There are a number of important (and impressive) Incan archaeological sites within a couple hours’ drive of Cusco. We hired a guide and driver for a day to drive us to a couple of these sites. A private tour let us set the itinerary and pace, and for our family of four the price was favorable compared to a packaged tour.
We set out in the morning for Ollantaytambo, a town almost 2 hours from Cusco that is home to a major Incan site. (We learned firsthand that the drive can be made in about 90mins if you drive fast enough….yikes). Our guide gave us a short tour of the town itself, showing us original Incan streets and architecture.
The real draw, however, is the hillside estate and temple complex of the Incan emperor Pachacuti. A series of terraces mount the hill, topped by temples and other buildings. The terraces were used for farming, providing flat ground on an otherwise-unfarmable hillside.
The temple buildings showcase the precision and quality of Incan stonework, which is incredible. They did not use mortar; instead they carved pieces to fit perfectly. Buildings and even individual stones were aligned to the sun and used to tell time and set the calendar for farming. Our visit was around noon just a few days after the equinox, and our guide showed us how the shadow from a particular block perfectly bisected another block at that time – not an accident!
Canals and pipes brought water from nearby springs and streams to provide irrigation, drinking water, and to fill ceremonial baths. The Incas also mastered food storage. Our guide explained that due to their ability to store food for months or years without spoilage, the Incas never encountered famine or mass starvation. (Any anthropologists / historians out there who can corroborate this claim?)
After Ollantaytambo, we drove to the Maras Salt Mines (Salineras de Maras) through beautiful landscapes that reminded us a bit of the American West.
Salt “mine” is a bit of a misnomer, these are more like salt pans. Getting to the mines requires a hair-raising descent down a twisty, narrow dirt road precipitously clinging to the edge of a canyon. There were plenty of other visitors that day, and there were several spots where we passed oncoming traffic with only inches of road between us and the edge. We all breathed a sigh of relief when we made it to the bottom, where we were greeted by the sight of hundreds of rectangular evaporation pools used to “mine” salt from a naturally-occurring saltwater spring.
Locals have extracted salt from this spring for hundreds of years. They pipe water into a small pond to fill it up, then let the water evaporate. Repeat this several times and the salt builds up in the pond. Eventually there is enough to harvest. Salt is harvested in 3 grades depending on purity and color. Interestingly the mines operate as a co-op. Individuals tend about a half-dozen ponds each (often as a hobby/side job), and sell the salt through a collective.
Next we headed back up the narrow dirt track and then over to Moray, one of the most unique Inca sites. Moray is home to 4 sets of circular terraces of varying sizes and depths, each created out of natural depressions in the land. Our guide explained these were used as a sort of agricultural laboratory for the Incas, who tested various crops in the different microclimates present on the site. The different temperatures, sun exposure, water, etc provided Incas with an understanding of what crops would grow best in various conditions; they could then share this knowledge with different towns to pick the optimal crops for each site.
Modern literature about the site casts a bit of doubt about this theory; like many things about the Incas, we can’t know for sure. However it seems more likely than some of the other explanations put forth by the Internet, such as a landing site for UFOs.
By this point we were exhausted! Per our original plan we headed back to Cusco rather than trying to push on to the market town of Pisac. Pisac’s market and ruins are both quite famous, but we’re not doing much shopping on the trip and don’t want to overdo either the markets or the ruins. Instead we got a late lunch in the backyard (really!) of a nondescript restaurant chosen by our guide a little outside Cusco. Both boys devoured the fried trout on offer, and Lauren and I both had delicious chicken soup, which is served with 1/4 roast chicken right in the soup (no Campbell’s here!).
We returned home late afternoon exhausted but enlightened and enthralled. The boys praised the day as “pretty cool”, which is as good as it gets!