Guayabo National Monument in Costa Rica

Compared to the countries to the north (Mexico and Guatemala, for instance) and those in South America such as Peru, there are few archaeological remains of indigenous people in the Central American country of Costa Rica, where I lived from April 1976 until November 1980.

One exception is Guayabo, a Pre-Columbian site that was apparently occupied from about 1000 BC until 1400 AD, and then abandoned. Little is known about the people who lived at Guayabo, but it is believed to have been home to a population of more than 2000.

Guayabo National Monument lies about 18 km (and about 35 minutes) northeast of Turrialba in the Province of Cartago, and east of the capital city of San José, on the southeast slopes of Volcán Turrialba (that has been explosively active for the past few years).

Looking north to the summit of  Volcán Turrialba from CATIE where I lived in Turrialba from 1976-1980.

In January 1980 when Steph and I (and a very young Hannah) visited Guayabo, it took about two hours each way from Turrialba, in a 4×4 vehicle. Obviously, in the intervening years, the roads have improved.

It is Costa Rica’s largest archaeological monument, covering more than 200 hectares.  More has been uncovered since we visited in 1980. The various structures include mounds, staircases, roads, open and closed aqueducts, water tanks, tombs, petroglyphs, monoliths and sculptures. Some of its features show Mesoamerican influences, and others from South America, not surprising given Costa Rica’s location on the land bridge between North and South America

Carlos Humberto Aguilar

Artefacts from Guayabo had been studied in the late 19th century, but somewhat dismissed as insignificant. It took until 1968, when University of Costa Rica archaeology professor Carlos Aguilar Piedra (d. 2008) realised Guayabo’s true significance and excavations began.

More recent photo and artists impressions of the settlement can be seen in this post from the Two Weeks in Costa Rica blog.


Sky-high paddies . . .

No, this is not about inebriated Irishmen.

It’s a celebration of the ingenuity of human agricultural innovation in northern Luzon in the Philippines where, over the course of several centuries, local indigenous communities tamed the steep valleys to grow paddy rice in irrigated fields high in the mountains (about 1500 m above sea level) and, employing a sophisticated hydrology, to supply water to the terraces and drain them before harvest: the rice terraces of the Philippines Cordilleras, which received UNESCO World Heritage designation in 1995.


Rice terraces in Banaue, Ifugao Province

In March 2009, Steph and me, along with my staff in the Program Planning & Communications (DPPC) office at IRRI—Corinta, Zeny, Yeyet, Vel, and Eric—made a five day, 1000 km trip (see map) north to Ifugao and Mountain Provinces to see these world famous terraces. There is a cluster of five sets of terraces designated under UNESCO, all in Ifugao Province.


L to R: Corinta, Zeny, Rolly (IRRI driver), Vel, Yeyet, Eric, and me – enjoying a San Miguel sundowner near Sagada, Mountain Province.

A long road trip north
We knew it would be a day-long journey from Los Baños to Banaue. Although the first part of the journey to the Science City of Muñoz in Nueva Ecija Province took in divided highways, there were two main ‘obstacles’ in our path. First we had to cross the length of Manila from the South Luzon Expressway (SLEX) to the north one (NLEX), a part of the journey fraught with delays and congestion if you hit the traffic at the wrong time. I guess we didn’t fair to badly. Then, once off the main highways, there’s the ever-present frustration of following jeepneys and tricycles that potter along at their own speeds, oblivious to other road users, and which stop continually to pick up and drop off passengers. So even a short journey on a single carriageway road can take forever (or so it seems).

In Muñoz, we visited and had lunch at the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) which is the country’s leading research organization on rice, and IRRI’s principal partner for all-things-rice in the Philippines.

After a courtesy visit with the PhilRice Executive Director, we toured several laboratories, and the rice genebank that collaborates closely with the International Rice Genebank at IRRI. In fact, IRRI holds a duplicate sample of much of the PhilRice collection.

The majesty of Batad
From PhilRice it was a long climb of several hours into the mountains, and we arrived to our hotel in Banaue just as the sun was setting. It was an early start the next morning, because we visited the impressive rice terraces at Batad, more than an hour from Banaue by jeepney, and then another couple of hours downhill on foot to reach one of the villages from where there is an impressive vista over the amphitheater of terraces stretched across the hillside.


The rice terraces at Batad.

In 2006, Biggs Javellana, one of IRRI’s photographers at that time, flew over over Ifugao and took a superb collection of aerial photographs.


The rice terraces at Batad from the air. The photograph above was taken from the cluster of houses at center top in this photo.

In 2008, one of the main articles in Rice Today featured Biggs’ photos, and other older ones taken by eminent anthropologist Harold Conklin, Crosby Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Yale University, who had studied the Ifugao for many decades. Just click on the Rice Today cover below to read the article. You can also browse the original photos (and others) here.

Ifugao from the air (RT7)_Page_01

I wasn’t too concerned about the hike to the Batad terraces from the parking area, although it was a long way down.

I was more concerned about the climb back up. But having gone all that distance I wasn’t going to miss out, and with encouragement from Steph and everyone else (and a few helpful shoulders to lean on occasionally) I made it down and up again. And it was certainly worth the effort.

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On the north side of Banaue, on our way to Sagada, Mountain Province on the third day of our trip, we stopped to look back down the valley, and admire the beauty of sky reflected in the flooded rice terraces, recently planted with young seedlings. There really is a majesty in rice agriculture under these circumstances.

Along the route to Sagada there are other rice terraces, at Bay-Yo Barangay near Bontoc in Mountain Province, and just south of Bontoc itself. Sagada is surrounded by quite extensive terraces.

There’s lot to see in Sagada, including weaving for which the town is famous. And the indigenous ‘hanging burials’ with coffins left on the sides of limestone cliffs, or piled up in the many caves that dot the landscape.

The return journey to Los Baños took 17 hours, including comfort stops on the way, lunch in Baguio and dinner near Manila. I think we were all relieved to be back home, but very contented that we had made the trip. It took Steph and me 18 years almost before we actually made the effort.


The heritage of rice agriculture in the Philippine Cordilleras
But what is also special about the rice terraces of Ifugao (and the other sites) is that they are still farmed in the same way, and the communities still practice many of the same rice ceremonies and rituals they have for generations. But rather than me try to explain what this is all about, I will leave it to Aurora (wife of my good friend and former IRRI colleague Gene Hettel) who hails from Banaue and is a proud member of the Ifugao community, to explain in her own words in this video (made by Gene).

Heirloom rice varieties
The farmers also plant traditional rice varieties that they have also cherished for generations. With the pressures of modern agricultural technologies and new varieties, there is always a danger that these varieties will be lost, notwithstanding that they are safely conserved in the PhilRice and IRRI genebanks (and duplicated in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault). If the farmers stop growing them these rice varieties will disappear from everyday agriculture. They have to make a living, and although most varieties are grown for home use, there has recently been an effort to bring them to a wider rice-consuming public. With the Philippine Department of Agriculture, IRRI has initiated an heirloom rice project that aims ‘to enhance the productivity and enrich the legacy of heirloom or traditional rice through empowered communities in unfavorable rice-based ecosystems.’ Details of the project can be found here.


Around the world . . . in 40 years. Part 1: Home is where the heart is.

The other day I was using TripAdvisor on Facebook to see how many countries I’d visited over the past 40 odd years, and was surprised to discover that it’s almost 90. Many of these visits were connected with my work one way or another. However, I’ve lived in three countries outside the UK:

  • in Peru from January 1973 to April 1976, and November 1980 to March 1981, with the International Potato Center (CIP), at its Lima headquarters; 
  • in Costa Rica, from April 1976 to November 1980, leading CIP’s regional program at that time, located at CATIE in Turrialba; and
  • in the Philippines, from July 1991 to April 2010, with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños, about 65 km south of Manila.

In this series of stories, I will recall many of the places I’ve visited, and my impressions. In this first part, I focus on Peru, Costa Rica, and the Philippines. I’ll add more images to all posts as and when I am able to digitize the many slides that I have in my collection.

First foreign forays
But first things first. Until 1969, however, I had never been outside the UK. In September that year, I joined a group of Morris and sword dancers from Newcastle-upon-Tyne to participate in a bagpipe festival at Strakonice in Czechoslovakia. It was a novel experience for me to travel across Holland and southern Germany by road, seeing new sights (and sites). But more of this in another post.

In 1972, I attended a genetic resources conference organized by EUCARPIA – the European Association for Plant Breeding Research, held at Izmir on the Aegean coast of Turkey, south of Istanbul – quite exotic. Together with a group of other students from Birmingham, I stayed at an olive research institute at Bornova, some miles outside Izmir, rather than at the comfortable hotel in the city center where the conference was being held. One thing I do remember was the daily breakfast – a plate of stuffed olives, some goat’s milk cheese, crusty bread, and a glass of tea. I was a much fussier eater in those days, and was not taken with olives – quite the reverse today! We did get to visit the ancient ruins of Ephesus – a magnificent city. I returned to Izmir in the late 70s while I was working for CIP, and there was a regional meeting about potato production.

In January 1973 I moved to Lima, Peru, fulfilling an ambition I’d had since I was a little boy. Peru was everything I hoped it would be. It’s a country of so many contrasts. Of course the Andes are an impressive mountain chain, stretching the whole length of the country, and reaching their highest point in Nevado Huascarán (shown in the photo above), at over 22,000 feet.  Then there’s the coastal desert along the Pacific Ocean, which is bisected every so often with rivers that flow down from the mountains, creating productive oases, wet enough to grow rice in many places. And on the eastern side of of the mountains, the tropical rainforest drops to the lowlands of the Amazon basin, with rivers meandering all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, thousands of miles away.

Lima is a huge city today, with more than 8 million inhabitants; in 1973 it had perhaps a million or so. Situated in one of the world’s driest deserts, there is always a water problem. Goodness knows how the city authorities cope; it was a big problem 40 years ago. I first arrived to Lima in the dead of night and was whisked away to my pensión. It was a bit of a shock the following morning seeing all the bare mountains surrounding the city, even though I was staying in one of the more leafy and green suburbs, San Isidro. Flying into Lima in daylight, and driving into the city from the airport one is confronted by the reality of poverty, with millions now living in the shanty towns or pueblos jovenes that spread incessantly over the desert and into the coastal foothills of the Andes.

But Lima is a vibrant city, and the country is full of exquisite surprises. In 1973 there was a left-wing military junta governing Peru, and although there have been many democratically-elected governments since (and some more military ones as well) there was the major threat from terrorist groups like Sendero Luminoso and Tupac Amaru in the 80s that made travel difficult around the country. Between 1973 and 1975 when I lived there it was relatively safe, and my work took me all over the Andes, collecting potatoes for the germplasm collection at CIP, and carrying out research in farmers’  fields.

I visited Cuzco and Machu Picchu on a couple of occasions, and the market town of Pisac, as well as many of the archaeological sites on the Peruvian coast. Although I have traveled across the Nazca plain by road, and could see evidence of the famous lines even at ground level, I never did get to see them from the air – one ambition yet to be fulfilled. Getting to know Lima is a must, and visiting the many museums. The skyline of the second city Arequipa, in the south of the country is dominated by the volcano El Misti. And no visit to Peru is complete without a trip to Puno and Lake Titicaca at over 4000 m above sea level. Take your oxygen bottle, or try the mate de coca (an infusion made from the leaves of the coca plant) to cope with the altitude.

My work with IRRI took me back to Peru on several occasions in later years. While at Birmingham University in the 80s I had also been part of a four man review that traveled around Peru for three weeks looking at a seed potato project. I also had a research project with CIP, and on a couple of visits, I also did some work on cocoa, traveling to some native cocoa sites near Iquitos on the Amazon River, and also at Tarapoto. Unfortunately, a cocoa germplasm project I was advising the UK chocolate industry about, and some of my potato research, was affected by the activities of the terrorist groups mentioned earlier, and the drug dealers or narcotraficantes.

My wife and I were married in Lima in October 1973.

Click to read all my Peru stories, my CIP stories, and view a web album of Peru photos taken in 1973 and 1974.

Costa Rica
After three years in Peru, we moved to Costa Rica, one of the most beautiful countries in the world. The continental divide, dotted with a number of active volcanoes, runs the length of the country, with tropical lowlands on the east Caribbean coast, and drier lowlands on the west Pacific. We lived in Turrialba, some 70 km or so, east of the capital San José. Our elder daughter Hannah was born in Costa Rica.

The volcanoes are spectacular, and my potato work took me almost every week to the slopes of the Irazú volcano, the main potato growing area of the country, and about 50 km from Turrialba. It dominates the horizon from San Jose, and its most famous recent activity was in 1963 on the day that President Kennedy landed in San José for a state visit. That eruption lasted for more than a year. But the volcanic activity is the basis of deep and rich soils on the slopes of the volcano.

Costa Rica has had an interesting history. After a short civil war in 1948 the armed forces were abolished, and the country invested heavily in social programs and education. It also established a nation-wide network of national parks, and has one of the biggest proportions of land dedicated to national parks of any country. In April 1980 Steph, Hannah and me were staying at the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve when we received the sad news of my father’s death. We’d gone to Monteverde to try and see the resplendent quetzal – and how lucky we were. Magnificent!

In the 1970s, Costa Rica was a very safe place to live. San José was a small city; it had only about 250,000 inhabitants while we lived there. And the police did not carry any sidearms or other automatic weapons – only screwdrivers. Screwdrivers? Yes, to remove the plates from illegally parked cars! In the late 70s, when the Sandinista Revolution against the Somoza government was at its height in Nicaragua, many refugees came south over the border. And crime rates – along with house rentals – climbed steeply.

In the mid-90s I had opportunity to return to Costa Rica on a couple of occasions, and went hunting wild rices in the Guanacaste National Park in the northwest of the country, close to the frontier with Nicaragua. Ecotourism is a major activity, and with so many national parks to visit and a wealth of wildlife to observe, Costa Rica offers plenty for those interested in the outdoors.

The Philippines
Having spent a decade teaching at the University of Birmingham in the UK after leaving CIP, I began to get itchy feet towards the end of the 80s, and was offered a position at IRRI from July 1991. I moved then, and my family (my wife and two daughters, Hannah and Philippa) made the move just after Christmas.

Even today the Philippines is the easiest country to travel in – especially if you don’t have much free time. First of all, it’s spread over more than 7000 islands. But travel by road can be slow, and extremely frustrating. It certainly tested my patience for long enough – and I was driving mainly between Los Baños and Manila. For all the almost 19 years we lived in the Philippines, there were always roadworks on the road to Manila – now completed – and the highway also connects the port of Batangas on the south coast of Luzon with Manila. The volume of traffic is horrendous, and on the open road the slow-moving (and frequently stopping) tricycles and jeepneys don’t help with the traffic flow.

And because we took our annual home-leave in the UK, there wasn’t much other time for getting to know the Philippines., even though my wife and I lived in Los Baños for longer than we’d lived anywhere else. Each year we’d depart on home-leave and going home. On the return we would be coming home. Our home was provided by IRRI in a gated community some 10 minutes drive from the research center. It was built in the early 60s on the slopes of dormant volcano Mt Makiling. Los Baños is the thriving Science City of the Philippines, home to the Los Baños campus of the University of the Philippines (UPLB) and other important scientific research institutes, besides IRRI.

Our daughters attended the International School in Manila (ISM), and were bused into Manila early each day. By 1999, Philippa’s senior year, the school bus would leave IRRI Staff Housing at 0430 in order to reach the Makati campus by the start of school at 0715. The children would return by about 1630 or so, relax for a while, have dinner, then get down to homework, studying sometimes as late as midnight. Then up again at 0400. We were all glad when Philippa graduated. In 2002 ISM moved to a new (and more easily accessible) campus, several years after Hannah and Philippa had left, and a move that had been promised since about 1994.

Steph and I would get away to the beach as often as possible, about once a month. She would snorkel, and kept very detailed records over 18 years of the fish and corals that she observed in front of Arthur’s Place in Anilao, Batangas. I learned to scuba dive in 1993, and until we left the Philippines, that was my main hobby. Here are two more underwater videos from Anilao:

Finally in March 2009, we had the opportunity of visiting the world-famous rice terraces in the Ifugao province north of Manila. We went with a group of staff from my office. The journey both ways was tedious to say the least, taking almost 17 hours door-to-door on the return, with stops, even though the distance is less than 500 km. But it was worth it. The terraces are spectacular, and although it’s necessary to walk into the terraces at Batad, it’s well worth the effort. We stayed in Banaue, then traveled on to Sagada to see the famous caves with ‘hanging coffins’ and the local weaving. It was a short trip, but very memorable. Click here to open a web album.

We unfortunately did not get to see many of the fiestas that abound in the Philippines. But what we did see – every day – were the smiling faces of the lovely Filipino people. Yes, the Philippines was where our hearts were, for almost 19 years.

I’ll be posting other stories about the countries and places I’ve visited over the past 40 years, so please check from time-to-time.

Indiana Me . . . temples in the jungle

Over my career, I was very fortunate to be able to combine business trips with short visits to some of the world’s iconic heritage sites, or take time out for a quick vacation in the region without having to fly half way round the world.

When we lived in Peru, I visited Machu Picchu a couple of times; almost anywhere you travel in Peru you are immersed in archaeology. In Central America we had the opportunity to visit the pyramids of Tikal in Guatemala (and I hope to post photos from here once I have digitized the slides), and also those at Teotihuacan, just north of Mexico City. But one of the most impressive sites must surely be the huge temple complex at Angkor Wat in Cambodia. And we had the chance to visit there in December 2000.

On flights from Bangkok to Manila I have often overflown Angkor Wat, and even from 30,000 feet its extent looks truly impressive (even if there is also evidence over the whole countryside of the intense bombing that Cambodia suffered over several decades of war).

Angkor Wat is located in northwest Cambodia, near the town of Siem Reap, and near the Tonlé Sap, a huge seasonally flooded lake that acts as an overflow for the Mekong River during its flooding.

While we refer to Angkor Wat as a ‘site’, there are in fact many temples and other complexes covering a large area, apparently about 200 square kilometers. The beauty of the stone carvings, the iconic stone faces pointing in four directions, and the wonder of the forest reclaiming the various temples all add to the mystery of Angkor.

I’m not going to attempt to describe in detail what Angkor Wat has to offer, but a visit there has to last more than just one day. We stayed there for three nights, and although we were able to many of the sites and temples, there are plenty more mysteries to uncover, hidden by the jungle that has reclaimed its dominance over the area.

Some of the temple complexes, like the Angkor Wat site itself and Bayon are large with many beautiful buildings to explore, others are much smaller, comprising just a couple of buildings or so. Just click on these photos to open web albums (scanned images rather than original digital photos).

When we visited, it was possible to move freely around all the sites, look inside the temples, climb the towers – and really explore. While it was quite busy in some sites, we did manage to get away from the bulk of the tourists. But the increasing number of visitors to Angkor Wat is now giving rise to concerns, as this recent story on the BBC website discusses.

Settlements at Angkor Wat stretch back thousands of years, but much of what we see today was constructed from about the 11-12th centuries onwards, reaching its peak a couple of centuries later. I’ve read estimates of more than 1 million people were involved in building the temples. And for an ex-rice scientist like myself, that begs the question about the extent and productivity of rice agriculture that was required to keep this huge population fed.

In addition to the Angkor Wat and Bayon sites, these are the other sites you can ‘visit’:

Let me finish with a quote from the Introduction in Dawn Rooney’s guidebook to Angkor Wat [1]: The temples startle with their splendour and perfection, but beyond the emotions they evoke lie complex microcosms of a universe steeped in cosmology. While a thorough understanding may be out of reach for many, the monuments’ profound beauty touches everyone . . . 


[1] Rooney, D (1997). Angkor – an Introduction to the Temples. Passport Books, Lincolnwood (Chicago), Illinois 60646-1975.
ISBN: 0-8442-4766-9

Early morning cup of tea . . .

Tea – the elixir of life.

It was just before 6 am today. I was lying in bed, enjoying my early morning cup of tea, and waiting for the news bulletin on Radio 4 on the hour.

And I got to thinking about this photo of tea pickers in the highlands of Kenya that my friend Luigi had posted on Facebook yesterday. Tea is a very important crop in Kenya, and it now ranks as the world’s third largest producer, after China and India, with Sri Lanka and Turkey coming fourth and fifth, respectively. I’ve seen tea cultivation in Sri Lanka (above Kandy) and Indonesia (in the hills east-southeast of Bogor).

Tea is not, however, a crop that is native to Kenya, having originated in east Asia. And the same could be said for most of the plants we consume today. Just a quick survey of country of origin of fruits and vegetable on sale in supermarkets here in the UK demonstrates the global system of food production, and how far from their original regions of cultivation many of them have spread – beans from Kenya, asparagus from Peru, etc. The potato is referred to in the USA as the ‘Irish potato’ (presumably to distinguish it from the sweet potato, to which it is not related at all; or was it because of the dependence of the Irish in the 19th century on this one crop that led to mass emigration, most often to the USA, during and after the potato famine of the mid-1840s), but comes from the Andes of South America, with its greatest diversity in southern Peru and northern Bolivia. It’s now a major crop worldwide. Maize originated in the Americas but is a major staple today in many parts of Africa, although the major production area is the Corn Belt of the USA. Wheat originated in the Middle East, but major wheat-producing countries are the USA and Canada, Australia, and Russia. Rice is still the staple of Asia where it originated – probably in several centers of domestication.

In the 1980s, when I was on the faculty at the University of Birmingham, I taught a graduate course on crop evolution. I guess this interest in and research on crop origins had been instilled in me by Jack Hawkes, former head of the Department of Plant Biology at Birmingham (and my PhD supervisor), and I continued my work on potatoes for more than 20 years before moving on to rice.

One of the reasons why I find the study of crop evolution so fascinating is that it is a synthesis of so many seemingly unrelated disciplines: the biology of the wild and domesticated plants themselves, their genetics and molecular biology, ecology, and use plant breeding and farming, as well as their history and archaeology, social context, and economics over the past 10,000 years or so since the beginnings of agriculture in the Middle East, in China, and in parts of South and Central America. An interesting introductory text for anyone interested in the origins of crops is Evolution of Crop Plants (1995) edited by Joe Smartt and Norman Simmonds.

Today, the application of molecular techniques is helping to unravel further the ancestry of crop plants, showing linkages to their related wild species, and opening up many opportunities of using these genetic resources for the benefit of farmers and consumers alike, making the crops we depend on more productive, climate resilient, and pest and disease resistant.

In the 1980s the two BBC TV series of Geoffrey Smith’s World of Flowers documented the origins and history of many of the flowers that we grow in our gardens today – roses, tulips, daffodils, fuchsias, dahlias, and lilies, to name just a few. Based on the success of these programs, I did contact the series producer and sent in a prospectus for a series of programs about the origins of crop plants.

I could imagine a program on potatoes, for example, that would take the viewer to the Andes of Peru, looking at indigenous potato cultivation, linking it to the origins of Inca agriculture and the archaeology of the coastal cultures, the wealth of diversity of more than 200 wild species in the Americas, how these are conserved in major genebank collections in the USA and Europe (as well as at the International Potato Center in Lima), and how this diversity is used in potato breeding. No longer would we take these crops for granted! And the same could be done for wheat and barley – the cereal staples of the Middle east, with its wealth of archaeology in Turkey, Syria and Iraq, maize in Mexico and coastal Peru, and many other examples.

I even spent some time with a BBC producer who visited me at Birmingham – but to no avail. While they liked the idea, there was no budget to do the programs justice. I could just imagine Sir David Attenborough waxing lyrical – in his inimitable way – about our food and where it comes from. Who knows – it might happen one day (but Sir D is an unlikely presenter given his age).

Perú – país precioso

I can’t remember why I had always wanted to visit Peru. All I know is that since I was a small boy, Peru had held a big fascination for me. I used to spend time leafing through an atlas, and spending most time looking at the maps of South America, especially Peru. And I promised myself (in the way that you do when you’re small, and can’t see how it would ever happen) that one day I would visit Peru.

Just a few months after I had begun my graduate studies at the University of Birmingham in October 1973, my head of department, Professor Jack Hawkes, returned from a 2-month trip to Bolivia to collect wild potatoes, and had spent time in Lima with Dr Richard Sawyer who became the first Director General of the International Potato Center (CIP) in October 1971. He was looking for someone to work at CIP for one year from September 1971 to look after a large collection of native Peruvian potato varieties while a young Peruvian took his MSc degree at Birmingham.

To cut a long story short, I didn’t go in 1971, but landed in Lima at the beginning of January 1973 after a long and gruelling flight on B.O.A.C. from London via Antigua (in the Caribbean), Caracas, and Bogotá.

Until I was able to rent an apartment, I stayed in the Pensión Beech (a boarding house) in San Isidro for about three weeks. Arriving at night, I was driven through the darkness to the pensión and hadn’t a clue where I was or where I was going. The following morning I woke to a bright summer’s day, and was amazed at the beauty of Lima gardens, particularly the stunning bougainvilleas that seemed to be growing everywhere, as well as bright red poinsettia shrubs (small trees actually), a plant I had only ever seen growing as a pot plant!

Eventually, I found a one bedroom apartment in the center of Miraflores, next to the Todos supermarket (I wonder if it’s still there?), and then, once my wife had joined me in July 1973 (we were married in the Municipalidad de Miraflores in October 1973) we rented a 12th floor apartment on Av. Larco near the corner with Av. Benavides (there was an ice cream parlor on the ground floor – 20 Sabores). But the 12th floor is not ideal place to be when an earthquake struck, as they did with increasing regularity after the massive quake of October 1974 (measured at 8.1 on the Richter scale at La Molina where I was working, and lasting for more than 2 minutes).

Peru is a country of amazing contrasts. Just click here to view a web album of photos I took during 1973.

First there is the geography: the long coastal desert stretching north from Lima to the border with Ecuador, and south to Chile where it merges with the Atacama Desert. It hardly ever rains on the coast, but the sea mists that are prevalent during the months of July-September do provide sufficient moisture in some parts (lomas) to develop quite a rich flora. The Andes mountains take your breath away with their magnificence. The foothills begin just a few kilometers from the coast, and the mountains rise to their highest point in Huascarán (6,768 m), the fourth highest mountain in the western hemisphere.

And to the east of the Andes is the selva, the vast plain of tropical rainforest, dissected by huge rivers, flowing north towards the River Amazon, and, thousands of kilometers later, eastwards to the Atlantic Ocean.

Second, Peru is a country of cultural diversity and a rich archaeology. Everyone has heard of the Lost City of the Incas, Machu Picchu, ‘discovered’ by Yale professor Hiram Bingham in 1911. But throughout the country there are many sites that demonstrate the long cultural development of different groups, especially along the coast oases where rivers flowing westwards from the Andes brought life-giving water to the coastal desert. And there is also considerable evidence for the range of plants and animals that these peoples domesticated: the potato, beans, cotton, peanut, and llamas to name but a few. Fortunately this rich history has been preserved and Lima boasts some of the best museums in the world.

From north to south, different peoples wear different dress. In Cajamarca, the typical dress is a tall straw hat and a russet-colored poncho. In central Peru, the women wear hats like the one shown in the photo on the right. The south of Peru, around Cuzco and Puno is more traditional still.

Peru is also a country of great handicrafts – from the leather goods made  in Lima, to the carved gourds or mate burilado, clay figures of farmers or religious effigies, to a wealth of brightly colored textiles.

Lastly on this short celebration of Peru, I have to mention some of my favorite food – and I’ve learned that in recent years Lima has become one of the top gourmet capitals of the world. If I had to mention just a couple of dishes they would be ceviche (fish marinated in lime juice and hot chili peppers, and served with sweet potato) and papa a la huancaina, made from sliced yellow potatoes, and boiled eggs, and covered with a spicy sauce.

And one of the great ways of serving food is the pachamanca. Of course, all washed down with a good Peruvian beer – Cusqueña, Arequipeña, or Pilsen Callao (my favorite). But I have to mention my favorite drink: pisco sour. Whoever invented that deserves a medal! The only drink better than a pisco sour is a second one.

I was privileged to live in Peru for three years, and have visited there many times since. My work took me all over the country to collect native varieties of potatoes, and to carry out field studies on how farmers adopt and use different varieties. I never lost the excitement of arriving in Lima and waiting to get out into the wild country.

Lima is an enormous city now. It’s been more than a decade since I was last there. In 1973 it seemed there was hardly enough water for a population of about 1.5 million if my memory serves me well. The latest data indicate that Lima now has a population in excess of 9.3 million. I’m told the traffic situation is horrendous.

Certainly the road network around the country has improved – much of my time was spent on dirt roads, hugging the sides of mountains, with precipices up to 1000 m. Not the sort of place to take your eyes off the road.

Given the opportunity I would go back to Peru tomorrow. Although I have seen a good deal of the country, there’s still more to see. I traveled by road, by air, on foot, and on horseback. I slept in schools and a post office, and been eaten up by fleas in a hotel in northern Peru. But I enjoyed (almost) every minute – the friendliness and friendship of Peruvians, and the wonderful paisajes (landscapes), and its illustrious history.

The agricultural terraces of Cuyo Cuyo, southern Peru

In early 1974 I travelled to southern Peru with a taxonomist friend from the University of St Andrews, Dr Peter Gibbs.

Peter and I had become friends when he visited the International Potato Center (CIP) in 1973. At that time Peter was supervising the Master’s thesis of a Peruvian student, Martha Vargas (daughter of renowned Peruvian botanist Professor César Vargas from Cuzco). At CIP he wanted to see if he could hitch a ride to the south of Peru on any germplasm collecting trips planned to that region, so that he could make some collections of oca (Oxalis tuberosa), a minor Andean tuber crop.

Oca tubers

As it happened, I was looking to carry out some ethnobotanical studies on the different potato varieties grown by farmers as part of my PhD research – but where would be a good site?

Peter showed me an old scientific paper (from 1951) by WH Hodge from the University of Massachusetts [1] about the cultivation of different tuber crops, including potatoes and oca, in the village of Cuyo Cuyo, located about 140 km northeast of Puno (69˚50’W, 14˚50’S) at the head of the Sandia Gorge. Well, this seemed like too good an opportunity to miss, and we agreed to pool our resources for the trip.

The drive south in a small Land Rover – down the coastal desert Panamericana highway, across the Nasca plain, climbing to Arequipa, and even higher to Puno – took three days. After resting up in Puno (next to Lake Titicaca), and getting used to the 3827 m altitude, we set off for Cuyo Cuyo. Dropping down from the altiplano at well over 4000 m, Cuyo Cuyo lies at an altitude of about 3300 m. Below the village the valley drops quickly towards the ceja de la montaña – literally ‘eyebrow of the mountain’ – where the humid air of the rainforests below rises up east-facing valleys to form cloud forest.

No-one in Cuyo Cuyo was expecting us, so there were quite a few surprised faces when these two gringos drove into town. Cuyo Cuyo was not on the ‘research-tourist’ trail in 1974, but many researchers have visited Cuyo Cuyo since I was there (see below), and there are quite a few publications now about the socio-economic systems and agriculture there.

Peru 110

Under these circumstances (as on other germplasm collecting trips) I’d found it useful to find the local mayor (alcalde) or schoolteacher and explain what we were up to and have them in turn explain to the local farmers and their families (in Quechua). On a previous trip to the north of Peru in May 1973, a local schoolteacher (rather drunk at the time as we’d arrived on his village’s fiesta) hailed me as a representative of La Reina Isabel (HM The Queen), promptly calling a village meeting, and asked me to give a ‘loyal address’. At that time I had fairly rudimentary Spanish, but it didn’t matter. After a few words of congratulations for the fiesta, every person in the hall (maybe 200 or so) came and shook me by the hand!

Peter and I set up camp, so-to-speak, in the local post office where we could sleep, brew the odd cup of tea (there was a small café in the village where we could eat), and gather our specimens together, including a rudimentary drier for the extensive set of oca herbarium samples that Peter intended to make. But more of that particular story later.

The sides of the Cuyo Cuyo valley are covered with the most wonderful system of agricultural terraces, called andenes, which must have been constructed centuries ago, in Inca times, and have been cultivated ever since. Farmers have different terraces dotted around the valley, and when I was there, at least, farmers were still using a communal rotation system. Thus in one part of the valley the terraces were covered in potatoes (year 1 after a fallow), and oca (years 2 and 3), barley or beans (year 4), or fallow (years 5-8) elsewhere. Sheep are corralled on a terrace prior to planting potatoes, and their urine and dung used as fertilizer. Whether, almost 40 years later, this remains the case I do not know.

But this system of potato and oca cultivation allowed me to make some detailed studies of the diversity of potato fields in terms of varieties grown and their genetic make-up (chromosome number). I eventually published this work in Euphytica in 1980 [2]. And there’s a story about that publication that’s also worth repeating, a little later on.

Since the terraces are quite small, only the native foot plough is used to till the soil (see my earlier post about potatoes). I discovered that different varieties were apparently suited to the growing conditions in different parts of the valley. The most highly prized varieties with a high dry matter content, termed harinosa or floury, were grown on the upper terraces where there was little chance of flooding. Whereas on the valley floor, which was flooded from time-to-time, farmers grew varieties which tended to be more ‘watery’ and used preferentially in soups.

Another very interesting discovery, for me at least, was seeing freshly harvested potatoes dipped in a clay paste after cooking. This practice, known generally as geophagy, has been reported from many societies, as well as observed in animals and birds.

Farmers told me that freshly harvested potatoes (but not the so-called bitter potatoes – see below) tended to be somewhat ‘peppery’ (that’s the best word I can find to describe the sharp taste of some varieties), and that dipping the tubers in the clay paste helped not only with digestion but also reduced the sharpness of the taste. One of the farmers showed me the site where they collected lumps of clay that were then ground to a fine powder and mixed with water. What’s interesting, however, is that I did not find any frost tolerant, bitter potatoes (Solanum juzepczukii or Solanum curtilobum) that have to be processed to make chuño before they can be eaten.

After two or three days, Peter and I felt that we’d done sufficient field work there, and headed north towards Cuzco to visit some additional sites. From there we returned to Lima by air, leaving the Land Rover behind for a CIP colleague.

But what about all those oca herbarium specimens? Despite our best efforts, we had great difficulty in drying the specimens that Peter collected, for two reasons. It was quite wet during our visit to Cuyo Cuyo, and all the samples were covered in moisture even before we attempted to turn them into dried herbarium sheets. Furthermore, oca has rather fleshy stems that just wouldn’t dry. Even after a couple more weeks of drying in Lima, Peter packed up what he had and posted them to St Andrews. After he arrived home, he found that his herbarium specimens were not only alive, but had begun to sprout – so he promptly planted them all in his university glasshouse, and had a range of living samples to use in his study of pollination mechanisms!

And what about the ethnobotany paper that I referred to earlier? I completed my PhD in 1975, and began to write-up my work for publication in scientific journals. I chose the Wageningen-based journal Euphytica for two papers submitted in 1977 on triploid potatoes and crossability studies, and Economic Botany for the Cuyo Cuyo paper. Well, that paper was finally accepted by mid-1977, and I waited for it to appear in print (by that time I’d already moved to Costa Rica and was busy with other potato research).

I didn’t hear anything for many months, but then, out of the blue, I received a letter from the new Editor-in-Chief of Economic Botany asking me if I’d published the paper elsewhere. In taking over the helm at Economic Botany, he’d found manuscripts in the files that had been accepted for publication up to two decades earlier, but had never been published! Well, at about the same time, the Editor of Euphytica, Prof. Anton Zeven, wrote to me, commenting on my PhD thesis (he’d obtained a copy through interlibrary loan) and wondering if I had published my Cuyo Cuyo research. And if I hadn’t, would I seriously consider doing so. What an invitation! With some revisions (but unfortunately removal of some of the more anthropological aspects) I submitted the paper to Euphytica in early 1979, and it was published some months later in 1980.

Cuyo Cuyo in 2006
Among the researchers to have visited Cuyo Cuyo more recently than me – in early 1997 and May 2006 – is University of Wisconsin-Madison associate professor of botany Dr Eve Emshwiller, who has been studying oca for many years now. In a recent message (15 March 2014)  she commented that Cuyo Cuyo was a fascinating place, but changing fast. I’m sure that’s something that could be said about many of the places I visited in the 1970s, then quite remote, but now opened up through better roads and telecommunications. Eve has kindly given me permission to include here some of her wonderful photos taken in 2006 of the oca harvest in Cuyo Cuyo. In one of the photos you can see the patchwork of fields, some with oca, others with potatoes. That cropping system certainly hadn’t changed in more than 30 years.

[1] Hodge, WH, 1951. Three native tuber foods of the high Andes. Economic Botany 5 (No. 2): 185-201.

[2] Jackson, MT, JG Hawkes and PR Rowe, 1980. An ethnobotanical field study of primitive potato varieties in Peru. Euphytica 29: 107-113. Click to read the paper in full.