Most people come to Cusco, Peru to go trekking through Incan ruins. I came to volunteer. One of my goals for this trip was to find an organization that worked with women and get involved to learn more about women’s empowerment and gender equality in South America. While surfing the web, I came across Threads of Peru, a non-governmental organization that works with women weavers from indigenous communities in the Sacred Valley. When I contacted co-founder Ariana Svenson, she suggested that as a volunteer I could start by visiting the villages and seeing the organization’s work firsthand. I jumped at the chance.

The villages are buried deep within the mountainous Sacred Valley, a 3-4 hour hike from the nearest road. They continue to subsist much like they did 600 years ago. Century-old traditions of farming on terraces cut into the steep slopes, tending herds of alpaca and llamas, and weaving, remain staple activities. There is no electricity or clean water and most of the families live in very basic adobe mud brick houses.

To visit these communities is to step back in time and witness survival at the mercy of nature. Threads of Peru has been working with these communities for over two years, bringing the work of the indigenous women weavers to a global market, via their eBay store, and reinvesting the profits in community development projects.

After a treacherous hike through rivers, mud, and hilly terrain, we arrived at the base of the valley where a few buildings, including a school and a teacher’s house, mark the village of Chaullacocha. We were greeted in Quechua by the women of the town, who sat together in the grass, surrounded by soft mounds of llama and alpaca wool, spinning with drop spindles that have been perfected over 2,000 years. What I noticed first were these women’s stunning outfits–thick red ponchos over wide pleated skirts, and decorative upside-down hats that looked like they might tip off their heads save for the fasten under their chins. After all these years, the men and women still wear outfits that date back to pre-colonial times.

Our visit began with a weaving workshop. Threads of Peru’s textile expert, Augustina, showed the women how to make their thread finer and more delicate for a higher quality weave. Augustina ran the alpaca thread through my fingers and I was amazed at its softness.

Our cook also gave a workshop, showing the women how to prepare a vegetable, potato and barley soup. This was our opportunity to have a frank discussion with the community about hygiene, nutrition and balanced diets. Malnutrition is a serious problem; most of the children have parasites and are in a state of chronic malnutrition. By exposing the community to new and simple dishes like veggie soup, Threads of Peru hopes to encourage the preparation of more varied, nutritious meals.

An early morning hike the next day brought us to Chupani, a village in the adjoining valley. Like in Chaullacocha, the women of Chupani were waiting for us, spinning in the grass. Wandering amongst them, watching their nimble fingers, I realized how vastly different our lives are. These women will most likely live in these villages all their lives; if they are lucky, they will get a few glimpses of Cusco and that will be their only exposure to city life. It’s likely that they will never learn to read or write. The women of Chaullacocha and Chupani live relatively sheltered lives; yet, they have a tremendous wealth of knowledge. These women grow up learning which crushed insects, mosses, flowers, and fruits will dye their threads bright reds, yellows, browns and greens. This is not something that they teach us in school in Canada. I have never touched a spindle, let alone spun thread. The symbols they weave are inspired by ancient beliefs passed down through oral tradition. My knowledge of my family’s history stops at my grandparents. Sheltered or not, these women have much to share.

But Threads of Peru is worried. A road will soon be built to the villages providing access to electricity, technologies and other modern conveniences.  If they can’t cover these new expenses by selling their weavings and farm products, the villagers will abandon their art for the city, where they are sure to witness poverty as a result of the harsh discrimination against indigenous people. Transforming their weavings into a viable means of survival will ensure that an ancient art and generations of expertise are not lost forever.

After my trek, I spent the rest of the month in Cusco volunteering approximately 4 hours a day at the Threads offices. I was dubbed the promotions and fundraising assistant and my work ranged from putting up posters around town, assembling a volunteer handbook, writing travel articles and blog posts, and researching and writing a grant proposal for a $3,000 grant from the Latin American Travel Association. We also held a two-day leadership workshop for the leaders of the weaving associations from each village. The women got to meet with several weaving merchants in Cusco to learn about making their weavings more marketable.

They also got to do a little sightseeing of their own at the Pachacutec monument, a giant bronze statue of an Incan warrior, that offers an amazing birds eye view of the city. Overall, it was a very productive month and probably one of the more rewarding parts of my trip so far.

You can support Threads of Peru by making a purchase through their eBay store, donating to a specific project or by taking a Threads of Peru tour to the villages. Prices for the treks vary depending on how many days you decide to stay and how many people are in your group. It is best to contact Threads of Peru directly for prices.