Cuzco and Sacred Valley
Legendary capital of the mighty Inca Empire, the original city of Cuzco was destroyed by the gold-loving, God-fearing Spaniards many centuries ago. The city that was built in its place, however, still manages quite nicely as a charming colonial metropolis set over 10,000 ft. up in the Andes. Narrow cobblestone alleyways lead past brightly colored doorways, maybe a traditionally clad Quechua woman offering a photo with her llama, and eventually emerge into wide open squares with trickling fountains and people-watching aplenty.
While it’s enticing to go out and immediately start exploring this colonial gem, chances are you’ll get winded pretty quickly and come down with a bit of a headache. Altitude sickness can be a real problem in this section of Peru, and it’s important to take it slow and acclimate to being at such high altitudes (especially if planning a multi-day trek). Of course there are modern-day drugs to help cure the problem, as well as a wide-range of natural remedies from drinking coca tea to chewing on straight coca leaves, but the best thing to do is simply take it easy and get lots of rest. Common wisdom points to 1 day of acclimatization for every 1000m (3300 ft) of elevation gain, so if coming from sea level, it could take 3 full days before starting to feel normal.
A fairly compact city, the best way to tour Cuzco is by foot. While there are a large number of cathedrals and museums scattered about town, nearly all require that you buy the wildly overpriced Cuzco Tourist Pass, which, unless you are really hellbent on spending a good amount of time perusing museums labeled in Spanish, I don’t think is worth the amount of money they’re asking. Virtually any stroll through the city will bring you to the gaping Plaza de Armas, where sitting on a park bench beneath a cathedral while sipping a warm mate or tea is a perfectly respectable way to spend and afternoon.
While the city of Cuzco itself is worthy of a good day of exploration, it’s what lies outside of the city that really makes this corner of the world so incredibly special. Slightly more than a chilly and charming basecamp, Cuzco offers everything from mountain bike trips to weeklong treks through the towering Andes or the sopping wet jungles. Oh, and there’s a little place called Machu Picchu nearby as well.
Aside from all of the outdoor adventure opportunities, a must-stop tour is taking time to explore a few hours outside of Cuzco in the region known as the Sacred Valley. While it could take weeks to properly explore the nuances and inner-workings of every village in the region, even taking a daytrip from Cuzco to experience a few of the sights is well-worth the few soles that it will run you.
While most travelers opt to sift their way through the market towns of Pisac and Urubamba, a little more off the beaten track are the ancient Moray ruins and the sprawling salt mine complex of Las Salineras, both of which are absolutely mind blowing. Set outside the town of Maras, which is seemingly next to the middle of nowhere, the Incan Moray is an enormous terraced pit that has been dug in the ground in concentric circles that go down hundreds of feet. While somewhat resembling an oversized, 3D crop circle, the Moray was actually a horticultural laboratory that was used by the Incas to determine which crops grew the best at which temperature. Don’t ask me how they figured it out, but each terraced circle of the Moray has its own unique microclimate where the air temperature is a few degrees different than the circle above it or below it. The bottom circle—again, don’t ask me how—actually replicates the temperature of being at sea level, even though it is still set thousands of feet up in the mountains. Using these microclimates, the Inca would test various crops at carious terrace levels to determine which crops grew the best in which seasons and at what temperatures. This way, as they expanded and conquered their way all the way down to the Pacific Ocean, they were able to intelligently cultivate the land and produce harvests that yielded crops so full they looked as if they were from the Jurassic period. Anyone who has seen the size of a Peruvian corn kernel (about the size of quarter) can attest to the success of the Moray.
While the Moray fell out of use after being conquered by the Spanish, a modern day Incan marvel that is still “open for business” is the massive salt terraces in the canyon above the Sacred Valley known as Las Salineras. Using brackish salt-water that bubbles up from a nearby hot spring, the water is diverted into a calculated trickle that branches out into hundreds of different ponds and terraces, where it then sits and waits for the sun to evaporate the water back into the dry Andean sky. What is left behind is huge mounds of salt that fill the terraces and keep hundreds of Peruvian salt farmers—men, women, and adolescent children alike—slaving in the dry sun with picks, shovels, and 80 lb. bags of salt that get carted off to different locations around the country and the world. The efficiency and simplicity of the process is absolutely fascinating, though the work looks to be some of the most physically demanding imaginable. Watching a 12 year old boy with bare, bleeding feet laboriously pound a pick into a mound of salt taller than he is is a moving realization to say the least.