Updated: Sep 16
The mistake not to make. Moray, Maras, Ollantaytambo. Sacred Valley of the Incas.
During my first visit to Peru in 2014, we had not explored the ''Sacred Valley of the Incas'' and had been directly from Cusco on the ''Inca Trail'' expedition. In fact, it's not the same thing at all! In 2019, I realize everything we missed, and I share it with you, hoping that you, in turn, don't make the same mistake.
Logical order to discover the region
Whenever I've been asked for advice on Peru, it's inevitable, everyone is very confused when it comes to this region. Everyone imagines that Cusco and Machu Picchu are very close to each other, but this is a mistake.
The Inca's Sacred Valley (Valle Sagrado) lies in between, and it could take you several days to explore it all!
The Incas had made the city of Cusco their capital and Machu Picchu was a religious and sacred place as well as the residence of an important Inca figure: Emperor Pachacútec. In between, other important emperors built several temples in honor of their gods and villages. This is what I invite you to discover. Start with the small village of Chinchero and its ruins, then take a local bus named "collectivos" to get to Urubamba and the main attractions nearby; Moray, and the Saltworks of Maras. You can find accommodation to discover these attractions in Chinchero or Urubamba, it is obviously up to you to decide according to your budget, to then move again and stay, I strongly recommend it, in the magnificent village of Ollantaytambo. The main attractions of the Sacred Valley of the Inca will therefore follow in this post. In the next posts you can read more about Cusco, Machu Picchu, and what to choose? The Inca Trail Expedition or the Salkantay?
Note that to lighten the text, you will find at the bottom of this post useful links for your research.
According to archaeologists, these swirling terraces are probably actually tests of agriculture. One of the major things you will notice in South America and Peru is that despite being at altitude and not that hot, if you don't put sunscreen on your face , you will regret it! The sun is extremely strong in the mountains, the temperature can change very quickly and the Incas probably experienced this too. At each level of these terraces, you will find a panoply of microclimates. The temperature varied by a few degrees on each floor of a terrace and therefore, they could grow certain fruits and flowers higher for example, corn and vegetables a little lower... This is what these terraces were used to determine : at what level certain plants grew best and were most successful. Then, they reported the results of their experiments in the biggest cities like Machu Picchu or Ollantaytambo.
The cheapest way to get there: Start by going to Urubamba: take the collectivo on the main street to the intersection of ''Maras'' (route 28B and 110) and negotiate a taxi, several are waiting tourists there. Estimated time from this intersection to Maras or Moray: approximately 30 minutes. How to negotiate a taxi in South America: Plan your negotiation a little in advance. Consider asking a local “how much would it cost” for that distance. You'll never be able to get that price, because only locals have that privilege of paying that low, but the closer you get to that amount, the better a bargain you'll get. If your taxi driver is inflexible, change cars. He will try to scare you by telling you that there are no other options around... this is rarely true. Also, remember that the more you rush, the more it will cost you. Be patient and keep calm.
The logic would be to visit Moray and Maras in the same day, because the two places are very close to each other (about twenty minutes by car). There are several taxi drivers waiting for tourists. For our part, we had negotiated the taxi ride for both sites. So we went to Maras, we had given half of the money due, then the driver waited for us to transport us to Moray, then gave the other half of the money. Anything is possible, just talk about your plans and get along!
You can also go on foot if you like very long walks in the mountains and you have several hours ahead of you (I haven't done it, but I know people who have, I would say plan yourself a block 4 to 5 hours). The scenery is really beautiful but I wouldn't say the hike is easy, though.
The salt pans of Maras
This site is extremely special, yes, by its beauty, but also by the fact that it is still in use today and that it was used by the ancestors of the Incas for the cultivation of salt. In this region far from the sea, this source of sodium chloride, gushing from the tops of the mountains, seems to be a real gift from the gods and has allowed the city to continue to prosper. You will be able to devour both good chocolate with fleur de sel and the landscape of the eyes. Peruvians will not miss the opportunity to offer you their products for sale with this salty theme.
How to get there: see Moray.
The first day of our exploration, we had visited Moray and Maras, to return to Chinchero, our base camp. The next day, we moved to one of Peru's jewel cities, Ollantaytambo. Very small in the middle of the mountains, it will charm you with its round stone streets where the water channel is directed through, leaving a pearly melody in your ears.
Your gaze will immediately fall on one of the most interesting Inca works in Peru: the terraces of Ollantaytambo. Ollantaytambo means: “the inn of Ollantay”. You can consider this place as the "Plains of Abraham" of Peru, because it is here that the Spaniards and the Incas fought after the fall of Cuzco. The guides tell that the terraces, before, overflowed with flowers: that this work was at the height of the love that Ollantay had for his wife. Seeing them, you will imagine how much he loved her. Not only that, obviously all the terraces paid homage to the sun god, and, at the equinoxes, the sun rises and sets at specific points in the city. Of course, everything had been calculated by the creators.
Mysteries after mysteries
Near the Sun Gate, we find huge stones about 2 and a half meters high, welded together to perfection, which seem to be made with modern machinery. You can find this incredible effect also in the city of Cusco.
From 15 to 30 minutes by ''Tuk tuk'' further, you can visit the quarry where these stones would have been taken. Experts aren't sure how such an amazing feat could have been possible, but have come up with a few likely theories. For example, ropes are thought to have been used to help them climb the blocks, as the Quechuas are still able to weave tenacious ropes that are even used today to make suspension bridges.
For my part, I greatly admire their superhuman work. We had decided to walk this distance from Ollantaytambo (4 hours) to really understand the extent of this work. Of course, we didn't bring back three meter high rocks, but... we imagined doing it, and we said to ourselves that it didn't really make sense.
It's so mysterious that some believe the Incas were helped by extraterrestrials!
The entrance fee to Ollantaytambo is included in the “Boleto Turistico del Cusco”.
I say 4 hours of hiking but in reality we never found the quarry because we got lost in the mountains trying to find another sun gate named Inti Punku. We put this in the South American trek mysteries folder, much like the time we got lost in the jungles of Medellin, Colombia. It was also at this time that I said that I definitely hated trekking in the mountains but that I would continue to do it anyway and that I should have a trekking T-Shirt printed for me stating: ''I hate trekking but I do it anyway''. You see how altitude sickness can play tricks on you, follow my advice in this post…]
Back in Ollantaytambo… in front of the magnificent terraces, you will see abandoned remains that had been used to store food supplies in the mountains; Pinkuylluna. If you decide to take a guide to Ollantaytambo, he will point out that the Incas did not place this shed there by chance either. A face is drawn in the mountain, and the structures once formed the teeth of the figure represented. The sun hides at the end of the day exactly in the place of his eye.
To get there, again, you have to hike (and as you can begin to understand, you'll be hiking every day in Peru). You will want to do this climb as this is where you will have the best view of the Ollantaytambo ruins. With observation, you will notice something impressive about the terraces… It is that they represent one of the revered animals of the Peruvians: a llama!
If you're lucky, you'll have a personalized guide on your way up, like this pup we named ''Sigame'' (follow me), who decided to burn some energy with us!
When we say to spend a few days in the Cusco region to acclimatize, it can very well include all these activities that are approximately at the same altitude of Cusco. Then either embark on the excursion to Machu Picchu in the mountains (Inca Trail) or take the train to Aguas Calientes.
Useful links for your research
Entrance fees to the parks (Boleto Turistico del Cusco):
You can buy this tourist pass at all park entrances (Ollantaytambo, Moray, Chinchero, in Cusco…). Share your visit plan at the entrance of the park and the person will certainly help you choose your ticket.
10 days: $45 CAD
2 days: $24 CAD
Multiple ticket type options. Related to this post, you are looking for tickets for Circuito III ''Valle Sagrado'' (Sacred Valley). The ticket includes Ollantaytambo, Moray and Chinchero. You must pay separately for the Salines de Maras ($2.50 CAD). We had taken the 2 day ticket. It's doable. Day 1: Chinchero in the morning, travel to Moray and Maras (which are close to each other). Day 2: Travel to Ollantaytambo in the morning + Check in, visit of the terraces in pm.