The patchwork fields are gorgeous shades of green with that magnificent backdrop of the Andes Mountains, the second largest mountain range in the world and the youngest. In this fertile Sacred Valley, the world’s largest corn plants are grown, in tons of varieties. They dry corn in the fields. We see them spread out the big patches of creamy white corn ears on blankets.
Children walk miles to school and return by 1 pm to help their parents in the fields. Lunch is corn, potatoes and beans, cooked every day and carried into the fields with them where they stay all day. In the afternoon, the women bring chichi to the men in the fields to drink. Chichi is made of roasted corn and is 2-3% alcohol, giving them a boost to get through the rest of the day. At day’s end, their tiny, mud brick homes, are illuminated by a single lightbulb.
Machu Picchu is the destination of millions when visiting this fantastic area, but one should not overlook wonderful sights in and around the Sacred Valley, that leads up to Machu Picchu.
Moray, a large ancient experimental agricultural station is one of these sights. This crop laboratory was created out of a natural geographical depression which the pre-Incans used to their advantage. Circular terraces were crafted in the deep pit which was used for growing crops. Graduations of sun, shade and elevation throughout the different terraces created dramatic differences in temperature, turning the pit into a cluster of microclimates. For example, the lower part of this gardening ampitheater is hot with little wind.Each circle is a different climate, from low altitude to alpine, representing the coast to the rain forest. Different soils were added to each terrace.
A system of aqueducts around every terrace was built, allowing the water to drain to the next terrace level. This is where potatoes, which were once poisonous, were domesticated. They say there are now over 5-6,000 varieties of potatoes. It was here that the Incas learned to grow corn and potatoes in a variety of elevations, enabling them to fuel the expansion of this amazing empire.
The salt mines, or salinas, are another worthwhile side trip. A spring of warm salty water was diverted to thousands of pools where sunlight evaporates the water, leaving a thin crust of salt. These 5,000 small pools with shallow rims built around them are tended by 260 miners from nearby villages, The beds need to be prepared at the beginning of the dry season, by tamping down the clay, which creates a waterproof liner, taking 2-3 weeks to evaporate. It is very hard on their skin and eyes, for it is so intensely bright. This salt-drying technique is ancient and the end product only reaps a few cents in the local village. Visitors can wander the narrow crunchy paths up and down the hillsides at their leisure.
A steep, breathless walk north from Cusco takes you to the amazing hilltop fortress of Sacsayhuaman. Three ramparts of zig-zagging walls that run for nearly 300 meters with the largest stones, nearly 8.5 meters high and weighing 361 tons, is incredibly impressive.
The boulders in this temple to the rain and sun are as big as tractor trailers, small homes, refrigerators, stacked and wedged in a seamless puzzle. They are so tight and perfectly fitted that not even a thin sheet of paper could be slid in between the joints. Every Inca citizen had to spend a few months a year working on such public works, using log sleds and levers to move the great stones from far away. The gravity and weight required to move such a piece of the planet is humbling.
We walk through a winding rock tunnel where we have to hold hands in the pitch black. Tunnels like this one once connected to the city of Cusco far below us. It leads us to the top of the ruins which is a marvelous place to watch the sunset over the pumpkin-colored, clay tile roofs of Cusco. There is a peaceful stillness here, even with tourists milling around. Just being in the presence of such a wall is grounding. www.visitperu.com