The turns on the narrow mountainside road were so sharp, our tour bus would stop on the hairpin curves, back up, and then reposition itself to continue up the steep muddy slope. We were all holding our breath. We rode the bus until the road faded into a dusty path, and then we continued on foot up a steep, rocky trail to Isaac’s village, a few hundred feet higher than where we left our bus. The journey was long, and just a tiny bit terrifying, but no one’s enthusiasm flagged for a second. Step by step, we climbed our way to Huilac, where we had been invited to share in a pachamanca.

In Peru, a pachamanca (in Quechua, pacha means “earth” and manka means “pot”) is a traditional way that food is roasted and enjoyed. First, a large hole is dug in the ground, in which a fire is built. Stones are added, which are heated by the fire. Once the stones have reached the proper temperature, meat, potatoes, corn and vegetables are layered between the hot stones. Covered with more stones and hay, the heated pit slowly roasts the layered food. After an hour or so, the meal is removed from the pit and shared banquet style among family and friends.

The community of Huilac is where Isaac’s family lives. We had gotten to know him as he was the head cook for our catering crew as we crossed the Salkantay Pass. His family members showed us how they farmed, how they weave textiles, and how they lived. We also got to know the next generation of Huilac, their kids.

We were invited to share a bowl of chicha, and I have to say, it was the best I had in Peru. Sweet, sour, earthy and fruity, I was only able to drink a few sips before the clouds burst open and flooded our banquet. Heavy rains positioned themselves over Isaac’s farm for the rest of the day. But the stones in the pachamanca were already heated, and if we were going to eat, we had to get the food into the pit, in spite of the downpour.

Students, farmers, PhD’s, and kids all pitched in to get the pachamanca layered and loaded. Meanwhile, the less intrepid members of our group camped out in an adobe dwelling. (I scurried between camps with my camera.) Around 40 people huddled together next to the Huilac community’s gargantuan drum of fermenting chicha, and their muddle of guinea pigs. The Huilac kids played video games on the students’ smart phones, as we watched water pouring off the roof in sheets. So much rain.

It was determined that the pachamanca was ready. A piece of corrugated aluminum roofing appeared that acted as an emergency shelter while the same students, farmers, professors and kids unloaded the pachamanca, keeping our precious food warm and dry. Huge basins of roasted potatoes, oca, lamb, chicken, corn and fava beans began to appear on the low, makeshift banquet table in the adobe shed. We all ate too much. The pachamanca was an amazing success, I especially loved the roasted slices of cheese and pineapple.

As we said goodbye, I was so grateful for Isaac’s generosity of spirit, and kindness. The day felt a little like Thanksgiving. Some meals that fill more than your belly, and I am still savoring time the time we spent together around the table.

Decorated entrance pachamanca

A beautifully decorated entrance

Clay vessel of chicha corn beer

The entire group shared a single bowl of chicha before the pachamanca was dug. We were instructed to let a little chicha spill onto the ground for “pachamama” or the mother earth.

Serving the first bowl of chicha

Serving the first bowl of chicha

chicha puku bowl

Chicha is served in puku bowls. I am guessing that the center chamber is for stacking purposes, so the bowl doesn’t crack from stress fractures.

DIgging the hole for the pachamanca

Digging the hole for the pachamanca

Heating the stones for pachamanca

Heating the stones for the pachamanca. Building the stone pile is an art in itself, and some of our group observed some well placed pieces of rebar helped keep this pile in good shape. Ancient Incas would not have used rebar, but there were no ancient Incas at the pachamanca to criticize, so we carried on…

Oca, Camote and Blue Potatoes

Oca, Camote and Blue Potatoes

Potatoes, pineapple and plantains for pachamanca

Potatoes, pineapple and plantains

Woman at pachamanca

Standing by to help

building the pachamanca

My favorite grumpy little guy was Jorge, who you can see in the bottom right corner. He floated through the day like a little black cloud. Not sure what was on his mind, but it was dark.

Building the pachamanca

Adding the fava beans and oca to the top of the pachamanca

flower cross on pachamanca

The final touch on the pachamanca is placing a flower cross on the top of the heap. I was given the honor of placing this cross.

pachamanca kid with coke

The families had purchased bottled water and Cokes to resell to the students and visitors. I bought as many as I could and gave them to the little kids. Apologies to the parents of Huilac for amping up the tykes. But the kids were over the moon thrilled.

Women weaving at pachamanca

The women showed us how they weave. I bought as many pieces as I could

pachamanca soup course

First course was soup. It was still sunny at this point

unloading the pachamanca

Some of the students donned local ponchos, and dived in with the pachamanca veterans to unload our meal! Thank goodness that bit of aluminum roofing kept the food and people dry

Building the pachamanca

They use bits of recycled cardboard as oven mitts to move around hot stones and food. I had to laugh as this is the same technique we use when moving around pit roasted goat here at the ranch. Cardboard!

Roast potatoes for pachamanca

Roast potatoes and a bit of brown paper from roasting the meats. Heavy brown kraft paper from repurposed animal feed bags are used to insulate the meats in the pachamanca. Just like parchment, en papillote

Roasted Oca

Roasted oca (Oxalis tuberosa) tastes a bit like potato

soup plates pachamanca

Soup plates from our first course

Cook fire at pachamanca

One of the students on the trip is vegetarian, so Isaac prepared a torreja de verdura, or a pan fried vegetable patty, which you can see in the pan behind the poncho. I heard the torreja was delicious.

Steamed Fava Beans

Steamed Fava Beans

plantains from the pachamanca

Smoky sweet plantains from the top of the pachamanca

Making chicha beer

Making chicha – Corn is stone ground by hand, then placed in a filtering basket. I would bet this basket is made from passion fruit vines. Water is then poured over the ground corn, washing out the starches and sugars into the barrel underneath. After 18 days of fermentation, the chicha is ready!

Pachamanca lunch plate

Lunch is served!

pachamanca banquet table

Our banquet table! That’s the guinea pig corral in the background

Aji Amarilla sauce

Salsa de Aji Amarilla – After tasting this, I am guessing this was made with yellow aji paste, combined with store bought mustard and mayo. Creamy, tangy and spicy, it was awesome on roasted meats!

Roasted lamb from pachamanca

Roasted lamb, succulent and juicy as it had been wrapped in paper while roasted

Pachamanca cheese

Fresh cheese does not melt, and was my favorite smoky bite from the pachamanca

Baby in a sling

This cutie was named Melissa!

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