A Day In The Sacred Valley of the Incas
· 10 min. read
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Peru is filled with magic, and it all leads back to the Sacred Valley of the Incas. Although the Incas are whom the valley is named after, the history of this long stretch in the Andes Mountains goes back thousands of years - to about the time Homer was writing the Iliad and Odyssey in Greece, and Britain was entering the Iron Age.
The first people to settle here were the Chanapata, around 800 BCE. Next came the Qotacalla, around 1,300 years later, and lasting until 900 CE. The Killke would follow them next and would rule until 1420 when the Incas took over.
The Incas would rule the valley until 1573 when the Spanish arrived.
It's important to mention this because, although the valley is known as the Sacred Valley of the Incas, the Incas actually spent very little time there compared to other civilizations. However, although the other civilizations did much for the valley, it was the Incas that began transforming it into a springboard for their empire.
The Incan capital was Cusco, and commanded an empire that stretched from the mountains to the coast, all the way north to Columbia, and south through much of Chile. It was the greatest empire the continent ever saw and had a vast network of trading routes, roadways, cities, and towns. Unlink the Aztecs to the north, who found conquering by blood the ideal way to rule, the Incas used diplomacy. They would offer protection, goods, services, and a structured way of life to the people, as long as they complied. This means the Incan empire was a mix of cultures, languages, religions, and traditions, and it all of that flowed back to the Sacred Valley.
But this interconnection brought vulnerability. Much like the Aztecs before them, European diseases had begun plaguing the empire, and the people began revolting against the failing, ruling class. The Incan empire broke into a civil war, and they might have been able to crush the resistance, had it not been for the arrival of the Spanish.
One of the sites where the Incas and the Spanish fought was Ollantaytambo. Here the Spanish used the Indian auxiliaries – allied indigenous groups, who fought alongside the Spanish - to do their dirty work. 30,000 Indian auxiliaries fought with 30,000 Incas, with only 100 Spanish in attendance. The Incas fought to protect Ollantaytambo and at one point threw stones from the half-built temple from the walls above to crush the invaders. They would then flood the site, drowning soldiers, and making it impossible to conduct calvary charges. The Spanish had no choice but to retreat.
The Incas won the battle, and pushed the Spanish and the auxiliaries back to Cusco, but also destroyed Ollantaytambo. When the Incas went on the offensive to take Cusco, their attack was thwarted by a night raid, and any chance they had of winning against the Spanish ended. The Battle of Ollantaytambo was one of their last successful military campaigns against the Spanish.
Ollantaytambo, or what was left of it, is a pre-Incan site that was absorbed by the Incans and used for religious purposes. The ruins are now a historic site. Although the stonework and terraces are a tourist attraction, most come to Ollantaytambo because it’s the gateway to the Incan Trial, and the beginning of the hike to Machu Picchu. There is a lot of defining history in the ruins of Ollantaytambo, but for those who don't know what to look for, it's nothing more than terraces and half-built stone walls.
Elsewhere in the Sacred Valley, on the other side of Cusco, is the Maras Salt Flats. These salt flats predate the Incan empire and had been used by the pre-Incas, Incas, Spanish, and now Peruvians to harvest salt. These salt flats consist of 3,000 to 5,000 pools of salty water, all from an underground stream. Depending on the time of year, salt is harvested from different layers of the pools, with the top layer being the highest quality and is used as table salt, the second layer is a lower quality "bulk" salt, and the third layer is salt used for industrial purposes.
Prior to September 2019, tourists could walk among the salt flats, but due to contamination, now only locals and salt flat farmers are allowed there.
The salt flats can be hard to get to, as they are far into a valley, and they are hard to look at because of their blinding, white light. Although impressive and a testament to just how long people have been living and working in the area, it is something many people will miss while in the valley. In contrast to the Uyuni Salt Flat in Bolivia, these salt flats are inaccessible to the public and are more of a visual attraction than one for people to explore.
But not far from the Maras Salt Flats is the Mountain View Experience, an outdoor picnic area amidst the towering Andes mountains. Here you can sit and eat fruit, ham, buns, crackers, and dried meat while drinking citrus flavoured water - or wine, if you prefer. Surrounding you are scores of alpacas and llamas, some shy, some cautious, but others mischievous, who will not hesitate to take some of your fruit if you leave it unattended.
At Mountain View Experience, you can finally feel the magic of the Sacred Valley. At 3,300 meters (or 3.3 kilometers) above sea level, the air is thinner here, but nothing you haven't experienced already in Cusco. If you do find yourself tired though, you can rent a cloth tent and sleep under the stars of the valley.
Although we didn't spend the night here, it was one of the most magical places we visited, and any time spent there was not long enough. From the food, the company, the animals, and the natural beauty, it was the first place that the sacredness of the valley finally came to light.
Before we left the valley, we had one more stop at Chinchero, a small village not far from Cusco. We stopped here to visit the locals and see how traditional alpaca and llama clothing is made. Although machines make many of the fabrics you find in stores, everything in this market is made by hand, and the money earned is split amongst the families who work there. Here we were taught about how unique, organic materials can be used to dye the wool, like the ink of a cactus parasite can be used to make red, or how adding in lemon or lime juice and turning it into shades of purple or pink. Other colors were demonstrated too, with every ingredient from maze, flowers, leaves or grass being used to dye the wool into different colors.
Once we bought our wares, and took our pictures, we headed off, back to Cusco, back to the former capital of South America's greatest empire.
Much of the magic of the Sacred Valley can be felt in Cusco as well, but much of it has been destroyed too. The Spaniards had their way with Cusco and built cathedrals over holy sites, and destroyed the rhythm of the ancient city. Originally Cusco was built in the shape of a puma, but now it's a sprawling city.
Still though, if you know where to look, and you know what questions to ask, you can find hints of the old Incan empire evocating the cobblestone streets, and whispering from the narrow alleyways. The valley was sacred for a millennium before the Spanish arrived and as the Peru reclaims who they once were, this ancient city will continue to permeate as the heart of the Sacred Valley of the Incas.
Have you ever visited Cusco or the Sacred Valley? Where did you go? Tell me all about it in the comments below.
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Categories: Peru, Remote Year, Travel Tips