9 June 2019
Today we had a slightly later start at about 9AM, so there was time for a bit of a sleep-in and a leisurely breakfast. Some of the obnoxious people from dinner last night were at breakfast though they were a bit more subdued – hungover maybe?
To market, to market…
First destination for today was the market at Chinchero, a 1.5 hour drive from the hotel. As we drove through Urumbamba town though, traffic was being diverted and ahead of us we could see a procession of sorts. Out of the car we jumped, and before we knew it we were in the midst of a colourful, noisy celebration. There were masked characters – some ninja-like, some which reminded me so much of the masked dancers at the Bhutanese tsechu celebrations, and a couple of particularly lecherous-looking ‘bread men’ [who reminded me of the Tamil ‘roti karan‘ (‘bread man’) limerick from Ridgeway days…which described the bread seller who winked at passing girls; my mother was horrified when my sisters and I sang this limerick – very loudly – from the upstairs window of our home one evening while the Tamilian ‘roti karan‘ delivered bread to my mum…]; there were dancing girls and boy bands; there was some serious flagellation (not self-inflicted). Jesus featured prominently – on shirts, banners and sidewalk mini-altars.
I didn’t quite hear what the celebration was about, and I had put it down to a car-free Sunday with a religious slant – one that provided a lot of photography fun. I only later found out that it was the Pentecost celebrations – the 50th day after Easter, when the Holy Spirit descends upon Christian disciples. I also read that in Peru “the most enthusiastic and vibrant Pentecost festivities can be found in the Urubamba Valley”. How fortuitous to be here today – just as it was sheer serendipity to be in Armenia for Easter last year.
Unscheduled photo stop done, we found our way to Bruce and the car, and once again set off for the Chinchero Sunday Market…or so we thought. Dan had another surprise for us – a visit to a ‘secret place’ up in the mountains (so secret I haven’t pinned it on the map attached to this post). It was a vista to die for…mountains, valleys, rolling green and gold fields speckled with little yellow flowers, sheep placidly grazing – and a farmer, his wife and their sheep dog. It was beautiful and breathtaking – the latter also because of the altitude – we were higher than we were at Machu Picchu. This was a place where I could have just ‘sat and stared’ for hours.
It was obvious from the interactions that the farmer and his wife were well acquainted with Dan (and his business partner, Alex); there was much laughter, hugged greetings and chatter, which was lovely to see.
We finally were on our way (once again) to the Chinchero market. This was another colourful affair, with traditionally-attired villagers selling everything from woven products to wooden toys, and from fruit, vegetables and cooked food to jewellery and semi-precious stones; there even were chessboards (Spanish vs Incas) of various sizes and varying levels of detail. Here, as in many markets the world over, the women multitasked, while the men focused on one thing at a time.
The villagers from the surrounding areas come down to this market three times a week to sell their goods, the Sunday market being the largest. While it was an obvious tourist stop, there also were many locals – especially in the fresh produce and cooked food sections. Apparently some barter trade also happens here, amongst the locals. At Chinchero market, we were also introduced to Shiv’s next level bargaining prowess…
By now, after all the unexpected excitement of the morning, I was hungry. I think we all were. It was a short walk from the market to our lunch venue – an empanada place. This, so far, has been the winner, as far as empanadas are concerned. They were absolutely delicious, and the service was fab. For a start, the lady who owns the place noticed we were cold (this despite being quite near the big stone wood-fired oven in which the empanadas were being freshly baked), and very thoughtfully shut the door that was letting the draft in.
Dan then asked for some ají – chilli sauce – Shobs’ staple ingredient for all meals; Dan was a quick study, and now asked for ají even before Shobs did. It took a while coming…then we realised the lovely lady had gone to the market to get fresh chillis and was making the sauce from scratch! (and it was quite something else – even for the non-ají people).
It was a good lunch stop – the food, the service, the ultra clean bathroom. We had one more stop before our 3PM deadline. For the first time today, we had to be somewhere by a certain time – the Maras salt ponds, by 3PM – to catch some good light.
Our stop en route was at the Chinchero Weaving Co-op, where we were treated to a demo (as we sipped our hot tea) of how alpaca, llama and sheep wool is treated then woven into the colourful runners, shawls, blankets and table cloths we’d seen at the market.
First, the magic of cleaning the wool – which definitely needed cleaning as the alpaca, llama and sheep rarely (if at all) have baths (our ‘demonstrator’ lady had a sense of humour). Soap is made by grating the root of a particular plant (can’t remember the name) and mixing it with water – a few dips in the sud-sy liquid, and the grey wool comes out a sparkly white. This plant is used as a natural detergent (and bleach, I would imagine) by the Andean women…I wonder if there’d be a market for it in India, given the success of that Fair and Lovely product range.
Once the wool is dried, it is spun as one continuous strand on a top-like spindle, like a ball of white yarn, but much neater.
Next step – to add colour. Here again, it’s all natural; colours are obtained from various plants (the purple, for example, from purple corn – which I’d never seen before this trip), minerals and in the case of the red dye, from a bug – the cochineal – found on cacti. The red carmine dye is also used as lipstick – which, according to our demonstrator lady, is long-lasting, and stays on your lips even after “kissing your husband.”
Resisting requests to buy various items touted as “very warm, lady” – only because I really don’t need warm clothes/shawls/blankets in Singapore, we set off for our 3PM appointment. It is interesting that the Peruvians address women as ‘lady’ – i.e. instead of Ma’am or Miss – so it’s ‘thank you, lady’ or ‘you’re welcome, lady’. Men are still ‘sir’, not ‘man’.
Maras – not Marat
Next stop, Maras, about half an hour away, up a winding mountain road full of hairpin bends. It was another beautiful landscape – we got out of the car to take more mountain/valleys/blue sky pics – till Dan said, this wasn’t actually it, and that there was a bit more of a way to go. We turned a corner and were greeted with this view (pic below). I confess I had neither read up anything on Maras and the salt ponds, nor had I looked at any photos of it, so it was a 100% unadulterated WOW moment.
It was a bit of a walk to the salt evaporation ponds – or pans – the Salinas de Maras. The pans date back to pre-Inca times and the whole area functions in a co-op sort of fashion. Today there are about 3,000 pans – each mined or harvested by a family. A hypertension-inducing salt-rich stream (we all had a bit of a taste – Very Salty) from a natural mountain spring feeds these pans. The pans are opened to allow water in, then dammed when full. The water then evaporates leaving the salt crystals which are collected by the pan owner.
We set off on our walk between the pans, high up on the mountainside. Walking along the narrow, salt-encrusted paths between the pans, some more crumbly than others, I thought that if I fell, I’d at least be quite well preserved. The other stray thought that popped into my head was that of Jean-Paul Marat, dead in his bathtub – the picture from my History textbook of that famous painting The Death of Marat…I know, I know, this is Maras.
We would be one of the last few people who would have the privilege of walking on these paths – in a few days this wouldn’t be possible as the authorities have decided to allow visitors only on the observation deck, on account of idiot visitors contaminating the pans…with plastic, cigarette butts, and worse.
We were back on the observation deck with time to spare – enough time to experiment with settings while waiting for the sun to get into perfect position. Dan’s Huawei was placed precariously near the edge of the deck for another time-lapse image – we seemed more worried than he was about his phone being accidentally kicked over the edge by some tourist.
Moray – a Test Kitchen
Last stop for the day, Moray – a half hour drive from the salt pans. Moray is just another of the many examples of Inca ingenuity. The ruins are basically terraced rings – but other than that there’s nothing basic about them. For a start, the way these terraces have been positioned results in the temperature at the top of the terraces differing by as much as 15C from that at the bottom – in essence creating different climates on each of the terraces, allowing different crops to be grown. Many of the terraces also have been found to contain soil from different regions of Peru…how this soil got here remains a mystery.
It is believed that this site was an Inca test kitchen of sorts – an agricultural experiment. It is only fitting then that Central just opened a branch here, right next to the original test kitchen. While researching ‘where to eat’ in Peru, I had come across Central in Lima – it has a fascinating concept. As the blurb says, “An exploration of its country’s biodiversity, Central takes diners on a journey through every altitude, from 20 metres below sea level to 4,100 metres above it, in 17+ courses. The tasting menu is a reflection of Martínez and his sister’s research into ingredients in the Andes, the Amazon and the sea.”
As the crow flies, it isn’t far from Moray to our hotel – less than 10KM. However, there is no crow route…the bespectacled Bruce took us on a short cut, down the mountain via narrow unpaved roads (more like tracks) – a drive that took well over an hour. This safari-like drive at probably 10 or 15 KM/hour apparently shaved close to an hour off the usual route back, Dan said. As the sun got low in the sky, the snow-capped mountains shone, and it felt like we were driving through fields of gold…needless to say, tired as we all were, we did stop a couple of times for some photos. Bruce maintained the ‘atmosphere’ with some haunting Quechua music from his playlist.
It was a good day…and all we needed to do now to elevate ‘good’ to ‘perfect’ was to order four of that pear dessert from last night. We did – and today was officially a perfect day.