Last evening a “paco” (which means priest in the local dialect) performed a tribute to Pachamama, aka Mother Earth, in an old church located on the grounds of the hotel, which was once a convent. Using locally farmed ingredients such as coca leaves, quinoa and rice, as well as cookies and sprinkles – because, according to him, women like sweets and Mother Earth is a woman – he created a colorful sacrificial package for the Andean peoples’ revered goddess, which he then burned while performing a ritual chant. As an atheist, I generally have no use for such spiritual gobbledygook. However, when such a ceremony is performed in a setting as magnificent as this, it’s hard to resist the mystical incantations of a millenias-old civilization.
With Pachamama on the brain and thinking all women should be idolized as much as her, I awoke well before the crack of dawn (consequence of the altitude or just the anticipation of today’s activities?). Once it was light out, I opened the hotel room door to this spectacular view:
We started today’s adventure with a visit to the Maras Salt Mines, where 280 Peruvian families own the 2,800 salt pans on the site. The salt mining is an ancillary livelihood for them as it can only be done during dry season. Their primary source of income is farming. The water flows down from the mountains, which enables the salt to be mined. What’s fascinating is that Maras is located at an elevation of 10,000 feet. Millions of years ago, the area was at sea level. The tectonic plates shifted and the Andes formed, leaving salt and seashells in their wake.
Our next stop was Moray, an Incan “experimental” agricultural center, which was used to determine the types of crops that would thrive at different altitudes. The concentric terraces enabled them to discern what the impact of altitude, wind, soil, sun and irrigation would have on different crops. They could then replicate the successes elsewhere in their empire.
From there we visited Chinchero, which, at an elevation of 12,500 feet, is higher than Cusco. Chinchero is famous for its woven textiles, and that is where the women really stood out. Channeling Pachamama, these Andean women earn a living weaving beautiful alpaca textiles while their husbands are hours away farming. We visited a group of women who own a weaving cooperative, selling their goods and splitting the profits. They demonstrated the process, which involves cleaning, dyeing and weaving the wool into blankets, scarves, sweaters, etc. that can sell for hundreds of dollars. All of the materials are organic – the dyes come from flora, the blood of beetles that feed on a certain type of cactus and other natural ingredients that are mixed together into vibrant colors. Their profession is one that allows them to multitask in ways I’ve never seen – as one of the women joked, they can spin the wool while nursing their babies, dancing or kissing their husbands. It was a treat to see these women of varying ages keeping their traditions alive and working together for a common cause.
Our last stop of the day was Ollantaytambo, which is arguably the best site in Peru to understand how the Incas built their temples and terraces. This site was chosen for its location at the confluence of two rivers and three valleys. Thousands and thousands of Peruvian men were drafted into service by the Incas to help build sites like these – they were essentially paying a tax to the conquering empire. Once the “tax” was discharged, the men were free to return home. That is, if they survived the ordeal of transporting granite stones that weighed tons from the mountain across the river to the Ollantaytambo site. No wheels. Just thousands of men, ropes and ramps.
Pretty incredible feats of engineering, architecture and agriculture for a civilization that was illiterate. To see these places in person is even more incredible than I thought it would be. It’s hard to find words to describe the scale and majesty of this land.