Peru, part 6
Lalo, (Lahlow), our guide for the day is in the lobby at eight this morning and the man exudes energy. We are driving north of Cusco today, our main destinations being the salt mines of Maras and the Pre-Incan site of Moray, surmised to be an experimental Ag area. As we leave the center of Cusco, we drive through the shantytowns on the cities outskirts. A very different picture of Cusco emerges than what we have seen up to date.
Leaving the city behind us, we drive through country where the patches of land create a mosaic of yellows, greens and browns. The colorful fields cover the mountainsides like a patchwork quilt. There are snow-capped mountains in the background that pierce an impossibly blue sky. To bring the land to life we pass brightly dressed woman wearing big top hats working in the fields. There are men and boys herding livestock down the road we are driving. We make numerous stops to record these stunning views with our cameras. Being able to stop whenever you like is the luxury of a private tour!
Our first stop is at Sal Natural Y Ecological site, or in English, the salt mines of Maras. The road to get to this unusual place is narrow and windy. I must admit our driver, who is up there in years, makes me a little nervous. He crowds the side of the road and takes chances when he passes other vehicles. Paul thinks he is doing fine so I just tighten my seat belt and try not to look into the abyss below the edge of the road.
The multilevel saltpans that fill much of the valley are surreal. The colors of the manmade ponds range from white to brown with many shades in between. Lalo, the ex-professor, is a walking encyclopedia and bombards us with statistics about Salinerous. Three hundred and thirty families from Maras maintain the 3600 salt ponds/pans. The people channel a small spring, obviously salt-laden, to fill the ponds and after the water evaporates, the people harvest the salt. Each pond produces on average, 25 kilos of salt, which they sell for 20 cents a pound. We watch the workers as they hand shovel salt or use a handful of weeds to sweep debris up from the harvested ponds along with other tedious jobs. Now and then, the workers treat themselves to a glass of chicha, downing the stuff in a few gulps. Yikes, but as hot as it is and as tough as the work is I can’t blame them.
We follow Lalo along the narrow dams of the saline ponds soaking in the sights all around us. I second Paul’s motion when he calls out to Lalo telling him the terrain is becoming too treacherous and we should return to wider paths. In addition to the dubious footing, the sun is glaring off the white surface causing me to squint even though I’m wearing sunglasses. Lalo cheerfully turns around and leads us back to the viewing deck.
We leave this unusual place behind and our driver points the car in the direction of Moray. The picturesque countryside calls for many stops by us to photograph its beauty. Lalo often joins us in the photo shoots, though he admits to having taken the same photos untold times before. The man truly loves this area and the people living here.
Driving down a dirt road we pass a drover with his three dogs hazing sheep, burros and two brown swiss bulls. We ask to stop for photos and Lalo is delighted to comply. Lalo speaks Quechua, the language of the natives here, so this is a major plus.
The elderly man is quite amiable and at Lalos’ urging, Paul and the Peruvian stockman pose together for a photo. (Lalo has Paul and I pose in front of vistas and sites all day. I think we are in more photos on this one day than all of our other trips combined!) I am concerned because our interruption in the herder’s day has the man’s animals disappearing in the distance. The bulls have even crossed the road tempted by greener fields. The old man doesn’t seem worried and his three dogs are completely blasé about the escaping herd. Lalo suggests Paul give the man some soles, which he does. We crawl back into the car trading smiles and waves with the friendly native.
We arrive at Moray, famous for being the oldest known “greenhouse”. Moray predates the Incans although they made use of the site during their reign. The circular terraces of Moray reach to a depth of 300 feet. This amazing structure is tough to describe and our photos don’t do it justice either. We begin our descent into the pit but find the three stone steps you must use to traverse every terrace tough to navigate. The space between the steps is often very wide and for some reason, there are no handrails! Lalo walks nimbly down the steps, and then offers his hand to help us out. I didn’t count but we sure went down a bunch of steps to reach the bottom. The people who built this place were small so I don’t understand the reason for such wide steps.
We sit down in the grass to enjoy the view of the circle of terraces towering above our heads. It is also interesting to watch people as they stand in the center of this bottom terrace and meditate often with their arms stretched skyward. Lalo explains that many people believe the exact center is sacred and it has special powers. Lalo points out that irrigation channels run from top to bottom. Therefore, it makes more sense that this center spot is where all the excess water would accumulate in order to drain. Yep, I’d have to agree with his practical explanation. Lalo also explains scientists theorize that the ancient Peruvians built this unbelievable site as a place to acclimate plants. The experts surmise they would start plants at the bottom terrace where it is much warmer and then move them up to higher terraces slowly introducing the plants to colder air.
Scrambling up the steps is much easier than going down. By the time we reach the top of the ancient greenhouse, I am short of breath. Our driver must have known we were in need of muños as he is waiting for us and hands us some of the plant leaves. I take them gladly, crush the leaves and deeply inhale the fragrance. This plant is amazing as my breathing calms down almost immediately. I would love to have access to muños when I have a cold.
On our way back to Cusco, we stop in a small town where Lalo takes us on a walking tour. Lalo points out carvings on the old stone door frames, explaining the various meanings of them. Sticks with wads of red plastic stuck to them adorn the doors of a few houses and Lalo tells us these are chicharias. Talk about cheap advertising! We arrive at the car and Lalo retrieves our sack lunches from the trunk. We walk up a shady incline to the church and sit down on an outside bench to eat. The amount of food stuffed into the sacks is ridiculous. There are two sandwiches, two pieces of fruit, an energy bar, juice and candy. I eat the chicken salad sandwich and drink the juice. I give my ham and cheese sandwich to a man working around the church and my energy bar to Paul.
After lunch, we continue our leisurely drive to Cusco when we come upon a woman harvesting Konua (Quechua spelling). Konua (keenwa) is a grain that the Inca developed and is a staple food for the people. The scene is right out of National geographic as a colorfully dressed woman is harvesting a bright red grain with a snow-capped mountain in the background. The busy woman was gracious enough to take time to pose for us and answer questions from Lalo, who would translate her answers for us. I wish my photo was Natgeo quality but I had a real problem dealing with the intense sun in Peru. Often the snow-capped mountains would melt into the clear blue sky like it did here and no adjustments on my camera would take care of the problem. Very frustrating!
Lalo takes us to a farming village, Ch’eqereq, because he wants to show us the church. We meet a flock of sheep with two young girls trailing them. Other than this encounter with life, the dusty streets of the town are deserted. Could everyone be in the fields? As we approach the church, we find the answer to our question. The town folk are sitting on wooden benches that line the perimeter of a cement pad in front of the church. A small band is playing and singing a song and in all honesty, they are not very good. There is a large vat of chicha sitting in the middle of the cement, which seems to be garnering most of the audience’s attention. At least it was until us foreigners show up. Lalo speaks to a man and asks if we can visit the church. I have mixed feelings about this because it seems so intrusive but the man seems delighted that we are interested in the church. A woman accompanies us inside answering questions and giving us permission to take photos. The altar is overflowing with lovely bouquets of flowers largely made up of gladiolas.
A small statue dressed in farmer attire is sitting just below the altar surrounded by offerings of bread and potatoes. We have come to this village on the festival of farmers’ day. Seeing the modest church decked out in celebration of farmers makes it worth the embarrassment of walking through all the somber folks after all.
When we leave the church, a teenage girl with a purple banner draped over her shoulders is there to meets us. Although I can’t read the wording on her sash a good guess is that, she is the queen of the festival. I feel my face blanch when I see that she is carrying a tray with three plastic glasses upon it. In this rural culture it is only polite to offer your guests chicha. Lalo at first tries to decline the offer but with a hundred set of eyes watching you, what can one do. A man dunks the community dipper into the frothy concoction and pours a generous amount of the corn alcohol in each cup. The three of us take a cup from the tray and timidly take a drink. Whew, I barely wet my lips but even this small amount tells me the liquor has some punch to it. I notice Paul and Lalo only take a small swallow before replacing their glasses on the tray along with mine.
Lalo says a few words to the crowd in Quechua, which brings smiles, and a few thumbs up. The three of us smile and wave goodbye after which we make a hasty retreat.
We are in Cusco by mid-afternoon and move to our new hotel, Midori. Our room is a little bigger than a walk in closet but we are lucky to have found a room on such short notice. We will be here for three nights and the good news is they might have a larger room available tomorrow night. The hotel was originally a large colonial house. Maybe we really are in the walk in closet!
We find a small restaurant near our hotel that is definitely a mom and pop place. Dad is helping his young son with homework at one of the tables while a toddler sleeps in a crib near the bar. Mom is busy in the kitchen. The tablecloths have a few stains but the floor is clean and the aromas wafting out of the kitchen smell wonderful. Our food arrives and my huge bowl of creamy corn soup is delicious as is Paul’s cream of mushroom & Alfredo pasta. We visit with a personable Dutch couple who are eating here for the third time. Our main topic is how businesses are reluctant to take soles bigger than a 20. ATM’s disperse fifties and hundreds so this is a real headache. Businesses really prefer coins to paper money because of a huge counterfeiting problem. We lay a fifty on our dinner check for our supper and I see the man roll his eyes but he takes it. He uses the Dutch couple’s small bills and coins they pay their check with to give us our change 🙂.