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5 January 2014. Those of you who read the blog regularly know that I was in South America 35 years ago. I did a four-month overland trip from Cartegena on the Colombian Caribbean coast all the way down to Punta Arenas at the end of Chile and back up through Argentina to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. It was a long time ago and I remember only a few highlights. One of those highlights was a market somewhere near Cusco in Peru. I remembered it for its colour and the uniqueness of the women’s clothing.

As we were doing our research for our travel in Peru I kept trying to find this market. Don mentioned Ollantaytambo, and I said that’s it! That’s the market! Then as we researched more about where to go in South America, the name of Otavalo in Ecuador came up. Once again – that’s it! That’s the market. It’s not Ollantaytambo, it’s Otalavo. Some time later, I think after we arrived in Cusco, I looked at a map and there it was – Chinchero. This time I knew I’d found it.

Chinchero is a small Andean village about 30 kilometres from Cusco. The market is held every day, but Sunday is the best and busiest day. The main road through Chinchero from Cusco takes you through an ordinary, somewhat unattractive, fairly typical Peruvian rural town. Not someplace you’d bother to stop really. But head along a side street and up the hill and things change. You start to get into the narrow cobble-stone streets and adobe buildings of an earlier time, but which are still very much in use today,


and quickly come to the famous market. I remember an open space crowded with women, all dressed in the most colourful beautiful traditional clothing, sitting on the ground selling their goods, ranging from fruits and vegetables to textiles, and weavings and other crafts. Chinchero is known for its exquisite, finely detailed weaving. It was a local market in the truest sense and there were very few tourists there. It has changed somewhat. It is now has palm leaf roofing. There are still many women in traditional dress. Some are dressed that way for tourists, some simply because that is the way they’ve always dressed. As in most cultures the majority of the men and the young women have largely given up on traditional dress, but not all of them. And now at the market there are also women from other villages who have their own unique style.

Chinchero market


and young women in the traditional dress of Chinchero.




In the Andes Mountains in Copacabana, Bolivia I asked someone why some women wore straw hats, some bowlers, and some fedoras. She said the hat (and presumably the rest of the outfit) denotes your heritage and which village you’re from. I imagine it is the same in Andean Peru. Apart from those dressed in the clothing of Chinchero, there were many women at the market wearing fedoras.





And if one is good, two is better


Seriously, I am immensely curious to know why she is wearing two hats but felt it would be rude to ask, and I may not have understood her answer. More likely than not it would have been in the Quechua language. Perhaps she was taking care of a hat for a friend.

Stove-pips hats were also in evidence, seen here at this market ‘restaurant’.


There was one lone man. He doesn’t look very happy.


Wandering up from the market I saw this:


and, of course, immediately wanted to explore further. We discovered it was a sacred ceremony of the Chinchero people held on the first Sunday of each month. Once again we’d lucked into a local ceremony, a wonderful blend of Catholicism and the ancient Andean worship of the earth mother Pachamama, and other nature gods. The people of the Andes are nominally Catholic and incorporate it into their traditional religion. The emphasis varies from region to region. In dry areas, such as Isla Del Sol in Lake Titicaca the emphasis is on worship of the Rain God, in areas of little sun the emphasis is on worship of the Sun God. The Sun God was the chief god of the Incas. All worship Pachmama, and almost always splash a little beer onto the ground for Pachamama before, and after, taking a drink.

Climbing further up we came upon this:


a group of about one hundred people, about equal numbers of men and women, seated in a long oval out the front of a small whitewashed adobe building where a priest was leading a religious ceremony. Leaning against the building were two large and elaborately decorated crosses.

After some time they all filed up the hill,



the men going first and carrying the crosses. They came to the church of Chinchero situated next to the wide-open space of the Plaza des Armas. The church was built in the early 1600’s on the Inca foundations of a palace that had been destroyed by the Spanish Conquistadors.

Waiting to enter the church



We had a quick peek inside the crowded church and decided this would be a good time to explore the adjacent Inca ruins. Once again we discovered the remains of the Inca Empire on a vast scale: the foundations of long gone buildings, and enormous agricultural terraces, many of which are still in use today. Wandering around for an hour or so, we hardly saw more than half of it.




Our timing was perfect. We returned just as the people were all spilling out of the church.


The first thing I noticed was this man with his elaborate floral headdress on what looks like one of the women’s hats over his own knitted hat.


Then I noticed there was also a younger man, and a boy, with floral ‘necklaces’. Later they all posed for official photographs.


And I also noticed two or three of the men emerged from the church carrying big bundles of spears. You can see three of them stuck into the ground in the photo above. It all made me mildly rueful that I hadn’t stayed to watch the ceremony in the church. It was clearly no ordinary Catholic Church service.

Eventually they filed back down to the small building where they had begun. The women all hugged each other, and then everyone had a big feast.

In the photo above, of a woman about to embrace the man with flowers on his hat, you can see there is a line around the crown on the woman’s hat. It is a flap that can be lifted. The women keep their money in there and then wear their hats turned inside out. Like this:


We noticed that the women didn’t wear their hats during the ceremony that took place where we initially discovered them, they did wear their hats while filing up to the church, and again coming back down, then either removed them or wore them inside out during the feast. I’d love to know the significance of it all, but alas Google would not give up these secrets.

Once again we experienced a full day rich with local culture. Some of it at the market was definitely a show for tourists, but the rest, the people of the region going about their normal business at the market, and the first-Sunday-of-every-month religious ceremony was a window into the regular lives of these people of the Andes.

Next post: The two biggest, and most famous, of the Inca archeological sites – Pisac, and the incomparable Machu Picchu.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted.
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.