A Hike Through Time

One afternoon my friend Teresa, who volunteers at the hostel, asked if I would like to go on a hike. I said, Heck yes!

To prepare, Teresa spent a day as a secret agent, asking tour agencies about the hike and gathering information to draw her own trail map. The next morning we joined up with Teresa's friend Chris and caught a combi, a van-taxi which functions as a bus to outlying towns.

We drove an hour on windy mountain roads, climbing out of Cusco into the dry foothills and traditional farming villages of the Sacred Valley. Our first site: an enormous Incan ruin called Moray.

Moray seen from up high.

It is unknown why the Incas carved these huge circles and stone terraces. Some historians imagine an ancient agricultural experiment station where crops like quinoa, corn, coca, and cassava were grown. This spot might have been chosen for crop trials because the temperature varies drastically from top to bottom.

Moray from another angle.

Teresa, Chris and I explored the smaller terrace pit which is hidden behind a hill from the main terraces. Apparently nobody else deemed this section worthy of attention because we had the place to ourselves.

While we were climbing around the stone walls and grassy strips, we stumbled upon our own hypothesis for the terraces. Teresa was sitting cross-legged on the outermost ring while Chris and I talked to each other in the innermost circle.

"I can hear every word you're saying," Teresa called town to us. We were pretty far away, talking in normal voices, so this was odd. We did an experiment where one of us whispered from the center and a person on the edge would listen. The acoustics were spectacular.

We decided the terraces were used as ancient amphitheaters. We imagined the Inca (which was actually the name of the king, not the civilization) calling his people to hear his speeches at Moray.

Then we imagined Moray as an ancient concert venue, complete with a main-stage, side-show arena, and soccer field for intermission. It's a long shot but hey, you never know!

The full extent of Moray and the craggy peaks behind.

My favorite things were the stairs made by extra-long stones sticking out of the walls.

The innermost terraces were closed to the public for restoration. You can see wooden supports holding up ready-to-crumble stone walls on the right.

A straw-mimicking walking stick in Moray.

Once we had spent our allotted 50 minutes exploring Moray (they were allotted by our pick-up truck taxi driver, who was waiting for us) we back-tracked to a small town called Maras. Our driver dropped us off at the unmarked entrance to the Maras-Salineras-Urubamba trek we were planning to take. The only sign that we were entering a hiking trail were the two old ladies sitting side-by-side under giant sun umbrellas selling identical wares: chocolate bars, packs of peanuts, and warm Coca Cola for triple the grocery-store price. Luckily, we had already purchased our snack food at the grocery store in Cusco.

We started on the dirt trail guided by one piece of advice, "Go straight." We avoided turn-offs and wandered through a gorgeous landscape of dry scrub-desert, small corn and quinoa fields laid out like a patchwork quilt, and a horizon of craggy snow-capped peaks. I felt like I was heading toward Caradhras and the Mountains of Moria.

Rosette plants and dry corn.

We saw no other tourists on the trail -- only local farmers with their corn-burdened mules.

A Dr. Seuss-worthy inflorescence from a rosette plant.

After an hour or two, we arrived at Las Salinas de Maras, a spectacular sight. The salt mines, which were hand-carved in Incan times, are still harvested today.

Each salt pool is the size of a hot tub.

We passed on buying the extremely pricey plastic packages of "magic salt" at the entrance, thought I did buy a baggy of soft, sweet chifles (plantain chips) and man were they good! We walked along the narrow pathways between salt pools and even trod upon the driest pools.

The pools seemed to tumble down the steep mountainside.

Though we had no guide of our own, I eavesdropped on a group tour and learned that the salt forms in three layers. The top, white layer is for table salt, and it is worth the most money. The second, yellow layer is fed to cattle. And the third, brown layer is used for tanning animals hides.

When I tanned rabbit hides in high school, I used nice white table salt. I guess that makes my rabbit furs extra high quality?

The Andean people rely on terraces for everything from farming to mining to house-building in this mountainous terrain.

Extremely salty water form a subterranean stream is piped through the mine using gravity-fed irrigation canals like this one.

We walked out the back of the mines and continued directly on our trek to Urubamba, stopping for a picnic lunch of avocado, bread, mozzarella, sweet potato chips, and Milky Way bars.

A lovely valley.

Our trek flattened out when we reached a river, and we began walking through villages.

A cemetery in a small, remote, dusty town.

Although I was in the mountains of Peru, I felt eerily reminded of Eastern Washington. The hot dry air, the breeze rustling the leaves on eucalyptus trees, and the empty basketball court coated with dust all made me yearn for home.

White corn cobs drying in the sun.

A prickly-pear with tuna (cactus fruits) ready to eat.

Cacti atop a stone wall appear to be the local version of a barbed-wire fence.

As my shoulders began to cramp and I sensed the first blister on my toe, we entered the vicinity of Urubamba, a large town on the train tracks to Machu Picchu. We walked on a back alley and got fascinating glimpses into people's homes.

Guinea pigs in the living room!

A deliciously green cabbage patch.

A guard dog patrolling the top of a wall. (That's Teresa on the right.)

A flowing-water canal in the middle of a dirt road.

The villages were full of irrigation canals like this one. The canals flowed under fences, through tunnels, and even down the center of the road at times. The water was fast-flowing, cold, and crystal clear.

I wonder if these canals are leftovers from the technologically-advanced Incan Empire. Unlike Machu Picchu and Moray, these canals aren't fawned over by tourists or exploited for money by tour agencies. They're just used by families and farmers like they have been for hundreds of years. (I am completely guessing here, for the record.)

Two startlingly tall bearded palms that reminded me of my sister, who likes exotic palm trees.
The day ended when we walked into the Urubamba bus terminal: sweaty, dusty, thirsty and bedraggled. We lined up alongside a businessman in a suit and a mother juggling five children to purchase our ticket home in another combi.

I loved my down-to-earth hiking buddies, the sunny mountain air, and the combination of ancient and modern. It's not every day you get to hike through time.

Comments

  1. While the Moray and the salt mines are elegant and mind-boggling and gorgeous, I think my favorite image, with its title, is "guinea pigs in the living room." Like when Fuzzy used to play in our living room.

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  2. Wow. I wonder if the straw mimicking walking stick is found mainly on the ground ...in straw? And did it evolve along with human agriculture? Imagine all that labor and effort to have salt and food.

    Amazing stuff.

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  3. Jane -- unlike Fuzzy, I think these guinea pigs were waiting to become dinners!

    Russ -- I just made up the name straw-mimicking walking stick so I have no idea if that's really what it was trying to mimic. But since the area is mainly high-altitude grassland, I can imagine why it would want to look like dry grass!

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