Lying north-west of Cusco is the beautiful Rio Urubamba valley, better known today as the Sacred Valley of the Inca. Plunging a thousand metres down to the the valley floor from the hills surrounding Cusco, this was the heartland of the Inca empire and is the dramatic location for a number of spectacular Inca sites.
The wealth of archaeological sites that litter the Sacred Valley is testimony to the fertility of the land which was able to support a significant population prior to the arrival of the Spanish; it also hints at the military and religious importance of the region pre-conquest. To journey through the Sacred Valley towards Machu Picchu is to begin to understand the true scale of the Inca world and just how advanced a civilisation it was.
One of the most visually stunning Inca sites is at Moray, where concentric circles of Inca terracing form an amphitheatre-like bowl deep below the top of the surrounding hills. It is both beautiful and mysterious. Believed to have been an agricultural experimental site, with each ring of the bowl providing a distinct micro-climate to experiment with different crops, it is also thought to have been an important ceremonial site.
So unusual looking is Moray that were it not for all the historical evidence it could easily prompt new age conspiracy theories about aliens and spaceships – think crop circle spoofs, just on a much grander scale.
Walking down into the bowl is an eiry experience, particularly as you descend the steep steps that generations of Inca once used. Reaching the centre of the bowl and looking back up gives you a unique view of the amphitheatre, which, with its graceful curving walls could easily be mistaken for an art installation – I think I know where Andy Goldsworthy got the idea for his installations of walls and sheepfolds in Cumbria.
From Moray it is a short journey via the village of Maras to reach the equally spectacular site of Salinas. The journey itself is pretty beautiful, driving down gravel roads with a backdrop of snowcapped mountains and scenes of rural life seemingly unchanged for centuries.
Turning yet another corner with a 1000 meter drop off the side, the sudden sight of salt pans at Salinas is breathtaking. Perched on a brown hillside and blazing bright white under the intense sun, the salt pans are created by an unusually salty stream that drains down the valley and have been harvested since Inca times.
The water is trapped in the pans and evaporates under the Andean sun, leaving behind salt crystals that can then be extracted by hand using the hi-tech method of wooden planks and a colander.
The salt isn’t used for human consumption, instead it is used for salt licks for cattle and sheep – creating the bizarre situation where the salt that’s for sale in nearby gift shops comes from Cusco. The salt pans continue to be harvested commercially, although today tourism probably does more to support the local community.
The views back down to the Sacred Valley from Salinas are also pretty special…