In Which The Spirits of the Mountains Move Me

We are sitting at 11,000 feet above sea level, and lush green mountains tower around us on all sides. They are touching the sky, and their shoulders are enrobed with clouds like incense that has an aroma beyond the limits of detection of the human olfactory system.

The shaman sits in front of us telling us of the Incan beliefs, and of Pachamama, mother earth, and the spirits of the mountains. Water, he tells us, is happiness, because where there is water there is life.

We all hold three coca leaves in front of us, eyes closed, and focus on our hopes while he chants a prayer in Quechua. And the rain begins to fall. He doesn’t stop but collects our leaves and continues to assemble an offering to the gods, finally folding it all in paper. Once done, he tells us that the rain was a sign of good luck.

It didn’t seem so lucky when the rainstorm drove us out of our lunch tent and into the van to take shelter.

The central Andes are young, as mountains go, dating back a mere 10 million years, and I haven’t seen anything like them before. They remind me of Kauai, but they are far more extensive than the tiny island near the western end of the Hawaii chain. It’s like I’m in Manhattan, whereas Kauai is Boston. The floor of the sacred valley lies at about 8,600 feet above sea level, which makes the size of the mountains even more impressive.

This may be the most beautiful place I have ever been. Seriously.

We started the morning in Chinchero, 12,000 feet above sea level. The breathing is getting a little better for us all, but still we pant as we climb. On occasion we pass a local wearing traditional garb. I have previously seen such people in the city and thought that perhaps they are wearing costumes in order to make a sale, but here this is not the case. Our guide informs us that until 30 years ago, all people here wore traditional dress, and that, although some now wear more Western outfits, many still hew to traditional ways.

Chinchero, we are told, is the birth of rainbow and we are standing where that celebration is held annually. Chinchero is also the home of the potato. I query our guide in an effort to figure out what that means, and if the two are related, but the response is more coincidental than anything. Somewhere in my mind I envisioned a leprechaun standing next to a pot of potatoes, so I’m a bit disappointed by this.

While in Chinchero we visited a local shop where the women bring in wool, process it, dye it, and weave it into ponchos, cloths, runners, and indeed any sort of fabric one can imagine.

The process was absolutely fascinating, and many people purchased an item or two as a souvenir.

We were all most fascinated, however, by the women carrying babies on their backs.

One woman attempted to explain the process using a doll. There seemed to be a fair amount of luck involved, including a key step, near the end, in which on tucks a corner of the fabric under the baby. Otherwise it might fall out. That would be bad.

The last stop for the morning was a visit to the Incan crop laboratory in Moray. There is a massive and gorgeous, complex of terraces here that swoop in graceful arcs and circles. The end result was the creation of eight microclimates. The Incans used them to develop crops that would grow well at altitude.

I’m astounded at how brilliant the Incas were to be able to figure this out and develop crops this way. Quinoa, corn, potatoes, and coca trees were some of the things they worked on here.

After lunch, we made one last afternoon stop at the local salt flats. 30-40 million years ago this area was under the sea, and when the mountains rose, massive salt deposits were left behind. A spring of highly concentrated salt water emerges from the mountains here, and the locals use it to make salt during the dry season.

They have been extracting the salt this way for over 2,000 years.

This is the sort of thing I absolutely love. The traditions that have held on and tie us to our ancestors. I won’t pretend say they’re more efficient, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have value or importance.

Today has been reassuring to me in that here, high in the mountains, parts of the Incan culture continue to exist and evolve. Evolution cannot be avoided, indeed it cannot even be held at bay. But we can work to learn from their knowledge and wisdom, and honor it while it still exists.

Tomorrow, we will hit the Inca Trail.

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