This day definitely stood out as one of the highlights of the trip. Santiago and our driver picked us up at the hotel and we headed to the Sacred Valley. Although Cusco was considered the capital of the Inca Empire, the Sacred Valley was really its heart. The fertile soil grew the food that fuelled the expansion of the Empire. One key to the rapid growth of the Inca Empire was that the Inca did not prefer to conquer by force. Rather, they sent emissaries to different regions and offered protection in exchange for whatever the region had to offer. Cleverly, the local leaders of these various regions were often invited to Cusco where they remained. Thus the Inca insured complete control once the regional rulers had been removed. Once a region was under Inca rule, the best that the region had to offer became incorporated into the Inca culture. Thus, rapid growth was possible. Not only did the Sacred Valley serve as the bread basket for the Empire—it also served as the gateway to the Amazon, the source of exotic fruits, animals and the all-important coca leaf.
First on our stops was beautiful Pisac. We drove up a steep, winding dirt road, got out and then began a pleasant hike to a temple overlooking the valley below. My fear of heights periodically kicked in as we meandered around a steep mountainside. Of course, my kids, knowing of my phobia, got as much enjoyment watching me hug the inner rock wall as they did from gazing at the scenery! Inca structures are visible everywhere. There are terraces, guard houses and food storage facilities as well as living quarters. Again, the stone work is amazing. As I explored the sun temple I became aware of a theme that persisted during our exploration of other Inca ruins—the close connection to and harmony with nature. This temple, like others we would see later, seems to emerge out of and around natural rock already present on the mountainside. A natural spring emerges from the ground and water courses through the temple which in turn is oriented to catch the rays of the sun through windows at particular times of the year. Amazing!
As we left Pisac, we passed a local gentleman playing a hand-made flute. The beautiful high-pitched sound resonated down into the valley. I bought my son one after he promised to learn how to play it. My experience with most cash transitions throughout Peru is that no one has change. In this particular instance, I suspect this was a clever way to coax me into buying a music CD. However, I’m glad I did because the music is wonderful and worked great with my slide show!
Next, we drove up onto the plateau above the Sacred Valley and then down a dusty road to a cliff overlooking the Maras Salt Pans. I had not read anything about this before the trip and I have to say, we were blown away! Spanning the narrow valley hundreds of feet below us were thousands of white salt water pools. For hundreds of years the locals have been mining salt in this area. The pools are fed by a mineral-rich hot water spring. As the water evaporates in the pools, salt is harvested and carried by hand up a road leading out of the valley. As the generations pass, more and more salt pools are created as families divide up the property. There are now over 3000 pools!
Late in the afternoon, we arrived at the Circular Terraces of Moray. What an incredible site! Carved out of a natural depression between several mountain sides are a series of circular terraces once used by the Inca to experiment with different crops to see how they would adapt to climate change. The view from above is stunning and walking to the bottom using the so-called "flying steps" of protruding stone was a blast! Completing the postcard-perfect picture was a group of people playing soccer at the bottom! I’ll never forget this day!
We arrived in Ollantaytambo in the late afternoon and checked into El Sauce Hotel. Taking into consideration the location, general ambience and feel of the actual hotel and town , this was hands-down my wife’s and my favorite hotel of the trip. There is a cozy sitting room with fireplace that is meticulously attended to by the doorman. Gazing out of the windows from the sitting room, one has an unobstructed view of the Inca ruins of Ollantaytambo. Also, I think that there is an intangible excitement in the air created by the variety of tourists passing through this town. Some are embarking on the Inca trail and some are taking the train to Aguas Calientas. All are anxious to fulfill their dream of visiting Machu Picchu.