By the time that Francisco Pizarro and Diego de Almagro made contact with the fringes of the Inca Empire at Tumbes on Peru’s north coast in April of 1528, the Incas had already developed a vast agricultural portfolio, much of which had already been dispersed throughout the Andes. Often on the sides of steep mountains and with an unreliable climate, they managed to cultivate more than 70 different crops, almost as many as the farmers of Asia and Europe combined.
At the height of the empire, there were more than one million hectares of farming terraces draped across the Andes like stairs, even in areas with low rainfall, frigid nighttime temperatures, and poor soils. They absorbed the knowledge of their predecessors and built upon it, developing farming techniques like using the legume tarwi to boost the nitrogen in the soil or by planting corn, quinoa and squash together, so they could symbiotically protect and nourish each other, as well as irrigation canals that remain more efficient than ones being built today. They developed hundreds of varieties of potatoes, like the bitter huaña, which could resist hail, frost, droughts, and flooding and through a natural freeze-drying process it could become edible and stored for years. They would keep them – along with a rainbow of tubers, corn, and pseudo-grains – in thousands of roadside storehouses called qollqas that could feed marching armies as the empire stretched its arms as far away as Colombia and Argentina.
The conquistadors tried to eradicate all of that knowledge. To some extent they succeeded. They looked down upon the Incas, considering their farming methods rudimentary and their crops inferior. With the exception of potatoes, which became one of the most successful crops in the history of the world, and lima beans, they forced Andean people to plant non-native crops like wheat, onions, and carrots, which are still being used throughout the region. Today, more of the mountainside terraces are used for grazing rather than farming and the majority have been abandoned for centuries. Andean foodways were disrupted, yet, they didn’t disappear, and now, more than ever, with a changing climate that is causing temperature swings and fluctuations in seasonal rainfall, not to mention diminishing the glaciers that have fed crops for thousands of years, they warrant a closer look.
In the Inca heartland, the mountains and valleys that surround the former capital of Cusco, there is life. Indigenous farmers are finding ways to breed nutritious, hybrid tubers of colors so intense you question if you are looking at them through an Instagram filter. The demand for once forgotten crops like quinoa is so strong that farmers are dealing with the effects of their global popularity, while a forgotten mushroom and the culture that once surrounded it is being resurrected. Native varieties of cacao grown at lower altitudes are being sought out for their unique flavors and terroir driven wine and distillations are testing the limits of the highland soil. There has been an influx of talented chefs with who are opening restaurants that embrace Andean traditions while avoiding the alpaca selfies and pan flutes that the hordes of tourists that come for Machu Picchu thought were real.
This is where it all began. Where a small band of warriors in the thirteenth century would grow into a force, fueled by their agricultural systems and traditions, that would conquer a vast swath of the continent in just a few centuries and provide the world with a way to feed itself. Who knows? It just might happen again.
The Purple Potato Family of Huatata: A family of indigenous farmers in the high Andes are redefining the art of growing tubers.
Mapping the Flavors of Chuncho Cacao: In the high jungle outside of Cusco, chocolate maker and researcher Iván Murrugarra is helping turn a native Peruvian cacao called chuncho into one of the world’s great varieties.
The Biggest Threat to Andean Quinoa Farmers Isn’t Hipsters and Soccer Moms: It’s industrial quinoa.
Cusco’s Quintas and Picanterías: If you take a few steps off the beaten tourist paths, a few genuine lunch-only quintas and picanterías can be found.
Eat List: Cusco & The Sacred Valley: The best restaurants in Cusco, Peru and the Sacred Valley towns of Urubamba, Ollantaytambo, Pisac, Aguas Calientes, and Moray.