Generally speaking Peru has 2 seasons, wet and dry. The rainy season hits Peru every January – March, bringing clouds and rain daily. Usually, the rivers swell some, crops flourish, some of the mountain sides slide and the world rolls on. This year has been a bit of an exception. This rainy season has bought massive amounts of rain which has resulted in the country of Peru declaring a state of emergency. The Sacred Valley, where Ollantaytambo is nestled, has been among the hardest hit.
The usually impressive yet tranquil Urubamba river has been transformed into a muddy, frothing beast of a river, widening to take out houses and bridges and carrying load after load of boulders into the crop fields that line its sides. There have been hundreds of landslides as the mountain sides give way to the unrelenting rains that pour from the sky. Hundreds of hectares of crops were destroyed in minutes when the river broke its banks and it’s been reported that more than 3,000 people have lost their homes in the Cusco region. So far, damage has been estimated at nearly $15 million.
Ollanta sits on the banks of the Urubamba and has seen its fair share of damage, although it’s nothing compared to some of the other communities. We were without water or electricity for 4 days after the river smashed the lines and took out the bridge that connected Ollanta to the rest of the valley. Some houses that lined the river have been damaged or destroyed but all in all Ollanta has acted more as a relief center for communities more removed than anything else.
In the days following the worst of the damage volunteers at Awamaki teamed up with other NGO’s to take food, water, clothes and manpower to some of the worst hit communities. In some of the towns, entire streets have been taken out along with up to 80% of their crops. My host father went out to help some of his friends in the days immediately following and was reduced to tears as he recounted how his friends had no place to sleep, no food to feed their children, and no time to get even their potatoes out of the ground before the river either flooded the field, deposited massive amounts of rocks on the field, or both. Traditional houses here are made of adobe, a mix of clay, earth and water and therefore the walls simply disintegrate when barraged by water for extended periods of time. When I asked if they would use a different material to rebuild their homes my host father told me they don’t have the money for different materials and they simply have to wait out the rainy season in tents until they can rebuild their homes in the same adobe fashion.
Awamaki has been helping as much as we can but there’s little to do besides continue to deliver food and clothes and wait until the rainy season ends to start rebuilding houses, roads and clearing what used to be fields of crops of the rocks that now litter the countryside. The women we work with in the upper communities were not hit hard by destruction but the road that leads to their village has sustained serious and irreparable damage. The mountain walls slid, taking out entire sections of the road and bridges in their wake. In order to reach the village you can take a car about halfway up and then you walk about 4 miles, up to 13,000ft, sinking up to your ankles in mud at points and crossing temporary bridges made of eucalyptus (a little scary since eucalyptus is a fairly bendy tree which means you’re bouncing up and down a few feet above the still very grumpy and raging river below). The government has already begun trying to repair the road but it will probably be months before there’s a road solid enough for cars to use to reach the village.
The women are so incredibly resilient and often make the trek all the way to Ollanta and back in a day in order to restock on food and deliver weavings. Round trip, that’s about 20 miles with 4,000 ft elevation gain. And they do it all in sandals made of recycled tires and usually with a baby on their back. Really can make you feel like an incompetent human. We went up to Patacancha yesterday to speak with the women about ways to keep up their income, even more necessary with the expected food shortages and damage that was done to property. The tourists and women will meet halfway, in a little town called Huilloc, where they can still demonstrate traditional weaving and sell their textiles as well. We’re hoping to be able to take people all the way to the beautiful little village of Patacancha by high season but it all depends on the road.