The trip wasn’t advertised specifically as textile-focused, but with a bit of special Myths and Mountains tweaking, Joan Clark and Susan O’Dell from Chicago discovered ample opportunities to indulge their love of weaving and other textile traditions during their journey to Peru last July.

With Myths and Mountains’ Artisans of Peru itinerary as a foundation, Vice President Allie Almario worked closely with Joan and Susan to customize the program, adding and adapting elements to make the trip a one-of-a-kind experience that was everything the travelers had dreamed of, and more.

Both Susan and Joan have a long-standing interest in textiles. Susan is a weaver and a spinner, while Joan has been sewing since childhood and considers herself a tailor. She still cherishes the Singer sewing machine she bought with Green Stamps she collected in high school.

Together, Joan and Susan have traveled to many parts of the world, collecting a variety of indigenous weavings and other textiles along the way. When they saw the “Artisans of Peru” trip listed, things clicked. “We both had been looking for a textile trip, and there weren’t very many out there,” Susan recalls. “When we talked about our interests with Allie one of the things that really sold us was that we were able to plan with her what our travel experience would be, for example by seeing different collections that weren’t necessarily on the original itinerary. I’ve traveled with other travel organizations in different ways, but Myths and Mountains is the only one that has been interested in letting us shape the trip.”

Once in Peru, the “incredible” guides were also indispensible. “They were very personable and knowledgeable about the culture but also as travel companions they were very genuine and very engaging,” says Susan. They went out of their way to enhance the program – for example, upon learning that Susan and Joan have golden retrievers that have been rescued from unhappy situations, their Cusco guide arranged a special visit to a rescue organization for condors, cougars, and vicuñas.

Susan and Joan started their journey with a few days in Lima exploring museums and learning about the Inca culture and religion. “It gave us a context for going to Cusco and the surrounding area where we actually saw many of the ruins and buildings and artifacts,” Susan explains. “It gave us a way of both thinking intellectually about the culture and experiencing the day-to-day life of people in that environment.”

Joan particularly appreciated the collection at the Larco Herrera Museum in Lima, a renovated hacienda that has been turned into a museum housing one of Peru’s finest private collections, including textiles brought from throughout the country during the 18th and 19th centuries. “What I appreciated was that as we traveled we saw how weavings have certain similarities in different parts of the world,” Joan says. “But at the same time, after learning about some of the mythic figures of the Inca culture like the cougar and the snake, seeing those figures woven into the textiles made it come alive in terms of this specific culture.”

The museums in Lima also offered a glimpse of the ancient Paracas culture, which flourished on the desert coast south of Lima long before the Incas. “They have found mummies in Paracas that were wrapped in textiles that are 2,500 years old and have been preserved by the desertification there,” Joan explains enthusiastically. “Textiles are something that usually doesn’t last in a culture; they disintegrate. We were able to see some swatches of the Paracas textiles and mummies wrapped in these textiles. It was amazing to see how they had been preserved, how they had not rotted because there was no humidity. That was just fascinating to me, and the textiles themselves were just stunning.”

In Cusco, Joan and Susan enjoyed visiting the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco, established by Nilda Callañaupa, a Peruvian master weaver who has been affiliated with various institutions in the United States, including the Textile Museum in Washington, DC. She created the Center to preserve weaving traditions and expand weavers’ access to markets for their textiles. Women from the area come to the Center to work on their weaving and sell their finished products.

Another highlight was a visit to a rural Andean community in the Sacred Valley. “Spending most of the day in the countryside with a family was one of aspects of the trip that left a huge impact on me,” Susan says. During lunch their hosts talked with the visitors about their weaving and brought out several pieces of their work as examples.

Textiles are “a real link with people all over the world, an identification with what they are doing and the way they are creating beauty,” Susan says. “It’s amazing how the style of textiles that have developed in Peru are remarkably like the weavings from Guatemala, which are remarkably like the weavings in Vietnam, which are also connected to the weaving in Africa.”

For their next adventure, Susan and Joan are considering a return to South America with Myths and Mountains, perhaps to Argentina or Bolivia. After reading about the Andean tradition of rounding up vicuñas for shearing in a festival known as the chaccu, they’ve become interested in seeing the shearing of a vicuña or a llama. “It’s another aspect of textiles,” Joan says, “seeing where the fibers come from.”

In the meantime, their experiences in Peru continue to linger in the hearts and minds of both Susan and Joan. “We talk about this trip and about Myths and Mountains with all of our friends because of the way that Allie picked up on our interests and tailored it,” Joan says. “We encourage people to consider their dream trip and then connect up with Myths and Mountains to see what comes out of it. That’s what happened for us.”

Photos: Kate Fenner