Blog Post

Hands-on Experience: Summer in Peru

Patrick Kidd, a graduate student in the University of Pennsylvania's historic preservation program, and two of his classmates, volunteered to spend some time researching and working in Peru's Colca Valley in summer 2009. WMF connected them with AECID (the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation), our partner in the Colca Valley, and subsidized their travel expenses. See page 10 of our summer 2009 newsletter for background information.

A few weeks after arriving in the Colca Valley, our “boss,” José, took us to its upper reaches to visit Sibayo. Not having expanded much beyond its original grid, many buildings in the town retain traditional construction techniques such as adobe or stone construction with thatched roofs woven from native ichu grass. The church, one of the largest in the valley, has a Renaissance-inspired doorway flanked by two towers with pyramidal roofs that add an element of solidity and grandeur to the entire composition. Throughout the 20th century, the original roof was covered with coatings of cement in the hopes of keeping out water; unfortunately, this did not function well. AECID workers are now removing those layers using chisels and hammers and will lay down a layer of native stone.

We entered through the side gateway into a sizable yard that abuts the church; at its center stands a large, carved stone cross at the intersection of two dirt paths. Nearby, a group of men were hacking away at eucalyptus trunks that would form the base for interior scaffolding. AECID specifically hires townspeople to work on each of its projects, with the hope of imparting pride in a community's patrimony. Many young people leave the valley because the subsistence lifestyle does not lend itself to job creation; AECID therefore also targets the youth segment with the hope of keeping them in the area.

All the laborers greeted José as “Señor Arquitecto,” and obviously looked to him with much respect. We spoke with a group of three stone carvers, including two women who were learning the trade. AECID makes a concerted effort to involve women in its projects, providing opportunities for them beyond the care of the home or fields. One woman remarked that she enjoyed working with the local stone, and that it was a satisfying job. José then explained how the mortar used on the church is made, following time-tested techniques to which modern ingredients are added, mainly to guard against water infiltration.

Entering the church from the side, half of it was a maze of wooden poles holding up the arched roof. The visible retablos were a beautiful combination of creamy white and gold, with a sunburst motif at the top, golden rays extending to the ceiling. Much of the statuary was being cleaned and conserved at AECID headquarters, so the majority of the niches were empty, but I did spot a lone baby Jesus, missing his silken robes. The main altar is a fantasy in carved wood and gold leaf. Every possible inch was worked into flowers, leaves, and fluid swirls, a movement in wood that only the Baroque masters seem to have achieved. The love of light and movement that marks that age was furthered by the implantation of numerous mirrors which caught the sunlight that streamed through the small windows, reflecting it throughout the sanctuary. Above each pier that supports the arches were unique escudos, or shields, featuring angels in elaborate painted frames that echoed the movement of the main altar.

Exiting the church, José then walked us across the plaza to a house undergoing renovation. AECID helps improve dwellings if a family is willing to invest some of its own money and manpower; upgrades usually include improved sanitary facilities, plumbing, and new food-preparation areas. Traditional building techniques are always used. The ceiling of the main room was a sturdy, woven grass mat. AECID then introduced foam insulation, which was topped off with woven ichu on the exterior. The spirit of the original was achieved while upgrading to protect against heat loss.

Sibayo proved a good example of AECID's institutional philosophy: revitalization of a community and its patrimony must happen together if either is going to survive and prosper.