En español | A few miles from the Peruvian city of Pisac, on a mountain slope blanketed in mint-green vegetation, Sebastian Paco is pulling up potatoes. Shaking off loose soil, the spry farmer reveals a round tuber with dark purple skin. Further along the rows of potato plants, he yanks up an elongated, bright-red variety. And then a third—this time caramel-colored and double-headed. By the end of the season, Paco and his fellow yeomen expect to harvest more than 1,150 species of potatoes of unimaginable hues and shapes.
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This is Potato Park, a fertile 9,280-hectare agricultural enclave devoted to preserving the area’s unusually diverse native potato crops. An experiment in cooperative farming, the park was created in the late 1990s from the merger of six communities dedicated for centuries to potato farming. Now the 6,000 indigenous inhabitants share duties raising the potatoes and managing the park’s resources.
For visitors, the park is an open-air potato school, where guides point out some of the quirkiest species. The gnarly and dark huaahat—roughly translated from Quechua as “that which makes the daughter-in-law weep”—is presented to the bride-to-be at the wedding ceremony; her peeling skills become a kind of marital litmus test. The ohasito, small and bright purple, is said to act as a natural Prozac and is used to combat depression. Chillkas, small and brown-skinned, are so sweet that they’re reserved for birthdays and other celebrations.
“Potatoes are more than food in these parts,” says Alejandro Argumedo, director of Asociación Andes, a group helping to organize the park’s farmers. “They’re an integral part of our culture.”
It’s a culture that sprouted and thrives amidst majestic Andean peaks and crystal-blue lakes. The region, 20 miles northeast of the ancient Incan capital of Cuzco, or Cusco, is a potato lover’s wonderland, where visitors can see, taste, and trek through a vast bounty of native spuds never interbred with other species. Researchers have pinpointed Peru’s Lake Titicaca district, near the Bolivian border, as the place where the earthy tubers originated some 8,000 years ago.
For more intimate potato experiences, venture beyond the park and into any Peruvian city’s central market. The covered shopping area in Arequipa, the country’s southern breadbasket city, shows off the daunting range of Peruvian potatoes, with dozens of species stocked in barrels, jars, and other containers.
Then sample glorious potato dishes at almost any Peruvian restaurant. One favorite menu item: potatoes in huancaína sauce — boiled white spuds covered with a spicy topping of onion, pepper, cheese, and milk. Several restaurants in Lima, the country’s capital, offer unique takes. El Señorío de Sulco has mouth-watering options, led by a must-eat version of causa — a traditional recipe that is made with mashed potatoes and blends native yellow potatoes, spinach, herbs, and trout.
If you don’t want to go beyond Potato Park, try lunch or dinner at Papamanka, a new restaurant that specializes in—of course—potato dishes. A sample menu: soup made with corn and white potatoes, guinea hen served with boiled yellow potatoes, a drink made from white potatoes and fruit juices, and dessert composed of purple potatoes and fresh fruit.
To work off the rush of carbohydrates, hike the two scenic trails that wind through the park and track along the edge of the potato fields, allowing views of the planting, cultivation, and harvesting processes.
At the end of a day, a visitor feels closer to the earth, the farmers—and the potatoes. “We are parts of a whole,” says Paco, the potato farmer. “We measure our lives by potato harvests. When they fail, we do, too. When they are rich, so are we.”
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