In Peru, you can’t throw a stone without hitting a protected archaeological park. The stone may turn out to be a priceless pre-Incan relic too, so you need to be really careful of what you pick up.
But I couldn’t really complain because this was mainly what I had gone to Peru for. Indeed, walking through the ruins of Machu Picchu, the Incan citadel that had stayed hidden for several centuries, had been the highlight of my trip. But I was all ruin’d out by the end of that long day and ready for the other faces that Peru was willing to reveal to me.
My hotel was in the picturesque little town of Urubamba, in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, right by the river of the same name. Located between the two UNESCO heritage sites of Machu Picchu and Cusco, Urubamba had served as the perfect gateway to Machu Picchu, allowing me to acclimatise to the altitude. And my trusty, old guidebook had assured me that apart from the host of ancient Inca monuments, the Sacred Valley had several other attractions. So, one morning, I set off to explore the region, starting with Chinchero.
Among other things, Chinchero has a weekly market where villagers still barter goods; a dozen eggs in exchange for two litres of milk, anyone? In fact, I was hoping to see someone coming to the market with a llama and going back home with an alpaca instead. Sadly, that was not to be, since it was not a market day. But I did come face-to-face with an alpaca — a dozen actually — soon after I entered the traditional weaving centre. There they were, having a breakfast of shoots and leaves, posing patiently for selfies with visitors.
Chinchero was known to the Incas as the birthplace of the rainbow, and I managed to catch some of those colours at the weaving centre. Right in the middle of the open courtyard, four women sat around a pole, chatting amongst themselves in Quechua, as they continued weaving table runners with incredible speed.
As soon as I walked into the weaving enclosure, 20-year old Milagros (her name meaning miracle in Spanish) led me to one of the enclosures to demonstrate their homegrown weaving process. “I can do this while I’m singing and dancing,” Milagros said with a smile, as she proceeded to dye, spin and weave with nonchalance.
Like others in this community, Milagros had learned weaving as a child — in her case, at five — from her mother, and was passionate about reviving forgotten designs. Describing the method of extracting dyes from natural sources, she applied a patch of cochineal red on her lips, coyly declaring, “This colour will stay for 24 hours and 100 kisses.”
From Chinchero, it was a short drive to Maras through the stark, spectacular countryside, with the Andean glaciers for company as if at touching distance, all the way through. The Salinas of Maras were visible from up the hill where we had stopped for photos of the landscape. That muddy white patchwork blanket, stretching down below in the valley, consisted of thousands of saltpans, the source of which was a single natural spring. Not surprisingly, these date back to the Incan times and are managed by the local community even today.
Closer to the spot, I could see the intricate network of salt deposits, from which pink and white salt has been extracted for centuries using natural evaporation methods. I clumsily tried to negotiate the narrow path between the channels, my shoes leaving brown imprints on the wet, salty ground, but soon gave up to watch it all from a distance.
At that late hour in the morning, only half a dozen people were working in these fields, knee deep in saline water, and chugging endless glasses of cold chicha de jora (a native maize beer). On the way out, I bought a glass for myself — light and refreshing — from one of the women selling it fresh out of plastic buckets.
It worked well as an appetiser for the lunch that followed at the Moray Archaeological Park. The grand name aside, the key attraction here was utterly unique and fascinating: the agricultural terraces, once again from the Incan era. From my vantage point at the top, they looked like a mini amphitheatre from Roman or Greek times.
These perfectly concentric circles and ellipses were created in an area of natural depression by Incan engineers and agriculturalists, who were clearly a sophisticated lot. It is believed that these were used for agricultural research, with each level having its own microclimate, and, therefore, capable of supporting a different crop through the year.
The day, so far, had been a great discovery of everyday Peruvian life, especially of the hardy Andean Quechua people. But finally, it was time to go back to the site of the most significant Incan ruins of this area — Ollantaytambo. And with a name like that, who could resist?
In any case, Ollantay turned out to be a remarkable town containing the remains of what was once an Incan stronghold. It was used as a fortress in the fight against the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century, before being eventually abandoned. Today, the original walls from Incan times and the huge stone terraces loom large over the town, right in front of the bustling market filled with tacky souvenir shops and children in traditional costume hounding tourists for dollars.
In fact, that seemed to me a perfect snapshot of Peru — the past casually intertwined with the present, the magnificent with the mundane.