Our guide, Juan, and our driver, Carlos, collect us at the hotel in Cusco to drive us West towards Machu Picchu. We’re taking the scenic route, which is the only route.
Our first stop is the tiny town of Chinchero, not far outside of Cusco. What we see of the town, from our van, is unpaved dirt roads surrounded by a mix of old and new buildings - all brick. The town seems busy for its size. We are here to learn about traditional textiles created in the Cusco Region. Our van stops at a small cultural center. We hop out and tip-toe around the mud puddles to head inside.
The center is one part outdoor classroom, one part shop. As you enter, the first thing you see is a small pen with alpaca and llama hanging out, munching on grass. Have you ever pet an alpaca? They are so fluffy.
We are seated on a covered patio and a woman in traditional dress (red coat, black hat, black skirt, all local wool) greets us and proceeds to give us a quick lesson in the fabrication of traditional text tiles. Behind her is a large stone oven, already hot with coals from a fire started early this morning. The oven is an organic round shape, a sort of dome with three apertures on top. Each opening cradles an iron pot which looks like it was made just for this purpose. Water boils away in two of the pots.
Our instructor is sly and funny. She cracks little jokes here and there. I get the sense that she could clean up at a poker table. She passes us a sample of alpaca wool. It’s incredibly soft, but dirty. She explains that alpaca never take showers.
She pours boiling water from one of the pots into a bowl placed before her on the ground. She then grates a small amount of local root into the water and swishes it around. Soap-like bubbles form. She explains that this root is used as a natural cleaning agent, and is even used as shampoo. She dunks the wool into the steaming bowl by hand and begins to wash out the wool which becomes nearly white after a few rinses. She then demonstrates how the wool is spun into thread. This is done with a spool dangling in the air by the thread the spool itself is creating. She explains that folks just walk around spinning wool all day. Instead of fidgeting with your phone, how about make some thread instead? She deftly sets the spool to spinning as it hangs from the thread and wool and carefully feeds more wool onto the thread, gauging the thickness by hand. Once in a while she reaches down add a little momentum to the spinning spool. It all looks like a carnival trick, wool becoming thread before our eyes. Alpaca come in white, brown, and black. So we know now where the black skirt and hat come from.
Next she explains how different colors are created with natural pigments and minerals. On a low table there are many baskets filled with flowers, leaves, grains, and small chunks of crystalline minerals. One basket contains a single ‘leaf’ from a cactus encrusted with some white stuff. To me, this looks like lichen or perhaps even crusted sap from the cactus. Nope. It’s bugs. The tiny insects create a white case for protection and live off the cactus. Our teacher explains that usually the white material is scraped off and dried, but she will “sacrifice” some bugs to demonstrate. With a small amount of white granules in her hand, she quickly smashes and grinds the white stuff and it becomes shockingly liquid and red. Deep red, like blood. She demonstrates that by adding acid, say from a lime, you can change the red to orange. She rubs a small crystal on her hand and the deep red turns to more of a magenta color. Very versatile bugs.
Next she demonstrates dying a skein of yarn. The yarn soaks up color immediately and becomes bright yellow. The same crystal minerals are aded to the boiling pot and the mixture is left to simmer. The mineral works in some way to help set the color.
We walk from the patio to a little patch of grass surrounding a tree. Two stakes have been placed in the ground about 4 feet apart. Loops of colored thread are wrapped around each stake, making a pattern of horizontal stripes in red, blue, white, and black. The loops of thread are crossed at the halfway point between the two stakes, making a ‘X’. Next to the assembly staked into the ground a younger woman is sitting down with a loom made with the same criss-crossed arrangement of threads, now attached to a loom. The loom is tied to the tree and by leaning back a bit, the tension the young woman keeps the loom tight and the threads straight. The long horizontal threads become the warp and she is carefully weaving in colored thread. The weaver creates patterns of triangles, dots, and squares which hold symbolic representation and meaning. After looping thread in and around she keeping everything aligned with a carved and sharpened bone. Our teacher tris to convince us that it’s the bone of a human child and appears amused with herself that we must have looked very concerned for a moment.
We pile back into the van and continue west. Juan points out the location of a soon-to-be built international airport. This tiny city hardly seems to need an airport. Juan worries aloud about the change that the airport will bring.
After driving for a while, our van trundles up dirt roads and switchbacks until we’re looking down into a deep valley with a muddy stream at the bottom. The roads and mountainsides are all brick-red with scattered vegetation. Peering out the window into the valley makes my head spin. The road is rough and uneven. We pass earth moving equipment parked alongside the road, taking a break from the endless task of keeping this road passable. Eventually we turn a corner and see the Maras Salt Mines .
No one is quite sure how old the salt mines are. They predate the Incan empire, and there is evidence of some civilizations here dating bak to 700 BCE. The andes mountains were once under the ocean. When the earth heaved them up into the sky, they brought salt deposits up with them. People here discovered a natural spring bubbling up through the salty rock and began harvesting salt. Oddly, this salt is sea salt due to its origin underneath the ocean, even though we are far inland.
The spring is diverted through a series of clay and stone channels which fill some 4,500 evaporation pools. Each pool is about 4 square meters in area. During the dry season pools are filled and allowed to evaporate over and over again creating layers of increasingly pure salt. The top layer, highest quality, is light pink due to an infusion of trace minerals from the water. This Peruvian pink salt is highly prized in restaurants. Below this layer is white salt, standard household kitchen-grade salt. Below this is brown salt containing mud and heavier minerals. This salt I used for industrial and agricultural purposes.
We sit on the observation platform and watch families use special trowels to collect salt into the center of the pool so the water drains. The salt is collected into 50 kilogram bags. Strong young men heft a bag up to their shoulders and tip-toe on the edges of pools to drop the bags at a weigh station for processing.
Today, the salt mine is a co-op owned by families in the region. Families tend to their salt pool (or perhaps hire workers to do it for them) and they receive a share of the profits from selling the salt.
The place is eerie and alien and beautiful. When the sun breaks through the clouds, my sunglasses barely hold back the glare from the gleaming white salt encrusted pools below.
Our last stop for the day is the archeological site at Moray .
A natural sink hole in the limestone mountain was crafted by the Incas into concentric ringed terraces. Each level is about the depth of a tall man standing. On the terrace walls, floating stairs are constructed by cantilevered flat stones.
The limestone beneath the soil allows for water to drain away, preventing flooding. This is why, I suppose, this isn’t a swimming pool.
The different levels of the terraced structure create micro climates at each level. The lowest is the warmest. Archeologists believe that the Inca used these terraces to adapt crops. Corn from the low lands was cultivated at the lowest level. Seeds from plants that grew best were moved up a level where it’s slightly colder. This process would repeat until the adapted corn would thrive at the highest level and thus be fit for farming at high altitude.
We walked slowly around the entire site, taking it all in. The terraces strike me like earth-art from the 70s. Man-made but embracing the earth.
At one end of the site we spot an offering to Patchamama, the earth mother.
Our van winds its way to Ollantaytambo, our last stop before heading to Machu Picchu. As we wind our way to the little town in the valley I get a glimpse of the river and farmland below.
It is lush and green and nestled between the mountains. Suddenly the name “Sacred Valley” makes sense.
Ollantaytambo is a small cluster of a town nestled beneath Incan ruins on the mountain side.
The town is a bit touristy, but lovely. We are dropped at the train station, beyond the gates of the train station is our hotel where we will rest before taking the train to Aguascalientes, the tiny town at the foot of the mountain home of Machu Picchu.