I’m still working up to Machu Picchu- leaving it to last.
Quite close to Cusco are the ruins at Q’enco. It is one of the largest huacas (holy places) in the Cusco region, and like other huacas, it was built amongst naturally occurring rock structures. It is believed that sacrifices and mummification took place there. ‘Q’enco’ or Q’inqu is a Quechua word meaning ‘maze’, but it was the Spanish conquistadors who named it that: it is not known what the Inca actually called it. The name refers to the zigzag channels carved into rock where it is thought that the priests poured the sacred chicha, which they drank during the sacrifices.
Close to these ruins are eucalypt forests- yes, eucalypts! Apparently there are very few native trees left in Peru. Eucalypts were brought from Australia especially during the agrarian reform programs of the 1960s and 1970s. They were first promoted as a source for mine supports, and then as a source for fuel and building materials. They have since discovered that eucalypts dry out the soil and are highly flammable (we could have told them that), and there are now reafforestation projects to replace the eucalypts with Queuña and Chachacomo trees, native to the area.
Well, this is all rather close to Cusco, so let’s venture a little further afield to the Maras Salt Mines, about 40 kms out of Cusco. There are over 5,000 salt ponds, some unused and some owned by families. There is a subterranean spring which is directed into an intricate system of tiny channels that run down onto the ancient terraced ponds, none of which is more than 30 cm deep. As the sun evaporates the water, the salt precipitates on the walls and floor of the ponds.
The ponds are owned communally, and new families tend to get the outlying, disused ones at first. The size of the pond assigned depends on the size of the family. Last year tourists were banned from walking around the ponds because of people throwing contaminants into them, and now they are restricted to an observation deck.