View of the salt pools in the Salineras de Maras, Peru

Sacred Valley: Incan Ruins

Jan 12, 2018 - Carlos

On our last day in Cusco, after exploring Machu Picchu, we toured the Sacred Valley. With so many different ruins and places to explore and very limited time, we picked a few we thought were interesting to visit. Here’s a very brief summary of each.

Plaza de Armas in Cusco, Peru
Plaza de Armas in Cusco, Peru

Chinchero

Chinchero is a small old town in the Sacred Valley, famous for its Peruvian weaving and Inca ruins that were used by Inca emperor Tupac Yupanqui as a country resort. First, we visited a local community where we watched a weaving demonstration. The locals proved themselves very resourceful, obtaining detergent and various colors of dye from locally grown plants.

Local Chinchero woman demonstrating the weaving process, Chinchero, Peru
Local Chinchero woman demonstrating the weaving process, Chinchero, Peru

It was quite stunning to see the dirty alpaca wool transformed into bright white wool right in front of our eyes, after a few light scrubs in their mixed natural detergent and water solution. Right after, a dip in the colored solution dyed the wool in seconds.

Alpaca wool dyed with natural ingredients, Chinchero, Peru
Alpaca wool dyed with natural ingredients, Chinchero, Peru

After the demonstration, we proceeded to the ruins of Chinchero, where a 1607 colonial church towers the main plaza. The Spanish built the church on top of an Inca palace, and decorated it with ornate ceiling paintings and motifs. Unfortunately we were not allowed to take pictures inside the church.

Chinchero Inca ruins, Chinchero, Peru
Chinchero Inca ruins, Chinchero, Peru

Right outside the church, the terraces showed great stonework and were used for agriculture and farming purposes.

Moray

An impressive demonstration of Inca architecture and engineering, Moray had terraces in perfect concentric circles. Moray was speculated to be the Inca laboratory for agriculture.

Concentrical circles in the Moray Inca laboratory, Moray, Peru
Concentrical circles in the Moray Inca laboratory, Moray, Peru

Its orientation with regards to the wind and sun, as well as its shape and depth, created temperature differences of as much as 15°C from top to bottom. That is the equivalent of simulating a 1,500m (5,000 ft) in elevation gain in a depression of only 30m (100 ft)! No wonder more than 3,8000 types of potatoes and over 55 varieties of corn grew amongst the varied elevations.

Corn and potato varieties grown in Peru
Corn and potato varieties grown in Peru

Needless to say, Moray really appealed to our scientific (and nerdy) sides. It was also nice to look at, a blend of stones and nature in eye-pleasing form.

Salinera de Maras

A break from the usual Inca ruins of stone and terrace, Salinera de Maras is an area of salt ponds near the town of Maras. It was more than just a pretty salt mine landscape, however. Since pre-Inca times salt has been harvested from the region by evaporating salty water coming from an underground spring. The water flow is carefully controlled and gradually fills terraced ponds lining the side of a mountain.

Salt water flowing through the channel that feeds the salt pools, Salineras de Maras, Peru
Salt water flowing through the channel that feeds the salt pools, Salineras de Maras, Peru

There are over 4,000 pools, each around 5 square meters in area and about 10cm deep. During the rainy season, workers let small streams of salty water flood the pools. The salt slowly precipitates and once it’s time, the workers block the flow to the pool and scrape the salt from the bottom.

View of the salt pools in the Salineras de Maras, Peru
View of the salt pools in the Salineras de Maras, Peru

We spent some time wandering around the narrow paths in between the pools and admiring the view. It was very unique, we had never seen anything quite like it. Patches of white with red all along the brown hill. The area seemed particularly out of place amongst the usual rocky hills and mountains nearby.

Julie and Carlos visiting the Salineras de Maras, Peru
Julie and Carlos visiting the Salineras de Maras, Peru

Apparently the salt produced here is used by gourmet chefs across Peru. It is not commercially sold since it’s pretty expensive and is meant mostly for touristic purposes.

Ollantaytambo

The royal estate of Inca emperor Pachacuti (who’s responsible for most of the amazing Inca ruins), Ollantaytambo served as the stronghold for the Inca resistance against the Spanish invaders. The ruins of Ollantaytambo were structured into four districts – urban, religious, military and farming.

View of the town of Ollantaytambo, Peru
View of the town of Ollantaytambo, Peru

The urban district lies where the city is located today in the valley, while the remainder were built on the hills that surround the city. Incas must have been great climbers with long legs because the steps were always high and steep! Terraces were used for agriculture, while the sun temple and other religious structures were right next to it.

Terraces of Ollantaytambo, Peru
Terraces of Ollantaytambo, Peru

The Ollantaytambo ruins were pretty big, and they extended well beyond the very small portion we visited. We saw some on the very other side of the mountain, across the valley, that were supposedly used for storing food since it was well ventilated from the breeze. One could probably spend all day just at Ollantaytambo alone.

It was a bit sad not to be able to spend more time to explore the way we’ve been used to in our previous travels, but our time was limited and it was good that we made it here at all.

Pisac

Named after the Pisac bird, the Pisac ruins were built based on the shape of the bird common to the area. A zoomed out photo of the area shows the bird shape. Pisac lies at a strategic point for the Incas – the entrance of the Sacred Valley from the jungle, where the Incas’ enemies lived. Within the ruins, several structures such as the temple of the sun, altars, ceremonial platforms keep the tourists busy. (Are you seeing the theme in all the Incan ruins yet?) Pisac was also very large in area, and we saw just a small fraction.

Ruins of Pisac, Peru
Ruins of Pisac, Peru

Having seen the ruins mentioned above that are all similar in structure, our favorite part of Pisac was to sit down and enjoy the gorgeous view of the valley. The outlines of terraces curved with the valley, perfectly framing the mountains in front of us. The Incas really knew how to pick their spots – all of their cities were always built at fantastic viewpoint, which were strategic locations as well.

Julie overlooking the valley from Pisac, Peru
Julie overlooking the valley from Pisac, Peru

Just as the last rays of sunshine brightened the old Incan ruins, our time in Cusco and the Sacred Valley came to an end. Though our time was short, we had a good crash course in Inca history and Inca ruins – after a few, you start seeing the patterns and similarities. It has definitely been an adventure-packed 4 days spent in the area, visiting the Rainbow Mountain, the world wonder of Machu Picchu and the ruins on the Sacred Inca Valley. Making our way south and towards Bolivia, we stopped by Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca to explore the local culture.