The Sacred Valley - May 5th
The day after taking our flight from Lima to Cusco, we went on a tour to four tourist attractions close to Cusco in an area known as the Scared Valley. The Sacred Valley is a region in Peru’s Andean highlands and forms the heart of the Inca Empire. The four attractions include Chinchero, Salinas de Moras (Moras Salt Mines), Moray, and the Ollantaytambo Temple.
Our first stop was the old Inca town of Chinchero. The main income for this town is farming. Most residents farm potatoes, green beans and corn, which require a lot of water to grow. This close to the mountains there is not as much water as further downstream, so the locals rely on the wet season to sustain their crops. Another important landmark of Chinchero is the Incan ruins that can be found throughout the town. Many of the buildings in the town are built upon Incan walls. The original Inca walls can be identified by large smooth rocks that are perfectly joined together. The walls were of such good build quality that the Spanish used them as foundations for their buildings when they colonized the area. Unfortunately, many of the Inca structures were damaged or destroyed in this process. A very good example of this is the church in the town, which was constructed upon the remains of an Inca palace. This church was built in the 1700s and is one of the oldest churches located in the Scared valley.
Our next stop in the tour of the Sacred Valley was Salinas de Maras. Maras is home to a salt mine that has been active for over 1000 years and is still operated today by a cooperative of 90 local families. There are approximately 4000 active ponds. Each pond is only 3 to 4 cm deep and is allowed to evaporate in order to be able to harvest the salt left behind. This salt water comes from a natural underground spring that is six times saltier that regular sea water. A series of canals have been constructed by the locals to connect each of these ponds to the spring with the excess water draining into the river at the valley bottom. Though the salt is sold for profit by the workers, their primary source of income today comes from tourists coming to see this iconic mine for themselves.
Moray was our third stop of the tour. This is where circular terraces built by the Incas can be found. The Incas made use of a natural depression in the earth and built terraces within it as various elevations. These terraces were used as a laboratory to grow different types of crops using different methods including corn, potato, quinoa, and more. The natural depression created different temperatures at different levels of the complex and allowed for a large range of tests to be conducted all in one place. The temperatures range from the upper to the lower terraces can be as large as 12 degrees Celsius. Additionally, different types of soil were brought in to aid in producing different varieties of crops that required as little water as possible. Natural spring water was diverted using canals built into the walls for irrigation with each terrace being built at a slight slope so it would drain into the next terrace below it.
Our last stop of the Sacred Valley tour was Ollantaytambo. Ollanytaytambo can be considered to be comprised of three sections: residential, agricultural, and religious. The residential section was very similar to what we encountered in Chinchero earlier in the day. Most of the buildings in the town were constructed on old Inca walls. Many terraces could be found in and around Ollantaytambo which were used to grow various crops. On the mountainsides surrounding the towns Incan ruins could be seen that were used as food storage facilities. Due to the excessive elevation of these buldings, the food stored within was kept in very cold and dry conditions, essentially freeze-drying it, allowing it to be stored for long periods of time without spoiling. The most impressive part however, was the religious temple built on the mountain next to the town itself. This temple was not completed by the Incas as can be observed by the uncarved rocks and incomplete walls on top of the mountain within the temple. This temple is known as the temple of the sun and was constructed out of rock that was not sourced from the mountain it was built on. Instead, it has been determined that these rocks came from the top of the mountain on the other side of the valley. Upon completing our tour of Ollantaytambo we headed back to Cusco to prepare for our trip to Machu Picchu.
Machu Picchu - May 6th-7th
We hopped onto the early train departing from Ollanytaytambo station for an hour ride into the deep jungle at the bottom of the Andean mountains. The group hopped off the train at kilometer 104 (there was no official train stop or station) onto the gravel side as the train quickly rolled away. The welcome sign a few meters in front of us marked the beginning of our one-day Inka trail expedition that would eventually lead us to the world renowned Machu Picchu - the "Lost City of the Incas"
The hike consisted of 2 hours and 500 meters of ascent followed by another 2 hours of trekking at relatively constant elevation. It was definitely challenging for most of us but extremely rewarding as we were able to witness the magnificent Urubamba river valley and the incredible relics along the way.
We finally arrived at the sun gate entrance in the afternoon, where we got the first glimpse of the citadel. Time did not permit us to enter Machu Picchu on the same day, but we were able to take some incredible group photos overlooking the site. We then took a bus to down the mountain and resided in the town of Aguas Calientes at the base of the site preparing for a full tour in Machu Picchu the next morning.
On day two of our Machu Picchu adventure, everyone got up early at 4:30 AM to catch the bus to watch the sun rise over Machu Picchu. Once we arrived at the bus station, we were greeted by an extremely long line of dedicated tourists. Shortly before the buses arrived, rain started to drip down the sky and the shops along the bus station began to bring out plastic ponchos. Admittedly almost none of us bothered to buy a poncho for 5 soles, a decision that would later prove to be a mistake for most of us. After an hour in line, the buses finally showed up at 5:30 AM to bring us up to Machu Picchu.
The bus arrived at the gate of Machu Picchu at 6 AM, by that time, not only had the sun already risen above the citadel but it was covered by rain clouds (This was actually quite nice since we were able to capture photos of Machu Picchu in the clouds, which is rarely seen on the internet). The situation at the entrance can be described as almost chaotic, hundreds of people under ponchos and umbrellas squeezing to get inside. Meanwhile, the rain began to come down even harder while we waited for the entire group to gather.
Once inside, we were split into two separate groups among the three awesome tour guides due to our large group size. The tour guide first took us to a general view point where they explained the history behind the discovery of Machu Picchu. Then we visited the sun and earth temples where the tour guides explained that the sun represents the father of the universe and earth represents the mother. The Incas believed rain is the sperm of the sun, impregnating mother earth. Meanwhile, the rain began to pour even harder upon us… Later we visited the temple of the three windows and the temple of the condor, the tour guides were considerate enough the keep the tour short due to rain fall and we were give free time to explore Machu Picchu on our own after the rain had died down.
Colca Canyon - May 11th-12th
The tour of Colca Canyon began on the morning of May 11th as we took a four-hour bus ride from Arequipa to Chivay. On the bus ride, we were shown the rare and protected wild vicuna. Vicuna grow the most expensive wool in the world, more prized than cashmere. The tour guide had also picked a few locations along the way to explore and take photos. The first location we stopped by is an attraction built by vicuna protectors, there, we enjoyed the local Colca tea. We made a second stop soon after with a famer where we could get up close to a group of alpaca and llamas. The third and final location we stopped at during the bus ride was a viewpoint of a local volcanic mountain range in the Andes, this part of the mountain pass is one of the highest viewpoints along tourist routes in the country at 4910m above sea level. At this viewpoint, we could see the three major active volcanos. These volcanos experience over 60 mini eruptions every day. Upon arriving in Chivay we had a group lunch after which we checked into the hotel. The group ended the day by going to the local hot springs.
The second day of the Colca Canyon tour started bright and early at 6:30 AM to spot wild condors. The tour guide explained condors are one of the largest bird species in the world, with a wingspan of up to 3 meters. After making a couple of stops at various viewpoints, we finally arrived at the trail. Just as we stepped off the bus, we saw three massive juvenile condors sitting on the cliff side. Soon after we began the 45-minute hike on the Colca Canyon, 4 or 5 adult condors began circling just above our heads. The condors were quite impressive and majestic animals, definitely something worth remembering. After the hike had ended, we traveled back to Arequipa for our flight to Lima.