medicinal and spiritual plant. It was initially domesticated about 5000 years ago. The plant has been an essential part of the religious belief system of the Andean people. In fact, coca leaves are to the Andean and Amazonian people what the cross is to Christianity, i.e. coca leaves are used in rituals specific to “Pachamama” or mother earth.

The consumption of this plant as a food source by the Andean people is well documented. Coca leaves supply the body with high amounts of protein, vitamins and minerals. Contrary to popular belief, chewing these leaves as the Andean people regularly do does not cause any stimulant or euphoric effects, nor does the practice causes any dependency.

Coca leaves are often confused with cocaine, the drug that is synthesized via a combination of chemical reactions with chemicals such as sulfuric acid, kerosene, chlorine amongst others. The production and distribution of cocaine are the outcomes of a global chain of supply and demand that involves many powerful stakeholders, in which coca farmers are the lowest workers in a huge network of businesses and people seeking profit.

3. Global warming is a fact, and the evidence is clear in all the places you will visit in Peru.

You would do well to become aware of the recent natural disasters affecting Northern Peru.  Landslides, floods and torrential rains wreaked havoc throughout cities and the countryside, killed many people and left thousands of others homeless.

Climate scientists believe that this wave of natural disasters was triggered by a very unusual “El Niño” phenomena. This kind of “El Niño’ is a manifestation of a global warming problem. A trip to northern Peru will surely be enough to convince you of the severity of this situation. It is estimated that by 2050 most glaciers in Peru’s Andean range reaching 18,000 feet and below will disappear due to planetary warming, but the

When you hike the Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu, you will witness the enormous number of dry rivers that once used to carry water coming from the glaciers. The impact of this loss of glaciers can be seen in the struggle for water that local farmers confront every day. In turn, this situation is already affecting the chain of food production and the subsequent rise in prices of these goods.

4. Ayahuasca is not just DMT – getting high on it has negative effects for the Amazonian people

Ayahuasca has been part of the Amazonian medicinal and spiritual usage for centuries. It has always had traditional uses by jungle shamans who have sought through its use, a connection with a higher spiritual world of their own. Its use is intrinsically related to their belief of a “visión del Mundo” or cosmovision.

In recent years, the consumption of this drink has become somewhat of a tourist industry.

It is known nowadays that Ayahuasca and its components have the same psychedelic effects to substances are not the same. If you Google Ayahuasca, you will find that there are so-called “shamans,” all the way from the forests of Scandinavia and Canada to huge cities like New York and Los Angeles, organizing gatherings for people to consume this drink. The purpose of these gatherings is not to perform a ritual healing but rather to fall into a state of hallucination that does not correspond to the Amazonian cosmovision. Both situations are mutually exclusive.

Similar gatherings occur in the Amazon jungle where some of the locals have facilities to host foreigners who can pay money to become high on Ayahusaca. This practice is not the true traditional use of Ayahuasca and will not be correctly understood by those partaking in it. Rather, this represents a form of cultural appropriation and exploits the traditional usage of this culturally significant brew.

If you truly wish to experience Ayahuasca for healing purposes, then seek out local traditional users, elders and shamans. You will then have the complete experience of not only the drink, but the cultural significance it plays within the Amazonian people.

5. Lima is not just a mandatory stop over but the gastronomical capital of the Americas.

Some people visiting Peru avoid Lima like. The city’s chaotic traffic and high crime rate are reason enough to not want to to spend time there, but that shouldn’t deter anyone from spending at least a day savoring its brilliant food.

According to Bloomberg, Lima holds three of the best 50 restaurants in the world. Peru’s cuisine is heavily influenced by both Chinese and Spanish cooking. Dishes are perfectly crafted with an array of seafood products mixed with unique Andean ingredients. So, if you decide to stay in Lima and go on a food safari but lack of reservations or funds, I suggest that you do a bit of research and check these other mid-range priced restaurants that have menus to rival some of the more exclusive places.

Skiing the world’s highest sand dune

Emma Dahlströmand Jesper Tjäder are both professional free-skiers who compete on the Swedish National Ski Team. In their careers, the pair has travelled around the world to ski some of the steepest, iciest and gnarliest slopes. But they had never experienced anything like the sheer vertical madness they took on during a recent trip to Peru. There, they shredded the sandy hillsides of Huacachina and Cerro Blanco — the highest sand dune in the world. Watch this video by Great Big Story to discover what it’s like to ski on sand.

Weavers of the sky

Maria (18), a young Andean girl from a traditional Quechua community in Piuray Lagoon poses for a portrait with her llama. Women from the highlands raise llamas and alpacas, a domesticated species of camelid to obtain fibre to weave. © Marta Tucci/Naya Traveler

“Weaving is part of how we communicate our history to younger generations and the rest of the world,” Rosemary tells me, as she fingers alpaca thread in her home. Her fervour is palpable, as she explains how practicing her skill transmits knowledge indigenous knowledge from time immemorial.

For years, hand-woven fabrics have embodied the living history and cultural heritage of the Peruvian Highlands. Textile patterns with expressive names such as Mayu Qenqo (Meandering River) or Pumac Makin (Puma Footprints) tell tales of events that helped shape its identity, an untidy landscape and sacred history spanning thousands of years.

Detail of Asunta, a young Andean weaver from a traditional Quechua community in the Piuray Lagoon weaving a new textile. Weaving is done using a simple backstrap loom, and the pattern design is woven only from memory. The stain on her finger comes from the blood of cochineal, an insect found in cacti that is not only used as a natural yarn dye, but also as lip colour. © Marta Tucci/Naya Traveler

As I made my way through the thundering mountains that so gracefully embrace the Sacred Urubamba Valley, I listened with fascination to the ancient stories about Quechua customs that my driver Elvis was reciting. Humbled and proud, Elvis told me the history of his land and the people who have inhabited it since pre- Columbine times. The ambition and scale of his tales matched any Western classic, despite never being written down.

“Manco Capac was the first and greatest Inca, son of Inti (the Sun) who brought him up from the depths of the Titicaca Lake and ruled from Cusco, the navel of the earth.” We take an unexpected left turn off of the main road, and start to approach Piuray Lagoon, as Elvis continues, “Manco Capac had two children; a girl and a boy. One day Inti asked Manco Capac to go find his children so they could spend the sunset together, and when he went looking for them, he found in their place two lagoons, the Huaypo Lagoon (male) and Piuray Lagoon (female).”

“These two lagoons,” explains Elvis, as if announcing our arrival, “represent the duality of the sexes in modern day Quechua culture.”

Detail of raw alpaca fibre next to traditionally processed yarn, hanging from a branch. © Marta Tucci/Naya Traveler

Rosemary (22) finishes washing raw alpaca fibre while Concepcion (24) prepares the hot water with natural dyes in the background. © Marta Tucci/Naya Traveler

Rosemary (22), a young Andean weaver from a Quechua community in Piuray Lagoon, carefully washes alpaca fibre, preparing it to be hand-spun. © Marta Tucci/Naya Traveler

The Spanish colonisation of the Inca Empire in 1528 destroyed and eradicated all written records of Incan culture, which was the only palpable account of Quechua customs and folklore. Now, the only original testament is found between the threads of intricate textile designs woven by indigenous communities of the Puna (Andean highlands).

Close-up of llama wool before it is washed, spun and dyed. Traditional Andean weavers raise llamas and alpacas, a domestic species of camelid found in the highlands of South America, to obtain fibre and wool they use to create textiles an clothing. Alpaca and llama fibre is lanolin-free, which makes it soft and insulating, no matter the climate. The process of treating wool has remained unchanged for generations. © Marta Tucci/Naya Traveler

Concepcion (24) and her daughter Feliciana (7), from a traditional Quechua community in Piuray Lagoon, use a sieve made from dried branches to filter the yuca used to make soap. Women from the Chinchero region are regarded as the keepers of tradition and the cultural identity of their community. They pass on their weaving knowledge from generation to generation, and Felicia, at the tender age of 7, is already learning the elaborate process of textile weaving through her mother and the women in her family. © Marta Tucci/Naya Traveler

Up to this day, Quechuan communities from the highlands have been the keepers of tradition and the sustainers of an ancient yet arduous way of life. They work in absolute harmony with the Peruvian mother earth, which they call Pachamama. Their weaving practices date back to pre-Columbian civilisations, and continue to be a great symbol of Quechuan cultural identity.

Reaching a small village near Piuray, we meet Mariana, a young girl of innocent features wearing a traditional montera (hat) and iliclla (shoulder cloth) paired with a colourful vest and skirt. Walking beside her llama, Mariana explains how the women of Chinchero proudly wear their hand woven textiles and clothing on a daily basis, to differentiate the identity of their community from others in the highlands.

The region of Chinchero (3780 m.s.n.m.) in the province of Urubamba is home to several Quechua communities. The men farm the land and harvest potatoes, barley, and quinoa to feed their families and sell at nearby markets; the women raise llamas and alpacas to obtain textile fibres to weave. Alpaca and llama threads are lanolin-free, making them soft and insulating, regardless of the climate. Women like Mariana spin on simple drop spindles and weave on traditional back-strap looms while tending to their flock of alpacas or letting food cook over a fire, just as their forebears had done before them for centuries.

“I started playing with wool and spindles when I was very young. Then, around the time I was 6 years old, my older sisters started teaching me simple weaving techniques and patterns through observation and repetition,” says Mariana.

Detail of dyed balls of thread inside a traditional woven textile. The patterns found on this fabric represent the Mayu Qenqo (Meandering River), The Pumac Makin (Puma Footprints), and the Piuray and Huaypo lagoons. © Marta Tucci/Naya Traveler

A selection of natural produce such as purple corn, coca leaves, flowers, cochineal, salts and beans, all found in the Urubamba Valley and the Andean highlands are used by local Quechua communities to create the natural dyes for colouring fibre and wool. © Marta Tucci/Naya Traveler

Rosemary (22), a young Andean weaver from a traditional Quechua community in the Piuray Lagoon, checks the dye process of a natural ball of yarn inside the colouring pot. The process of treating wool has remained unchanged for generations in the Quechua communities of the highlands. © Marta Tucci/Naya Traveler

Chinchero has traditionally relied on farming for financial sustainability, yet in the recent years, demographic and social changes have forced small communities to find new ways to sustain themselves. Competition with large agricultural corporations means that local farmers can no longer rely on farming to financially support their families. Indigenous women who used to weave just to serve their family have had to increase their production and sell textiles in local markets.

Concepcion (24) and her daughter Feliciana (7), from a traditional Quechua community near Piuray Lagoon, pose for a portrait in the weaving workshop. © Marta Tucci/Naya Traveler

“They want to change Chinchero” claims Concepcion, a weaver and mother of two. “The government has seized some land to make an international airport and made big hotels to cater to the growing tourism overwhelming the city of Cusco (50km away from Piuray). This is changing everything for us, forcing us to give up our way of life which will soon be unsustainable in competition with the growing demands of tourism.”

By the 1970s, as a result of the exponential growth of tourism in the Sacred Valley, mainly due to the popularity of Machu Picchu, Quechua weavers started to change their production. They began using aniline dyes instead of natural ones and making simple patterns on more homogenised non-traditional fabrics to keep up with the increasing demand from tourism. These new textile designs no longer reflect the ancient weaving traditions of the communities, and their culture and identity are now sadly at risk of being lost and forgotten.

A selection of natural produce such as purple corn, green coca leaves, blue flowers, cochineal, salts and beans, all found growing in the Urubamba Valley and the Andean highlands. They are used by local Quechua communities to create natural dyes for colouring fibre and wool. © Marta Tucci/Naya Traveler

The balance between financial sustainability and sustaining the heritage of the Quechua people is a delicate one. Back in Rosemary’s home, she explains, “It is not only a cultural art form, but an integral part of our social organisation and economic situation.” She goes quiet for a while, before returning to the fibres on a drop spindle.

Although few in number, there still exist communities that remain unspoiled in the face of globalisation. In a visit to some of the less transited areas of the highlands, I discovered villages that are winning the battle to preserve their customs, despite the increasing difficulties they face. They hold firm against the alluring tide of modernity, passing down their knowledge from older to younger generations. It is my hope that they will continue do so for many years to come.

Do you want to meet the women of Piuray? Naya Traveler offers curated experimental journeys to Peru and other destinations with a strong focus on culture and local immersion.

This article originally appeared on Maptia and is republished here with permission.