37 – Salty and Concentric Peru

By , February 22, 2013

October 25 to 28, 2010

The salt ponds of Maras, Peru, have been in operation for over a thousand years!

We awoke in Aguas Calientes still buzzing from our previous day at Machu Picchu. But unlike that day’s grey start, this day began with glorious sunshine. We boarded what felt like the slowest train in South America and enjoyed a leisurely clickity-clack ride back to Ollantaytambo where our trusty trucklet, Yuki the Suzuki, waited patiently for us in a hotel parking lot. Relieved to find her still intact, we loaded our backpacks into her cramped hind quarters and blasted out of there. General direction – south to Cuzco.

Our first stop was the evaporation salt ponds of Maras, which have been in operation for over a thousand years. The source for this cooperatively-run enterprise is a salty spring that bubbles up from deep below. Workers divert the water to hundreds of salt ponds on a tiered hillside using canals and valves (rags stuffed into pond openings). Ponds are filled to about a foot deep and then allowed to evaporate in the hot sun. A few days later, all that remains is a thin layer of salt. The workers scrape it, bag it and trade it for llamas and Chevy trucks.

By the time we finished touring the vast array of ponds, the day was getting late so we asked the ticket lady if we could camp nearby. She pointed up the hill to a remote building which was the old salt warehouse. She said no one would bother us there. We thanked her and drove to the site – it was perfect. We set up our tent and after dinner, watched the most intense electrical storm we’d ever seen – and all under a starry night sky. We’d see flashes coming from various directions around us near the horizon, each time silhouetting the nearby mountains, but we never heard a thing. No thunder – nothing. It was like distant storms raged all around us, but so far away that they remained silent. This went on for hours. Surreal.

After a great sleep and breakfast, dark clouds appeared and started to spit rain. We hastily packed up camp and drove back to the salt ponds … to buy some salt of course. Back on the road, we passed through the actual town of Maras and just outside it, we found Moray, an ancient (what else did you expect in Peru?) Inca agricultural test site. Its size and construction boggled my mind. Set into a bowl about a half-mile wide, the Incas tiered the land into concentric circles, built a water distribution system and planted each tier with a variety of crops. Their scientists then studied the crops to better feed their empire. Wow. (ROZ: And not a single speck of GMOs! Double WOW! While I’m at my pulpit, hats off to Peru for recently implementing a 10-year ban on the importation, production and use of genetically modified seeds and foods. Take THAT Monsanto! In your face! Go Peru!!)

Since the day was still early, we decided to return to Cuzco. As we drove through the gently undulating farmland, I was amazed by the infinite shades of brown I saw. Soon we were back in busy Cuzco where we searched for a cheap hotel with parking, but struck out. We did, however, find a place to do our 10 kg (22lbs!) of laundry – yeah! We then returned to the same place we stayed before, the Quinta Lala overlander campground. There were a few familiar faces there (like Aussie Dan and Belgium Guy), plus a few new faces too.

One of the new guys there told me he was getting his vehicle’s rear suspension stiffened at a local garage. What a good idea, I thought. With all the gear we had crammed into Yuki, her sagging leaf springs left only an inch of travel between her axles and the rubber stops located on the other side of our seats. This meant that every speed bump or pot hole we hit too fast became a jarring experience transmitted right up our spines. Ouch! We had survived this far, but the next country on our agenda was Bolivia and its roads were notoriously atrocious. Something had to be done.

The next day, I found the garage in an industrial part of Cuzco. It was a huge walled compound full of trucks and buses in various states of reassembly. Three or four mechanics worked on various projects around the yard and would occasionally solicit advice from the head mechanic who lived in a tiny building with his family within the compound. I guess he and his dogs also provided security for the yard at night.

Any doubts about the various mechanics’ abilities evaporated when I spotted a familiar American truck and camper. It belonged to our German pals, Ollie and Sabine, who we met during our last stay in Cuzco. They had been camping in the mechanic’s compound for three days getting some brake work done. While it was taking longer than expected, Ollie was happy with their work. I also noticed a number of gringo adventure tour buses being worked on too. The Aussie and Kiwi drivers confirmed Ollie’s opinion of the mechanics: good, but slow.

Satisfied, I left Yuki with the mechanics and took a cab into town to run a few errands. When I returned, I discovered two sweaty mechanics still struggling to cut off some rusted bolts under Yuki. They had managed, however, to remove my leaf springs which were now at another shop getting beefed up. While I waited and chatted with the adventure drivers, the chief mechanic’s wife brought me lunch – chicken soup and rice. Evidently, it was lunchtime and she was feeding anyone in the garage – mechanics, customers, the guy from next door, whoever. Can’t say that’s ever happened to me at a garage in Canada. Best I ever got offered was crap coffee and some week-old girl guide cookies.

As the day wore on, it became clear that my leaf springs wouldn’t be coming back from the other shop in time for these mechanics to install them so with a sigh, I departed in a taxi and returned to the Quinta Lala campground for more beers with fellow travellers around the camp fire. Later, drifting off to sleep, I hoped Yuki would be ready to go the next morning. Not just because I wanted to drive fast over speed bumps without crushing our vertebrae, but because our visa was expiring in a week and if we didn’t get out of Peru in time, customs could seize Yuki. We had heard about a German couple who lost their VW van that way, so we were getting nervous. It was time to roll!


3 Responses to “37 – Salty and Concentric Peru”

  1. matt says:

    Heya. still loving the journey. Are you guys still out there where are you now?

  2. matt says:

    Oops just saw update on the right side there..

    • Trond says:

      Glad to hear you’re still enjoying it Matt. It’s fun for us to write it even though we’ve been home for years, as it allows us to relive it all over again. Cheers!

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