We spent the entire day touring the Sacred Valley, which is a valley in the region of Cusco and below Machu Picchu. Our itinerary was to explore some towns and sites in the valley and then spend the night in the town of Ollantaytambo. Ollantaytambo is close to the start of the Inca Trail, which we would begin to hike the next morning.
The scenery in the Sacred Valley was stunning, with great open spaces surrounded by the snowcapped Andes. We drove to a small town called Chinchero and stopped to visit a weaving co-op supported by some families in the town. Everything was made the traditional way. One of the women demonstrated the weaving process, from cutting and washing the wool, to dying and darning it. We then saw a few other women weave the wool. The colors were so vibrant and only natural ingredients were used for the dye, such as flowers, lichen and even special beetles only found in a certain type of cactus. We were able to purchase some sweaters and textiles for extremely reasonable prices (great quality and gifts).
We moved on to walk through the town and stopped to view a small church, which was next to an Inca site. The church seemed so unassuming from the outside, with its whitewashed walls, but once you stepped inside you were hit with beautiful ornate carvings and decoration.
We drove on to stop at a small town called Tiobamba for lunch. This was a very special experience as the town consisted of a beautiful old church set out in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by a wall which protected the few dogs and 2 families who inhabited the town. Vidal and our driver, Roger, set up lunch at a picnic table in the church yard. Vidal told us that this was intended to be a larger town but it never stuck and now the church opens up a few times a year for special occasions.
We headed off to Maras. Maras is home to the salt terraces fed by a salt water spring coming out of the mountain. Terraces were carved into the side of the mountain where shallow pools form so the water can evaporate and leave behind salt deposits. In the dry season, these deposits are harvested and salt is separated, cleaned, and sold. Unfortunately, Vidal explained that the salt terraces are only 30 to 40% of their peak size because the demand for salt has decreased due to cheaper competition from other sources. Regardless, what is left is amazing and quite a sight to behold.
After Michele confirmed by taste that the salt spring is very salty, Roger headed the van toward the Moray greenhouses. These structures look like terraced concentric circles carved into the earth with each one deeper than the last. As Vidal explained, this area produced various microclimates by terracing down into the earth and also up the neighboring mountain. In addition to figuring out how to make poisonous potatoes edible, the Incas also used Moray to condition their crops to grow at different temperatures, heights, and climates. They would start a crop at the bottom down in the earth and then move it up one level the next growing season. As the stronger plants survived, they moved them up and up until they had maize that was growing at 13,000 feet. Vidal also pointed out that the pattern of the terraces when viewed from above looks like a condor face with weeping eyes.
The last site of the day was in the town of Ollantaytambo. Walking into this site is impressive. You're confronted with walls of terraces rising up the mountain. At the top of the left is the temple. To the right are more walls of terraces and some storage houses. Michele started to count the steps as we were climbing toward the temple but stopped at 166 when we still weren't very close to the top.
The stones for the main temple at Ollantaytambo came from a quarry on the neighboring mountain, traveling down some switchbacks, across a river, and back up the mountain to the temple. After the enormous stones traveled an unimaginable path, they still had to be cut to the right size and polished.
In the temple at Ollantaytambo, Vidal had us put our heads in one of the trapezoidal cutouts in the stone walls and say something so we could hear how perfect the acoustics were in each cutout. A porter had told Vidal that if you put your head in and keep quiet, you can hear the sound of mother Earth.
Michele and I ate dinner at a restaurant in town at the table next to the fireplace where we shared some quinoa soup, quinoa battered trout nuggets, and absolutely delicious stuffed alpaca.