Lucky For Us
13.11.2015 - 13.11.2015
The problem with booking online is you never know exactly what you're going to get.
Due to our time restrictions we decided to book everything in advance this trip (not our usual style I know, but its good to try new things), and based most of our decisions around tripadvisor reviews, numerous online stories about dodgy operators in Peru. I chose MarasAdventures in Cusco for: 1) Great reviews, 2) They support a few community programmes with profits, and 3) They were flexible with the tours.
As we were finishing another superb hostel breakfast, Nelly shows up early, handed us a receipt and collected final payment. She walks us down the alley to an early 90's, unmarked corolla, introduces us to Mario and Mariono, and promptly waves goodbye. I could tell what Jo was thinking before I looked at her, a contemplating frown doing very little to hide the kidnap stories currently going through her mind.
I try not to cast judgement on a place before experiencing it for myself, but our trip out of Cusco matched perfectly an image I've always had of South America. 2 gringos sitting in the back of a clapped out vehicle, windows down to avoid suffocating on our own exhaust fumes, passing villages of adobe bricks, the walls emblazoned with hand painted campaign slogans. Almost too perfect. Oh yeah, plus the armed police stop we passed in Poroy, apparently there was a stickup in a restaurant last week and 5 people are still on the run. (violent crime is rare in Cusco, the streets feel safer than at home).
Anyway we made it to Maras, enter the quad bikes. A quick practice run around the town square to break 10years of habit driving on the left and we were off. What better way to explore the natural beauty of a place than to drown the silence with an ATV. While I felt a bit like a wanker tourist driving past the local farmers, those feelings were vastly overshadowed by the thrill of blatting through the open countryside, backdropped by the dominating peaks and steep valleys of the Andes.
Mario grew up in the region and is a walking encyclopaedia, speaking passionately about the history, and his proud Quechuan heritage. Our first stop was the terraces at Moray , which he explained were a laboratory of sorts for the Incans. The site was specifically chosen at the base of a volcano and had access to water for irrigation. Different soils were brought in from all over the region and scientists have discovered distinctive temperature differences in each of the terraces. This allowed them to gradually acclimatise seeds in each successive ring, essentially enabling plants to grow at altitudes and temperatures they were
previously unable to survive at. The pattern is thought to represent male and female reproductive organs. Quite fitting considering the nature of the place.
Gearing up for some offroad fun / Moray Terraces
Back on the bikes and headed for Salineras, we stopped briefly at a beautiful Spanish church currently undergoing refurbishment. The Spaniards built it 2km out of the city of Maras, after the invasion they did not wish to attend mass with the Quechuan locals. The weather which had so graciously held out for the morning, opened up and came pissing down. I was already wet from testing the depth of mud puddles and we decided to continue on. On the final stretch of dirt road we were treated to a lightning show across the agriculture fields. We waited out the rain in a small church at Salineras, Mario explaining that the mine is owned by a collective of 350 local families, they pray both to traditional Incan deities and the Catholic God, keeping all bases covered for their successful harvests. I had very little interest in coming here but found it absolutely fascinating. It's almost unique in the world, at 11,000ft with no known salt water for miles, the origin of its salt is a mystery. A small underground creek flows from the volcano and emerges warm here, where since pre-Incan times it has been collected in man-made pools, natural evaporation leaves behind a highly prized salt containing about 80 minerals. It has built on by the Incans, Spaniards and Quechuans, there are now 4000 salt pans that produce roughly 200kgs each of salt per year, each harvest taking roughly a month.
By now we are considering ourselves 4wd pros, and I've caught Jo fishtailing down the dirt road straights. After lunch at a local diner in Maras (6 Soles each, you cant go wrong) it was sadly time to hang up the helmets and back in the car towards Chincheros. I'd booked us in for ziplining, under the impression you kinda scurried along a cable, Jo had it sussed as a flying fox for adults, its something in the middle, you kinda sit in a harness and race along suspended from a cable, but you have to brake yourself . The first two sent us 100 or so metres out over a gully, no worries. The 3rd and 4th had about a minute of lining, and came with suggestions from the instructors to try positions such as "superman/woman" and "monkey". Sure, we said. Arms out in front, don't touch the cable and don't forget to open your eyes, soaring along like a bird 200 odd feet off the ground with views down the sacred valley for miles. Yes there was a flew "clench" moments while hanging upside down.
Our final stop for the day was Chincheros, an Incan town that sits higher than Cusco. There's a beautiful church here that the Spaniards built directly on top of the Incans most sacred Temple of the Sun, (as happened in other towns too during invasion). Inside the ceiling features original paintings, and elaborately carved pieces adorn the walls, reaching to the roof. The real highlight is the original stonework of foundation, the walls and terraces that line the plaza outside, pieces both curved and angled interlocking precisely with no room to slide a piece of paper between. Pure craftsmanship, massive structures and testament to its quality that has stood the test of time. Here Mario explained to us more about the Incans, how Pachacuti's vision and direction over 70years as king produced the marvels that still stand today. How bickering between successive rulers, the arrival of the Spaniards and there diseases diminished the tribes. How they fought bravely for their lands and the capture of the last Incan signalled the demise of an empire that had risen to greatness never before seen on Earth, and fallen in only a few hundred years.