Apr/May 2008 Travel

Don't Share a Cab in Peru

by Jason R. Riley

Don't share a cab in Peru. The words were printed in all the guidebooks. You would be robbed. Stabbed. Dumped and left to die. Carrion for condors. Normally, sound advice. Yet on an April day the Pachamama smiled upon a traveler for tossing the guidebook and the opinion aside.

"Take the bus bound for Urubamba at half-seven. Just tell the driver you want to go to Salinas," the clerk said in Spanish. "Don't worry, just get off when he tells you--there's a bus stop out there."

"But I thought it was named Maras. I want to go to the Inca salt pans."

"Oh, right, los saleneras de Maras: Salinas, Maras. It's the same."

The bus pulled over on a featureless plain of brown grass and I wondered if perhaps I had made a mistake; though across the highway stood a sign indicating Maras was several kilometers away, and a place called Moray three times that distance. Plenty of space to run, yet nowhere to hide. I crossed the road and found four parked taxis--open hoods and oily wrenches occupied three of the drivers. I chose the fourth.

"How much for Maras?"

"You don't want to go to both? To Moray, it's a new site. Very beautiful."

"OK, for them both, how much?"

"Twenty-five for one, thirty-five for both."

We cruised with three windows down through the hamlet of Maras en route to Moray and had completed a half-circuit of the central plaza, when a woman in a white fedora ran toward us, flagging us down. We stopped. "Are you going to Moray? Can we share with you?" she said, breathless with the Andean air. "We are three." Her travel companions looked on from a pay phone against a crumbling building.

My driver turned to me without an opinion. The printed words: Don't share a cab. Don't share a cab... I rested my arm along the window ledge, fingering the spot where door lock should have been; now useless, nothing more than the threaded stub of a rusty bolt. She had a kind face. "Yes, of course," I said and scooted to the seat behind the driver.

A skinny man, Marcelino, slid in next to me and nodded "thanks." I didn't immediately register the women's names, but then who takes down names of random cab-mates?

During our fifteen minutes together, it was soon apparent the woman sitting up front--Lucia--was from the village. "Moray has only been open to travelers since a few years. Not many know of it. I'm giving my friends a tour. Would you like to join us?"

"Really?" We had met only moments ago and her offer gave me a smile. "Sure, I'd love to."


Viewing from the edge, the strange craters fell away concentrically, as though the site were a mold for an overturned wedding cake--each layer about a meter and a half deep. From the bottom to the fourth layers grew rows of corn and potatoes--though the stalks planted in the bottom were twice the height of those near the top. As we descended the trail, Lucia pointed to the stone irrigation system, which she claimed was still fully operational. We hopped down a set of three stone steps projecting from the retaining walls--as though straight out of a Saturday matinee.

The Inca's brilliant purpose became apparent the moment the heat change brought the sweat to my back. "Up to five degrees at each level," Lucia explained. "Their empire stretched from Colombia and Ecuador to Chile, and from los yungas to la cordillera." They acclimated their crops to the various parts of the empire within these craters. "This is a very special place. Or," she continued, "it could just be a spot where they grew and freeze-dried potatoes. We call them moraya." I preferred the former, and by her tone so did she. We passed down to the center ring, and as predicted, the temperature rose again.

The heat gradient was really too much: I unzipped my sweatshirt and realized I carried a bag of coca leaves with me. When it came to the coca leaf in Peru, it was good form to share. "Would anyone care for hoja de coca?" I asked.

"Yes, what a great idea," Lucia said. "We'll make an offering to the Pachamama." The Incan Earth goddess.

I handed her the coca bag I had purchased in Bolivia a few weeks before.

"This is a beautiful chuspa," she said, examining the bag. "From Tarabuco, isn't it?"

"Yes, Tarabuco."

"Everyone take four leaves--separate them out, like this." Lucia sat with her back against the stone wall and passed the chuspa around our circle. I fanned out my leaves and held them as she had--like a priest presenting a communion host. "Now, close your eyes." With eyes closed, I listened to Lucia's peaceful voice.

"There is one leaf for each of the four sacred peaks around Moray, for los apus, the mountain gods."

"The leaves also represent the four winds--blow on them, four times."

"They are for este, oeste, sur, y norte. Now think of something, of something you desire most in this world. Silently, reflect upon why you desire it, and if you deserve it. Tell the Pachamama with your thoughts." We concentrated, still for minutes. The act of gently focusing on the leaves between my fingers filled me with a serene connection to this place.

"Dig a hole in the Pachamama. Bury the coca leaves, and fold the Pachamama over them gently."

Lucia smiled at me and I gave her my hand to help her to her feet.

As we hiked to the other craters, Lucia pointed out various plants and insects; purple berries which stained your teeth; and dried cactus used to fuel fire on the treeless slopes.

We returned to what was now our cab, and when we arrived back in Maras, Lucia invited me to join them for lunch; to her parents home. I asked our driver if he minded, he did not, and would return in an hour. Since I hadn't paid him yet, I trusted he would. We continued on foot to Lucia's childhood home.

The streets of Maras existed in terrible condition: one impassable lane, little more than an eroded boulder field a four-wheel drive would find difficult. Meeting another car in the village would mean someone must reverse--sometimes two or three blocks--to a paved side street to let the other car pass. In this part of Maras there were only two streets paved with cement. The transition to any cross street dropped a foot or two because the dirt immediately downstream had been washed away.

A stone carved IHS decorated the lintel over the door. I asked and Lucia said her grandfather told her it had to do with the Jesuit church on the plane below Maras. The church had been destroyed in an earthquake long ago, rebuilt, and some of the old stones ended up in the village.

She led us to the kitchen, a small building separate from the living quarters. Here, her grandfather, the storyteller, was asleep in a chair beneath an overhang, oblivious to the influx and perhaps dreaming of that great earthquake. Her mother came out from the kitchen to greet us, and Lucia told her of our encounter and how we offered hoja de coca to the Pachamama. Mother's smile doubled, her eyes radiating. "How beautiful to offer Her hoja de coca." If she'd had any doubts about receiving an extra guest, this news had relieved them--she took me by the arm, patted my hand, and drew me into the adobe kitchen.

The room was dark: the only light entered from the doorway. It shone golden upon the particles of wood smoke filling the room, thickly scattering the light as though one might gather it up in a basket. On a small ceramic stove boiled a pot of choclo--Inca corn with nickel-sized kernels--and another of chuno lawa, a thick corn and potato soup. A newly added log doubled the smoke in the room, as there was no chimney, simply a square hole in the roof above the stove. Cinders flashed and burned out as they bounced off the walls toward the ceiling. The underside of the thatched roof glinted like obsidian--a slick black with ages of soot and creosote.

I sat next to my other cabmate, Marisol. "We cook with wood like this in Mexico," she said, watching Lucia's mother tend the fire. "Well, not in Mexico City, where I'm from. But out in the country, yes." Her eyes grew wide, and she tapped my arm. She pointed to a squeaking noise, much like water dripping from a faucet into a half filled bath. Atop a scattering of corn cobs and fresh vegetable matter scuttled twenty cuy--guinea pigs. Their white and brown fur seemed to glide across the dirt floor, as though on wheels. They served at once as pets, vacuum cleaners, and potential dinner. On this occasion I was content to learn they would avoid the later mentioned fate.

A scruffy dog tried to enter the kitchen, and Mother screamed at him, "Asesino!" She said last night he had killed two newborn kittens; their snow-white mother sat on the end of my bench with a disapproving look.

In walked a man--a strikingly handsome man--Lucia's father. Before he sat next to me he took up my hand and welcomed me to his home. The combination of his kind eyes and his strong grip reminded me of my grandfather. He patted my shoulder and I sat again. Lucia and Marcelino joined the table and mother dished out steaming bowls of chuno lawa. I asked about the the delicious herb seasoning the white stew. "Huacatay," Mother said, "It's a grass, an herb, native to the area." Mother passed out cobs of choclo, but the chuno lawa was very filling, so I asked if I could take it for a snack. "Of course."

"You're here to see ruins?" Father asked. "We have another ruin just over here, Cheq'ok." He pointed behind him, through the wall. Cheq'ok had not been officially opened yet, but the watchman was an old friend of the family's, and would gladly let us look around. We decided we should.

When our driver returned, we asked him to take us to the end of the village, to Cheq'ok.

The ruins were compacted into the side of the hill overlooking the village. The roofs had been reconstructed with traditional methods, but as with all Incan stone work, the trapezoidal stone foundations were absolutely solid and would probably stand forever. "My father said this was where the Inca stored their seeds, the same ones they grew back in Moray," Lucia said. She used to play here as a child, but she hadn't remembered the back wall being there, and clearly the roof hadn't been either.

The seed depositories stood as a series of lean-tos open to the east--down the hill--while a wall cut into the hill enclosed the western side. The lean-to protected a row of earthen bins, each had held a different type of corn--one for the jungle region, or here in Maras--for all parts of vast empire.

"Do you feel that?" Lucia spread her arms out to the sides as though a condor in flight. "That wind. It always blows straight into the building. Look at the bins again: what do you see?" Each bin was raised a foot or so, and the under-side was open--a vent for the cool air to pass through--thus keeping the seeds dry and refrigerated. A rocky, windswept hillside, seemingly having little utility, but it had two natural features making the same agriculture possible for the Inca from Chile to Colombia.

From this spot above the village, wind in the face, the landscape felt at once immense and open. On the plain below, alone, stood the reconstructed Jesuit church. The mountains rose far behind the church to the east, their peaks covered in clouds. Their inaccessible mass forced me to wonder which gods held the power in this spot: the apus and the Pachamama, or that of the Christians.

We drove back to town. A yellow pick-up filled with tomatoes had stalled in the road a few blocks from Lucia's. With no possibility of passing in the cab, Lucia, Marcelino, and Marisol hopped out, deciding to walk. I said goodbye to my friends and thanked them, thinking they would be spending a few more days in Maras.

Though no pick-up driver was in sight, a woman and shirtless toddler stood nearby. She said they had run out of gas and her husband should return soon. The truck had stalled just past the north-south route: as this part of Maras had but one north-south road and one east-west suitable for vehicle traffic, we could not pass.

After a few minutes the pick-up's driver came running along with a soda bottle filled with gasoline, but no funnel. He grabbed a plastic bag from inside the truck and emptied the gasoline into it as his wife held the bag open. Their young daughter stood on tiptoe, peeking into the gas tank--her nose right in the hole. A leak spouted in the plastic bag and began to tinkle upon the daughter's back.

"Cuidado, cuidado," we yelled. They stopped the stream by lifting up on the corner, and the wife pulled the child out of the way and wiped her back with the hem of her skirt. The husband pinched off the leaking corner and let the stream flow into the tank. It seemed about half the fuel made it into the tank, the remainder glistened on the dull truck panel and turned the street from tan to brown.

The husband alerted us to a second problem--he needed to pop the clutch to start the car: we had to reverse a few blocks to give him a run at it. While we could have asked him put the truck in neutral and roll backward far enough so we could pass, it seemed only fair to help the family on their way. I stayed behind to push the pickup. He added the weight of his daughter to the tomatoes and sat down behind the wheel. His wife took up a position next to me and we pushed. With just the two of us and the road's slight grade, we realized we'd never get the truck moving without unloading all the tomatoes. As fortune would have it, an army of blue cardigan sweaters marched down the street--school had just let out and we conscripted a few boys to help us push the overloaded truck. One boy stuck his hand in the spilled gasoline, quickly withdrew it--his face souring as he smelled the fumes--and he attempted to rub it out on his school pants. After a few sputtering attempts, we had the truck running, and the husband backed up a block to give us access the western road.

We stopped near Lucia's home, and there they waited, complete with luggage. They wanted to catch a bus to Urubamba, then to continue on to the north. On the ride to the bus stop I asked Marcelino to write down his information. "I'm a guide on the new trail to Vilcabamba. Vilcabamba, Yupanca, Espiritu Pampa." As he told me this, their bus had slowed to a stop across the highway.

"Buen viaje," we said. Lucia and Marisol rushed off to catch it before they had a chance to write anything: they were simply Lucia and Marisol. They waved from the window and their bus moved off, sloping toward the Sacred Valley of the Inca.

It was just the driver and me, and he invited me to move to the passenger seat. Earlier in the day we had chatted a little, but with the windows down conversation had been difficult. As we headed back toward Maras he told me he drove the cab only part of the year: during the high season he worked in the salinera. "If you'd like, I can guide you. I'll take you right out onto the salt pans. Most people don't get to go that close."

We bumped down a narrow dirt road, and upon turning a corner one side dropped away to a valley, the opposite side filled--every inch--with white and pink terraces. The valley wall appeared as though draped in a fine dentille: the edges of the clay pans peeking through the lace like the polished wood of a cherry table. It was truly a beautiful sight, though perhaps we should have waited to admire the view: we looked up just in time to come head on with a van. While the cab skidded to a stop on the gravel, our dust collided with the van's bumper. We reversed to a precarious turn-out to let them pass, and I shifted my weight toward the center of the car.

On a small observation platform stood three tourists; my driver walked us straight past them, down a narrow spine of earth between the pans and the salty creek that made this wonder possible.

"Here." My driver jumped into an empty pan and slapped his hand on the tamped clay--dead flat and very hard, each salt pan about four meters square, give or take. "Tierra blanca," he said.

The sun always seemed to be overhead, even so, it would take a month to evaporate the liquid from a single pan. Workers would then break up the salt cake, rinse it with saline and store it in warehouses along the top of the valley.

"Where's it come from, the salt water?" I asked, examining the orange streambed.

"There," he pointed, "up the mountain. Taste it."

I dipped my finger into the cold water. Incredibly, the water meandering from this little stream filled the channels that distributed saline to what seemed thousands of pans.

"At night we fill these here," he pointed to a series of deeper reservoirs, "so we don't waste any of the salt. These ones here are for bathing, the water is beneficial for arthritis."

"How long did the Inca use this site?"

"Inca? Oh, it's much older than the Inca. For thousands of years we've used it. Always the same way."

We walked back to the cab in silence, knowing the day's tour had come to an end. He drove slowly, as though reluctant to give up the company. I couldn't help smiling over how well things had worked out; how the simple act of sharing a taxi with strangers--against all written advice--proved absolutely the right decision.

Arriving back at the highway, my driver waited with me until a colectivo bound for Cusco arrived. We shook hands and I returned to the Inca capital. He never shared his name.


Previous Piece Next Piece