The Sacred Valley is incredibly rich in history. It seems nearly every town has an Incan archaeological site, and people have been living here since pre-Incan times. I’ve admired the ancient stone terraces on surrounding hillsides from afar, and I’ve become accustomed to the Incan walls incorporated into the modern architecture of Cusco. But up until now, I hadn’t really taken the time to explore the wealth of archaeological sites the region offers. All that changed this week when I bought my “boleto turistico” and became a full-blown Sacred Valley tourist.
The tourist ticket gives you access to various archaeological sites, museums and tourist attractions in and around Cusco. It’s a bit pricey but valid for ten days, and with a little planning is well worth the price. Luckily for me, I have my own personal trip planner and tour guide! Johnny, who has already accompanied me on various Q’ente-related adventures, has jumped at the chance to put his tourism studies into practice. He gets to rehearse his presentation at each site, and I am his captive audience. I can also teach him how to say certain terms in English, so it works out perfectly for both of us. We’ve gone on a spree in the last few days, and have brought other Mosqoy students along on a couple of our adventures. The more the merrier!
Our first stop was Sacsayhuaman, the Incan ruins that overlook Cusco.
Johnny and Raul, also a tourism student, shared their knowledge with me. Sacsayhuaman was a sacred complex, probably a temple of the sun. The stones used to build the walls are enormous! We had an enjoyable afternoon exploring the expansive complex and admiring the views of the city below. The next day we visited the nearby ruins of Q’enqo, also a sacred site. There we saw the stone altars that were probably used to sacrifice black llamas, which represented purity. Johnny also pointed out the stone niches that used to hold mummies, who guarded the entry to the holy altars. It’s possible that the walls of Q’enqo were originally covered in thin sheets of gold to reflect the sunlight. If there was gold there it’s long gone though, removed centuries ago by early raiders.
Over the weekend I did a solo mission to Pisac, a town about an hour away from Cusco. The ruins there are very impressive, huge stone terraces descending all the way down the mountainside. It was a beautiful sunny day and I had a lovely afternoon wandering in the hills. There were very few people there and I could marvel at Incan architectural genius in peace. Some of the buildings have been reconstructed so I saw how the site would have originally looked. On the way home I walked down to the town of Pisac. It was a wonderful stroll along a dirt path that offered great views of the valley in the late afternoon light.
On Sunday we stepped things up a notch and had a full-day bicycle adventure! Johnny, Cristian and I rented bikes and took them on the bus to a village about an hour and half outside of the city. From there we biked along country roads in the sunshine. We passed villagers working in potato fields, stopped to admire a lagoon, and saw our fair share of sheep, cows and pigs. All of this while the sun sparkled on glacier-capped mountains in the distance.
Our first destination was the Incan ruins of Moray. Moray is very impressive, a series of circular terraces that lead down to a central ring. The theory is that Moray was an Incan agricultural experiment. Different crops were supposedly cultivated on each terrace. Some say that there is a temperature difference from the lowest to highest terraces, which allowed the farmers to produce a wide variety of foods. Ceremonies were also performed there, and Moray has impressive acoustics. When you stomp your feet on the ground in the central ring, a hollow noise echoes throughout the site like a drum.
From Moray we cycled onwards to Maras. We passed through the town of Maras, known for the Spanish family crests carved in stone above nearly every doorway. The real attraction of Maras lies in the valley a few kms from the town. We coasted down the hillside, rounded the corner and saw the famous salt mines! The salt ponds have been in operation since Incan times, and are now owned and worked by the people of Maras. I learned that there are three phases of salt production. The first salt taken from the ponds is high-grade salt for export. The second phase is medium-grade salt, and the third is the famous “pink salt” thought to have various health benefits. They aren’t working there at this time of year, because the rainy season means the water doesn’t evaporate from the ponds quickly enough for much salt to form. We were free to wander through the site and examine the different ponds. We even tasted some salt straight from the edge of one pond.
Tasty! From Maras we biked down a very steep hill and made our way to Urubamba, where we caught the bus back to Cusco just as the sun started to creep behind the hills.
So far I’ve had a fantastic week seeing the sights. I can’t believe I hadn’t visited some of these places earlier, but it really makes sense to do it with the package ticket. I still have four and a half days left, so who knows what marvels I’ll see before my ticket expires! Better get out there and keep exploring!