The nearly bare room has unadorned white walls and twin beds with thick, alpaca wool blankets beneath polyester covers. A shower curtain hangs from a mop handle to screen off a small bathroom, but there’s no hot water or heat.
On a small table with a single chair is the one thing that turns these Spartan accommodations into a warm home for a night: four fresh red roses in a jar.
Luz Marina Bejar Romero cut them for me, her guest.
Luz Marina lives in the Sacred Valley of Peru, in the town of Ollantaytambo, a gateway for tourists heading to Machu Picchu. She and her 10-year-old son Rajoo live down a dusty street in a small home surrounded by a high wall. They keep chickens, guinea pigs, ducks and a noisy turkey.
I am here for a homestay. At about $20 for a night with three meals included, price might seem to be the draw. But for me, the attraction is an opportunity to live like a local for a night and get to know my host family.
I chat haltingly in Spanish with Rajoo about international soccer and his favorite player, Brazil’s Neymar. I find similarities between him and my own son, separated by language, a few years and several thousand miles. They both love soccer and sports, are budding naturalists and enjoy math. We talk about the animals that live in the region and he asks about my home. Luz Marina chimes in from the kitchen where she is making a simple, tasty dinner of rice and fried chicken. She’d killed the chicken just for me, prompting a twinge of guilt on my part.
Ollantaytambo — sometimes shortened to Ollanta — is filled with all types of lodging for the waves of tourists who come through en route to Machu Picchu: B&Bs, hippie hangouts, hotels. The small Andean town is located about 90 minutes by train from Machu Picchu. Many hiking treks also depart from Ollantaytambo for those walking the Inca Trail. At one end of town, sweeping terraces ascend dramatic cliffs where a temple fortress marks the last site of an indigenous victory over invading Spaniards. Temples, storehouses and other ancient structures dot the steep mountainsides surrounding the town.
As impressive as the old stone is, I’m more interested in contemporary local culture. It’s why I connected with Awamaki, an organization in Ollantaytambo that works to preserve traditions while building economic opportunities like the homestays.
Vivian Smith Baca, Awamaki’s sustainable tourism coordinator, describes the accommodations as rustic and says she hopes visitors learn what life is like in the mountains. “I’d like to hear it may not have been most warm or comfortable night of their lives, but they learned a lot,” she said. “To be able to spend time in someone’s house, is great.”
The group started in 2009 to help a weaving cooperative in Patacancha, a small Quechua village about an hour’s drive from Ollanta. Volunteers also run a storefront to help the women sell their vibrant textiles directly to visitors.
In addition local women lead weaving workshops where visitors can try their hand at spinning and dyeing yarn and weaving bracelets. A recent weaving class drew an eclectic group of expats living in Peru. For a few hours we struggled to hold a consistent pattern as a colorfully-clad local cheerfully helped us.
“The best thing about it is you get an entire experience from beginning to end of all to do with weaving, which is a great part of their lives. And, it’s just a little bit more than hopping in, doing something quick and going away,” said Chrissie Ellison, a British expat who teaches in Peru.
Spaniard Jose Manuel Rabanal brought his wife and two children for the tour. The kids made friends with village children and dove into making bracelets.
Rabanal had a bit more trouble with the loops of yarn tied to his waist. At last, his “professor” completed his bracelet, eliciting a cheer and warm hug from Rabanal.
“It’s been an amazing experience and these ladies, they deserve a recommendation, they do very professional work. I’ve seen some of their (weaving) patterns and I was amazed by them,” said Rabanal, showing off his new bracelet.
Smith says the tours have helped improve the lives of villagers. Added income has enabled many families to replace thatch roofs with tin. Families can afford to send their children to better schools in bigger towns and have added more fruits and vegetables to their diets.
“I’m happy. I’m an artisan, and when visitors come, I sell my textiles, crafts. I sell them my artisanal goods. If there were no visitors, I would not sell. I’m pleased,” said weaver Cristina Sullcapuma, speaking in Quechua.
Not far from the town and the weavers, Machu Picchu’s stunning views and awe-inspiring engineering offer a window into ancient Incan culture. But a visit to that world wonder is all the more meaningful with a glimpse of contemporary daily life, offered by the Incas’ descendants in Ollantaytambo.
If You Go…
AWAMAKI: http://awamaki.org/ . Non-profit based in Ollantaytambo, Peru, en route to Machu Picchu, offering homestays ranging from B&Bs to bare-bones dirt-floor lodging.