Mercedes Qquerar Mayta wears the same clothes as her colleagues: a flowing black skirt embroidered with beautiful flowery designs and a crimson cardigan over a white blouse.
She dons a distinctive hat over her plaited pigtails. The soqque (pronounced So-Kay!) is not just for style; this red-trimmed headpiece indicates marital status. Flipped one way, you’re single; turn it the other and you’re spoken for. It's a custom that would’ve saved me undue embarrassment during my bachelor years.
I notice all the women here in the small village of Ccaccaccollo, Peru are wearing the hat in the same manner. “Yes,” Mercedes says, smiling, “we are all married, apart from one.”
We sit on half a tree trunk, cut and sanded to make a bench. Shaded from the sun under a straw canopy, Mercedes demonstrates her weaving prowess.
Working the foot treadles like professional rally drivers, she and another woman transform their looms into thrusting locomotives. Yellow and white fibres entwine together as the wooden shafts shift up and down—clack-clack, clack-clack, clack-clack. It’ll take two hours to make these scarves.
In another stall, a sign reading ‘100 per cent Alpaca,’ hangs above rows of rainbow-hued socks, gloves, jumpers, and ponchos. And there, embedded between piles of multi-colored clothes, lies a woollen hat that, for some reason, I feel the urge to purchase. In her native tongue, Quechua, Mercedes whispers something to another woman, who brings a bowl brimming with what looks like shrunken cauliflowers.
“We dye all the materials naturally,” Mercedes says. “This Qolle plant makes yellow.” She rubs it onto my notepad, proving its vibrant strength. Noticing my intrigue, Mercedes waves over another dish and presents it to me like a mother proudly opening a family album. “And we use these to make 28 types of red,” Mercedes says, letting tiny silver bullets sieve through her fingers. “They come from insects that bury into cactus plants.” She laughs at my question. “Yes, real insects.”
“We also use this dye to paint our faces at festivals and celebrations,” she sits up straight and imitates rubbing her cheeks.
You’ve most likely never heard of Ccaccaccollo. Usually, visitors to these vast interlocking Andean mountains, known as the Sacred Valley, are passing through from Cusco to Peru’s famous Inca city Machu Picchu.
Few ascend the muddied trail to this once-forgotten village to explore its unique market, and even fewer meet the 60 women keeping their 500-year-old Inca traditions alive. But the craft was as good as extinct—until about 10 years ago.
From about 9,000 annual visitors in 1992, Machu Picchu now attracts 2,500 every day, and 5,000 (unofficially) each day during high season. That’s a yearly profit of about $35 million from entrance tickets alone.
This economic explosion has seen the region’s capital, Cusco, transformed into a tourist hub, boasting glitzy hotels and expensive restaurants. And villages close to Inca ruins or sacred sites, like Ollantaytambo and Pisac, have also thrived thanks to the boom.
Communities such as Ccaccaccollo, meanwhile, have been forgotten. The profits from Machu Picchu just never reached it. Many youths were forced to abandon their indigenous traditions—including, fearing discrimination, their language Quechua—and relocate to tourist-heavy spots to sell trinkets, or in some cases, beg for money.
Mercedes left for Cusco when she was 12. “I was sent with my mother to sell crafts on the streets,” she says. “We lived in a room no bigger than that,” she points to a stable, housing two alpacas tied to a wooden post. “We had no water, electricity, barely any food.”
Mercedes scratches the back of her hand.
“Now, I have a son and daughter,” she says as a tear streams down her cheek. “I’m so happy they don’t have to do what I did.”
Noticing the imbalance that tourism helped create in the region, Planeterra set up the Women’s Weaving Co-op in 2005. The women of Ccaccaccollo re-learned weaving practices and, with the guidance of the foundation’s experts, now run a profitable business. All the women’s products are sold together, income shared and, vitally, traditions passed on to the next generation.
Every day, G Adventures brings 3-4 groups of visitors to watch weaving demonstrations, deck themselves in handmade alpaca garments or even stay overnight with the community.
On the drive back to Cusco, I pull from my rucksack the hat I bought from the market. Initially, I was drawn to its pumpkin color and the white llamas sewed into its soft fibers. Now, though, as I tear off the label that reads Hecha por Mercedes— Made by Mercedes—I realize it's a symbol of resilience from a culture that almost disappeared.