Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Balloon flight in Urubamba, festival processions and steep salt pans

PHIL: Day 79/3 May
Country number 94 for me and number 25 for Allie with a very brief hop across the plateau above Urabamba in Jeff’s very dilapidated US-built balloon.
Rather disappointing that in such perfect conditions, with the clouds gradually clearing from the surrounding mountains, he chooses to land after only five minutes because the balloon has not flown for 20 months and is not licensed or insured.
A pre-flight  ancient Quechua ritual of holding three coca leaves up in an offering to the mountain gods is followed by an in-flight scattering of more leaves to propitiate the spirits of the weather.
In downtown Urubamba a parade combines Catholic crucifixes with pagan masks and dances with woven whips. It is the festival of Tres Cruces with wild-looking half-men complete with leggings, condor feathers and woollen capes escorting shrines to the Virgin Mary carried by besuited elders of the community.
At the Plaza de Armas the priest gives a long sermon whilst the performers drink large quantities of alcohol.
One of the pagan figures lunges at the padre and his colleagues lash him mercilessly with their scourges. A solitary drunk berates us in Quechua and for a moment looks as if he might pursue us. Alcohol abuse amongst the rural population is clearly a major factor in Peru.
Our efforts to book places on the train to Aguas Calientes, the only access point for Machu Picchu, pays off after much discussion and a taxi ride to the station in Ollyantentambo  to pay for scarce and expensive tickets. There is lots of evidence that the Peruvians are squeezing every possible dollar out of their few tourists following a lean year of political unrest.
The afternoon is spent taking a taxi to the remote and dilapidated village of Maras and a salt spring which has been a source of salt since Inca times. Pisarro apparently owned the rights to the many salt pans ranked like rice terraces on the hillside.
 A harvest festival with fireworks and ‘chicha’ maize beer was in full swing with old ladies in white stove-pipe hats, one of whom dragged me onto the dance floor and offered a moustachioed kiss after several wild minutes dancing.
 Jim Rogers, the American who runs our ‘quinta’ pension, regales us over dinner with the history of his former transport business in Oakland, CA, where he made a fortune out of shipping containers around the Bay Area. His second wife is a rather prim-looking Peruvian former-schoolmistress who rules Jim with a rod of iron.
ALLIE: DAY 79: Thursday, 3rd of May

Ballooning in Peru, a procession in Urubamba and a visit to the salt pans

I feel so much better! Finally a good nights sleep. No barking dogs, no disco – just the sound of the little stream next to our hostel. Jeff and his team pick us up at 7am and we drive up to the take off site on top of the plains.

His crew unpacks the balloon. Oh dear! The kit looks better then the Bolivian ones but far from being up-to-date. It’s an American built Head AX9-118 (this won’t mean anything to you I do realize, neither did it tell me anything) with a wooden burner grip and adventurous looking fuel system.
Phil does the inflation and without any further checks we take off at 3800meters near the salt pans of Salineros. Oh, but not before we did a prayer to the mountain Gods!
Jeff seems to be really into that kind of thing and so each of us has to hold 3 leaves of coca, say a prayer and then hide the leaves underneath a rock.
This is only part I of the whole ceremony. Part II follows up in the air, when Jeff scatters a hand full of leaves into the air from the balloon.
The light unfortunately is not very good yet and Jeff decides he only wants to do a short hop to the next field (he hasn’t flown for nearly 2 years!!) even though the winds and the countryside are perfect.
What a shame! So after only 7minutes in the air, and at least 10 pilot light failures, he calls for this crew to help with the landing. Oh well, a new country in the logbook: Phil’s number 94 and my no. 26!

After landing the sun comes out and illuminates the landscape into the most stunning colours. We should be up in the air! Anyway, we learn more stories from Jeff, like this one: the locals – according to him - only shag when they are totally drunk.
And since this is the time of the festivals and procession, it’s also the time to drink and dance. (As we find later today, there might be a lot going on in the bedrooms tonight!)

We return to our pension for breakfast and then head out for an exploration of Urubamba town. And we are so lucky: we bump into a magnificent procession of 5 crosses, wild dancers and musicians. The festival is called festival of the cross but the masks and dances look very pagan to us and are probably a reminiscent of a harvest festival. The town itself is also really pleasant with lots of traditional adobe built houses and a lovely church square in the centre.

Our plans to visit Machu Picchu tomorrow morning by train turn into a bit of a nightmare: the train doesn’t stop anymore at Urubamba and we have to take a taxi to the next town called Ollantaytambo where we have to buy the tickets today. We are told nearly all trains are already sold out, but the bloody train company can’t be bothered to put on more wagons. When we finally manage to get tickets they are an incredible 224 US Dollars for the two of us for only a 2hours round journey. What a rip off! And we know that we will need to pay for another taxi tomorrow, plus the entrance fee and a minibus ride up the top. 

A short beer brake at the sunny courtyard and fare well to Jeff, then we take a taxi up to the salt pans of Salineros (very near our take off site). The extra money to do this trip turns out to be really worth it: a thousand white salt terraces are perched into a narrow valley reminding you rather of the rice terraces of South China.
This is fantastic, but even better is the party of the local Salineros workers that have a dance and drink party at their little mountain hut. We are invited to drink some of their foamy and suspiciously alcoholic looking ‘Chicha’ (fermented corn beer). Before we have the chance to come up with some excuses, Phil is being dragged out to the dancing arena by an old lady with an impressive stove pipe hat.
The band plays a song that goes on forever and I bet Phil was finding it hard to keep up with the rhythm of the lady. I in the meantime tried to hide behind our bag and camera to avoid being asked to dance with some of the already completely drunken looking lads that wishfully eyed at me. So this town must be very busy in about 9 months time!

A short visit to a large cathedral in the small hill town of Maras completes this worthwhile tour and our day. The local farmers all chase their cattle back home, so a mixture of goats, bulls and donkeys (burros) block the roads as they walk giving me a chance to take last pictures of this beautiful scenery.


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