To get a true taste of the life of the ancient Andeans in the Sacred Valley, you’ll definitely want to make these three stops. I found each to reveal a unique side to Inca culture that left us completely spellbound. You can easily hire a car for a half to one day tour of all three sites, depending on how long you’d like to spend at each.
Let’s begin in sparkling Maras.
I’d never been to a salt mine before. To be honest, I never really thought of salt as being mined on a mountainside. But after taking in this gorgeous spectacle, it left me more in awe of the simple genius of this ancient civilisation.
These salt ponds nestled on the slopes of the Andes are really fed by an underground stream saturated with salts and silts. It supplies these mines with water so salty it takes just a few days under the scorching sun to yield glistening pink salts crystals.
Villagers in the area would own their own small plot of the mine, and harvest their salts as they like. Don’t they almost look like snow? If you want to take some home, there are plenty of stalls selling these freshly-harvested salts in grains of all sizes.
Of course, it being an incredibly hot day out without shade on the mountainside, how could we resist some chilled homemade strawberry beer?
These were made in huge vats and you could taste delicious chunks of fresh fruit in the beer which was super refreshing! A great reprieve from the heat. The best part? It cost just 1 sole (30 cents)! I loved the fact that a local family made it and didn’t jack up prices for tourists. I appreciated the hospitality and passion for sharing their culture with us.
Chinchero is a small town most famous for its bustling marketplace. It truly feels like we’d been transported back in time there. The first thing we saw when we stepped in were my favourite animals in the world – Alpacas! Don’t ask me why but I have a huge soft spot for these cuties.
This excitable trio was super happy to get their veggies in for lunch. And it wasn’t long before we were offered a hot cup of coca tea (more on that later!) and shown exactly how these textiles were being made tediously by hand even today.
They begin by shearing the alpacas, before washing the wool in hot water and using yuca root. Once it’s washed, they spin the wool into yarn and colour them with a whole rainbow of natural dyes.
Most of these are from mountain plants, fruit and herbs and sometimes even animal-based, like a cactus beetle that when crushed provides a rich, deep scarlet. Poor beetle. You can also practise your haggling skills there for an amazing variety of sweaters, table-runners and scarves. I’m terrible at bargaining because I have such thin skin! But we were really happy with the warm clothes we got. Especially after seeing all the hard work that went into it.
And to top off an already exciting day, we come to our last stop – the archaeological ruins of Moray. As you can see, it’s a sprawling area of terraced slopes going as deep as 30 metres! There’s something really soothing about the landscape that I can’t quite explain.
It could be that the temperature instantly fell by 3-4 degrees when we got to the bottom. Or that it was so artfully carved into the slope in such perfect concentric circles. It’s one of the more unique ruins in the area and I definitely recommend a visit if you can spare the time.
Before we go, I wanted to share some of the local foods that you’ll find nearly everywhere in Cusco! Here’s something that’ll take getting used to.. but the corn there is HUGE. And they come in all sizes, colours and textures.
The ones most often sold on the streets from small carts are these starchy ones that are sometimes served piping hot with soft cheese and a spicy pepper sauce. They go surprisingly well together and make for a great mid-day snack. Especially in the high altitude, and all the climbing up and down mountain slopes, these are the Peruvian equivalent of an energy bar.
Yet another useful thing to have in your arsenal for beating altitude sickness? Coca tea.
Coca tea, also called mate de coca by the locals, is made simply from leaves from raw or dried leaves of the coca plant steeped in hot water. You might find it interesting that most countries in the world ban the use of coca leaves because it contains alkaloids that form the base of a well-known narcotic – cocaine.
But people here drink it many times a day, mostly for an energy boost, much like many of us in cities would grab a cup of coffee or tea. I actually quite liked its nutty and slightly bitter aftertaste. And it did help calm my initial tummy problems and slight migraine when we first arrived. You probably won’t be able to take it any of it home with you, so why not try it while you’re there?
Do check out these amazing spots in Cusco while you’re in the Sacred Valley. I guarantee they’re worth your while!