On the other side of the mountain ridge overlooking Cusco, Peru’s Inca capital and beating heart of tourism, lies the Sacred Valley. Our friends Matthew and Lesley had come to spend a week’s vacation in the valley and we had raced through northern Peru to meet them. The valley runs roughly northwest-southeast for about 60km and right through the past 2,000 years of Peru’s history.
This history can be seen from the roadside, carved into the walls of even the steepest slopes. Thousands upon thousands of terraces, or andenes, line every available mountainside space, rendering the entire place a living cardboard sculpture. The terraces themselves are works of art in engineering. Not only do they increase the amount of arable land, but by changing the slopes of mountainsides and allowing water to pool on their flat surfaces, they provide a system for controlling landslides and water loss.
The Inca’s use of their terraces went beyond farming and fortification. The ruins of Moray consist largely of two terraced pits that may have served as an agricultural laboratory. From the top of the larger pit to the bottom, the temperature varies by 15C/59F, which approximates the average temperature difference between sea level and 1,000m. Adding to the laboratory hypothesis, the terrace steps were built to specific heights that appeared to correspond with with clearly defined differences in temperature and humidity (this links to a rather long, but very interesting academic paper. Skip to “Some conclusions and some hypotheses” on page 27 for the good stuff).
We had been looking forward to Peru’s Sacred Valley for a while. Early in our planning phase, we came across a overlander couple using the handle Our Open Road, who had set up shop there. Their stories and photos made us pretty excited to see the place in person.*
The valley has been occupied for millennia and was one of Peru’s pre-hispanic population centers. The density of its former population can be felt in the sheer number of ruins that cover its terrain. Some are ruins in the academic sense only; fortresses and andenes nestled amongst living towns awash in their market colors.
Pisac, Moray, Llactapata and Chinchero…we now marvel at never having heard their names. Machu Picchu is only the tip of a giant Inca iceberg. As long as Peru’s best known feat of native architecture is on your bucket list, go ahead and add the rest of the Sacred Valley. Your journey here won’t be complete if you skip these monuments.
Like true off-the-beaten-path travellers, we skipped one of the valley’s must-see spots and wound up instead in one of its (hopefully) least-visited ones. We aborted our visit to the salt mines of Maras in favor of examining Urubamaba’s clinic, where Matt and Lesley’s youngest could be treated for a borderline-anaphylactic reaction to peanuts. Everyday an adventure…
When Spanish conquistadores, under the command of Francisco Pizzaro and Diego de Almagro, first entered Peru’s Sacred Valley, they proceeded to strip it of every last ounce of gold and silver it contained. In place of metal, they had thought to leave behind only tears, cold flesh and blood. It is a testament to the survivors of that attempted genocide that today, the Sacred Valley remains full of wonders.
* We would later stumble upon them quite by coincidence in a marketplace in Pisac, where I deftly confused everyone by getting the details wrong in the story of how we’re connected through a mutual friend and then wished them a nice trip back in the States after they told us that they were headed to Brazil. I think people like me because I’m a good listener.