Trial Retirement

Cusco | The Sacred Valley of the Incas

The mighty Nile for the Egyptians, the adjoining Tigris-Euphrates of the Mesopotamians, and the Yangtze that fed ancient China. These mighty rivers fueled the rise of ancient civilizations that transformed humanity. The Inca empires rise to power and the growth of the villages under its reign was too strengthened by a great river, the Urubamba.

Sacred Valley

Running from southeast of Cusco the Urubamba River carved the Andes leaving a fertile Sacred Valley of about 62 miles (100 km) that stretches from Pisac to Ollantaytambo. Elevations range from 6,730 ft (2,050 meters) beneath Machu Picchu to 9,800 ft (3,000 meters) at Pisac. Civilizations even before the Inca rule took advantage of this nutrient-rich soil to progress using agriculture.

Tour of the Sacred Valley could be paired with Machu Picchu or taken on its own. Many travel agencies in Cusco offer different packages so you can shop for a deal that works best for you. The Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu combo we purchased was for $500 for 2 people. Inclusive of transportation, tour guides, breakfast, lunch, admission to the Sacred Valley pueblos, Peru Rail tickets to Aguas Calientes, accommodation in Aguas Calientes, breakfast, and admission to Machu Picchu.

Be certain of all the services that are included with the tour package before leaving the agency. Make sure to ask for the arrival window for pick up from your hotel and ask for contact information for the day itself in case you need to talk to someone.

This post will focus on our tour of the Sacred Valley pueblos. Chinchero, Moray, Maras & Ollantaytambo. This would typically include a tour of Urubamba & Pisac, but since we were going to Machu Picchu, we didn’t join the group to catch the train to Aguas Calientes.

Chinchero

Chinchero is somewhat the textile capital of Cusco. On our way, we stopped by a small artisanal shop that sells colorful clothing made of naturally dyed wool. Our group gathered in the courtyard where they showed us how to make this one-of-a-kind fabric from raw alpaca hair.

The alpaca hair is washed thoroughly before it is dried and dyed. They mix crushed stones, plant saps, and crushed insects to create this indigenous mix of colors. The colored threads are bundled together in yarn balls ready to be woven using traditional weaving instruments. This practice endured years of modernization and industrialization making every piece of clothing unique. The wonderful array of colors all over Cusco is inspired by the rainbow that arched over the potato fields.

We were given about half an hour to browse the merchandise and talk to the locals. If you want to buy ponchos, linens, and some other textiles for souvenirs, we recommend purchasing at Chinchero. Their prices are almost half the price of what they sell in the artisanal shops in Cusco. They do only take cash so have some on hand.

Next, we headed out to the Chinchero Archeological Site which was the palace residence of Incan Túpac Yupanqui. The ruins left by imperial resistance and rebellion are something to behold. Massive stairs are used to climb the hill and massive walls surround the palace. In its center now stands the Temple of the Lady of Nativity, symbolically placed by the conquerors on top of an Inca temple ruins to quash indigenous beliefs.

Moray

The concentric circles often featured in advertisements for the Sacred Valley are the Moray Archeological Site. The real purpose of this site during the Inca regime is still uncertain, but the standing theory is that it served as an ancient greenhouse to cultivate different varieties of corn.

Moray was a quick stop. The tour guide gave us a five-minute background about the site then it was time to explore the site on our own. The circular indentations are very impressive. It gives you a sense of admiration for how civilizations from 500 years back were able to carve the valley with precise geometric patterns.

Maras

The rectangular terraced ponds of Maras had been in operation since before the time of the Incas hundreds of years ago. From afar they seem like snow-laden paddy fields, but they are salt evaporation ponds. Salt-saturated water that emerges from an underground stream is diverted to gradually fill in thousands of individual shallow ponds.

Continuous sun exposure saturates the ponds by evaporation. Once ready, workers will then carefully break the salt blocks using sticks and their feet. The first layers are the finest for consumption and the last layers are utilized for fertilizers and other industrial purposes. We bought a pack of smoked Maras salt, and it was divine. Just a pinch adds a distinct flavor to soups, stews, and sauces.

Maintenance of each pond requires the attention of the whole community and this system had been in place before the time of the Incas. Presently, a local cooperative called Marasal implements best practices in the production of this world-class Peruvian salt. Families that join the cooperative are assigned a pond based on their family size and it should be maintained within the Marasal standards.

The salt mines are located down at the side of the mountain. The hike is easy to moderate, consisting of ramps and steps. Due to the risk of contamination travelers and tourists cannot go directly to the salt ponds.

Ollantaytambo

During its time, it served as retreat homes for Inca nobles while the terraces were irrigated to be farmed by the servants.

Ollantaytambo is the last stronghold that guards the sacred Machu Picchu. The site was built by the Inca emperor Pachacuti to be part of his estate. From the way the colossal structures were carved onto the valley, it is evident that enormous effort was put into building Ollantaytambo. On the other side of the valley facing the Ollantaytambo Archeological Site is the storehouse. It was placed high on the side of the mountains due to lower temperatures that preserved food stores. Ollantaytambo has been settled before the time of the Inca for at least 700 years, making it one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.

During the Spanish invasion of Peru, Ollantaytambo stood as one of the last resistances against the conquistadors. Its strategic location in the valley provided a vantage point against incoming invaders, blocking enemy advances as they climb the mountains. Towards the end of the Inca resistance, the walls were torn down to be used as weapons aimed at conquerors climbing the side of the valley.

Ollantaytambo is a small town, and the archeological site is easily accessible by foot through a bridge. The town has a small plaza with souvenir shops and restaurants that cater to tourists from all over the world. If you want an affordable and quick bite head out to Mercado de Abastos Ollantaytambo for rice dishes and cooked food stalls nearby. For most travelers, Ollantaytambo is as a stopover before going to Machu Picchu.

After crossing the bridge to the Ollantaytambo Archeological Site, dozens of artisanal shops will be scattered across the plaza outside the ruins. Wandering around the cobblestone streets, watching the spring-fed waterways and the beautiful mountain backdrop is just one of those moments you won’t forget.

Since the ruins were built on the side of a mountain, the full tour will have many stairs climbing. Be careful because the steps are uneven. You could stop and rest on each terrace and take in the view of the valley as if you are one of the great Incas overseeing your empire. Although it is not strictly unidirectional, follow the arrows to avoid blocking the flow of tourists that visit the area.

The spot that I liked was the very top of the terraces with the view of Ollantaytambo nestled in the valley. On your way down before leaving the archeological site, don’t forget to stop by the Templo del Aguas and the Baño de la ñusta. These irrigation channels are original to the site and is untouched since it was built.

After our strenuous hike was a nice stroll in the plaza in the glow of the setting sun. We enjoyed the mix of ancient city ambiance and the tapestry of colors emanating from the shops and the local garments. We found a small coffee shop at the corner of Ferrocarril Avenue where we spent the hour waiting for our scheduled Peru Rail ride to Aguas Calientes. From the Ollantaytambo Archeological Site, the Peru Rail station is a 10-minute walk, but you could also hire one of the tuk-tuks (motorcycle cabs) to save some time.

Travel Cultivates the Soul

It was such an exciting day trip in the presence of marvelous imperial estates that now lay in ruins. The destruction still displays the architectural ingenuity of their time. Carving in stone not only the deities that they worship but the majesty that once stood in these Sacred Valleys.

Like the rivers that nourished the Sacred Valleys, travel cultivates our soul. Exposing ourselves to history, culture, and people opens us to diverse ways of life. Lessons that are best learned through recounted tales from the locals while in the place where it all happened. Walking on the same ground where nobles and emperors dreamt of raising a civilization that would last centuries.

Trial Retirements are periods we dedicate to travel into g to beautiful countries to know if they are perfect for us when we eventually retire. The time spent outside of work will serve as a preview of our habits and behaviors when we reach Financial Independence, of course, our way to recharge after months of hard work.

Anything we missed? Questions? Violent reactions? Let us know in the comments below!

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