Visit Peru’s new Potato Park in Cusco

By Andrew Moskalik

Getting a tour of Peru's new potato park, in the hills above the Sacred Valley.

Juan-Vito points to the low stone mound at our feet. ‘Legend says this was one of our first Quechua ancestors, turned to stone where he lay,’ he tells us through our interpreter. We’re catching our breath while hiking the high narrow trail that winds around Lake Kinsaqocha in Peru’s Potato Park. The view is spectacular, and we have it all to ourselves.

Parque de la Papa, Potato Park, is a new ecotourism attraction located in the hills above Pisac in Peru’s Sacred Valley.
In 2004, six communities joined together with the Lima-based International Potato Center to promote the preservation and sustainable use of potatoes, and use agriculture as a way to introduce visitors to the local culture.

Juan-Vito, our guide, works directly for the park. He grew up in the area, farming potatoes in the hillside fields. As we continue around the lake, he points out features significant in local lore and present-day agriculture. The hill looming above the lake is the nesting place of condors in legend. 

"Mother-in-law’s seat" cactus.

The low cactus growing near the lakeshore is known as ‘mother-in-law’s seat,’ for reasons which can be easily guessed. The poor mountain soil means the fields across the lake can be planted only once every seven years but the lake itself is lower than it was years ago, as global warming shrinks the glaciers feeding it. 
As we hike along the lakeshore, we scare up ibises, coots and two pairs of noisy Andean geese. Our interpreter, Carlos, is an avid birder and identifies them as they glide away.
After an hour of hiking, we completely circle Lake Kinsaqocha.
We arrived by van earlier that morning at the Potato Park Visitor’s Center in the community of Sacaca to a welcome of flower petals and traditional music. Women from a local collective gave a short presentation about the use of medicinal plants and sold their small-batch teas, soap, shampoo, and salves. After leaving the visitor’s center, we bounce along the road, heading north for Lake Kinsaqocha, and afterwards the community of Pampallaqta.

Showing farm tools.
At Papamanka restaurant.

In Pampallaqta we’re in for a delicious surprise: a blanket full of steaming baked potatoes of multiple varieties, along with a piquant green dipping sauce. We sampled each variety, purple and yellow and white. Surprisingly, the tastes differ noticeably.
After the taste test, we file into the dim storehouse where over 1000 different potato varieties are kept. The village mayor explains how different varieties are adapted to different elevations, soil conditions and water availability. It takes a master to distinguish which potatoes are best for which fields in which years; the mayor is that master. 
There were plenty of opportunities to ask questions about village life and agriculture. In fact, asking questions is a must. The tour through the park gives visitors a chance to interact with the local campesinos, and interaction. This experience is not for people who prefer their tours seen from a bus window, or spoon-fed to them in rehearsed sound-bites. Visitors are expected to actively participate in a dialogue, and the more questions we ask the more interesting and insightful the answers become.
Another villager demonstrate the use of traditional hand-tools in farming potatoes, after which the women display their locally-made, high-quality textiles. 
They are for sale, and we sort through them, admiring the distinctive patterns and the finished edging of the pieces. We select the best two. Juan-Vito and Carlos engage the village schoolchildren in a pick-up game of soccer, leaving us to bargain for ourselves in our broken Spanish. However, with liberal use of finger-counting, we agree on a price and it’s smiles all around.
Back in the van, Juan-Vito patiently answers our questions about the local textile patterns, as well as about techniques for planting and harvesting potatoes, and the history of the park. Potato farming at these altitudes is very sensitive to climate, we learn, and global warming has pushed the fields higher up the mountain slopes.

The day is drawing to a close. Our next stop is Chawaytire, where the newly-built Papamanka restaurant, run and staffed by local women, is located. Today’s menu consists of marinated alpaca, a quinoa casserole, and a salad of marinated greens, topped off with a pisco sour and potato pudding for dessert. The food is good and the portions are large; we relax in the airy restaurant and chat. After Papamanka, we return to Sacaca, say good-bye to Juan-Vito, and head back to Cusco.
The park is ideal for tourists who want to learn something about the people who live in the valley of the Incas today, not just 600 years ago. 
The people we met in the park are not professional guides, but real residents of local villages, sharing things important to them in their lives. And that’s what special about the Potato Park: it’s a glimpse of Peruvian life through the lens of a subject very important to the local people, not the preconceived expectations of tourists.

Andrew Moskalik is a research engineer and his wife Teresa is an artist. The two are neophyte South American travelers, but love experiences that combine learning with beauty, culture with experience, and the traditional past with the vibrant present.

This article first appeared in South American Explorer Magazine.