Sacred Valley


We spent one day of our journey exploring some of the sights of the Sacred Valley, about 1.5 hours driving from Cusco. We descended the high city via winding roads that led us to the small town of Ollantaytambo, situated along the Urubamba River. Here, we visited a small set of ruins on Temple Hill, which were the remnants of an Incan ceremonial center that overlooked the village, and also the site of the Inca’s preeminent victory over the Spanish in 1536. The main building was the Sun Temple which, for reasons unknown, was never completed. The one wall that remains standing is called the Wall of Six Monoliths, and each of the six pink granite slabs (mined from a nearby quarry) weighs roughly 50 tons. Steps away stood a second Incan wall that was part of the Enclosure of the Ten Niches. Our guide explained to us that this is interpreted as a solar calendar. The wall was meticulously designed so that an Incan doorway at one end faced the rising sun at the summer and winter solstices. Ten carved inlays along the wall would hold an idol for a number of days, and the idol’s progression from one insert to the next, and back to the door, would mark one calendar year. In addition to the partially-finished temple, the site also included a series of terraces, as well as Incan storehouses built onto the side of a sheer slope. In addition to being gifted engineers, the Incans also had to be tremendously strong and agile.

Finally, our guide showed us the Baños de la Ñusta (“princess baths”), a beautifully-carved stone fountain and yet another engineering masterpiece. The design consisted of three angular lines, representing each of the three worlds: the condor (the world above), the puma (the living/earth), and the snake (the underworld). At the top of the spout of falling water, the Inca created a small whirlpool, which contained sand to filter the water. To stop the flow, the bather would run her finger across the spout, which forced the now-trickling water back toward the rock. To restart the flow of water, she simply flicked the spout of water. Again, the design and execution of such a system was just remarkable.


From Ollantaytambo we traveled to Moray, a site comprised of immense agricultural terraces. Built with great precision, the series of concentric circles was roughly 100 feet deep. Because of this design, the temperature varied between 1-2°C between each level, with an overall difference of >20°F between the top and bottom terraces. It is predicted that this was a sort of experimental agriculture “laboratory.” The difference in temperature, wind, and sunlight would establish different microclimates along each terrace, allowing the optimal growth conditions of various crops to be determined. We wandered down to the bottom of the terraces, where we indeed noticed a distinct rise in temperature. Surprisingly, climbing back to the top of the terraces was a tad challenging. The stairs the Inca built into each terrace were a series of uneven rocks that jutted out from the walls, and were spaced unexpectedly far apart. A few of the individual rock steps were separated by such a gap that, being a fairly short individual, it felt like I would tumble backwards in an unbalanced stride. I couldn’t imagine hauling dozens of pounds of crops up those precarious steps from the lower terraces.


Continuing our journey around the Sacred Valley, we then headed to the salt terraces (salineras) just outside the neighboring village of Maras. The pre-Incan salt evaporation ponds are fed from an underground, saline stream within the hillside. There is a natural spring where the water exits, and a series of channels was created to direct the flow of water into the hundreds of terraced pools. The salt ponds are all owned by the community, and individual families in the village of Maras are responsible for harvesting the salt. Each owner allows water to fill the pond(s), then closes a water-feeder groove in the channel to discontinue the flow. After the water evaporates and the salt crystals precipitate, the worker then carefully harvests the salt and reopens the groove, again allowing the water to accumulate.

On our way back to Cusco, we made a brief stop in Chinchero, a small district of predominantly Quechua individuals about 20 minutes from Maras. Many of the women were clothed in traditional attire – colorful, hand-woven dresses and ponchos, and folk-style monteras (hats). We perused a large marketplace area, where villagers had set up impressive displays of hand-made textiles on blankets scattered through a grassy plaza beside a colonial, adobe church. We visited one woman who showed us the art of traditional Andean weaving, including hand-spinning alpaca (or sheep) wool and using natural dyes to color the soft fibers. A number of indigenous flowers, vines, leaves, and lichens are used to achieve the vibrant pink (Motemote seed), orange (‘beard of the rock’ moss), yellow (Quolla flower), green (Ch’illca leaf), blue (Tara pods), and purple (Ahuaypili leaf, purple corn) hues. Additionally, cochineal, a parasitic insect that thrives on the prickly pear cactus, is also utilized to develop a deep crimson shade (carmine), a color that is central to Andean cultures.

After gaining a greater appreciation for the labor-intensive craft, we paused briefly at a small hut nearby to try chicha morada, a traditional, sweet Peruvian beverage made from boiled purple corn, pineapple, cinnamon, and clove. As we were leaving, our guide, Frank, taught us how to play Sapo, a Peruvian coin toss game, out in the small yard. The game’s target looked like an antique, wooden end table, with a drawer in the front, and rows of holes carved into the top. In addition to the holes there are brass spinners and little wooden trap doors that act as obstacles, while a brass frog with his mouth wide open sits in the center of the table. Each player tosses coins on top of the cabinet, with the frog’s mouth being the ultimate goal. If a coin falls into one of the holes, it travels down into one of a series of chambers in the drawer, each marked with a different point value. The popular game originated from an ancient Inca legend. It is said that the Inca would throw gold coins into Lake Titicaca, a sacred lake that they believed to be the origin of the universe and the Incan civilization. According to Incan mythology, Viracocha (the god and creator of the Inca) was raised from the waters of Titicaca by the sun god, Inti, giving rise to the civilization. The Inca also believed that el sapo (the frog/toad) had magical powers. If a frog caught one of the gold pieces tossed into the lake, the individual’s wish would be answered.

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