What a curious assortment of treasures! Peru’s Sacred Valley of the Incas enveloped me with its charms as I rolled through mystery and ancient history, past patchwork and piglets, and onwards to a fascinating, salty finale.
I was travelling with friends Jen and Brett, and we had heard about the amazing bike trails around Cusco. We booked a tour through ‘Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking’ in neighbouring Bolivia which was founded by a New Zealander, Alistair Matthew. This kiwi entrepreneur helped connect us with a local tour guide called KB who knew all the best trails.
Not quite sure what we were in for, we met KB at a place called Moray. There was a dusty car park, some local craft stalls and a nondescript building. There didn’t seem to be anything special about the place…until we ventured along a path to peer over the grassy edge. Woah! My eyes grew as round as the bizarre, stone circles below me. It was like an enormous amphitheatre with terraces ringed around the sides of a deep depression in the ground. I spotted people at the bottom, as tiny as ants. What was this mysterious construction?!
Many colourful theories exist, but the peculiar shapes probably have more to do with agriculture than aliens. KB’s theory was that the Incas grew maize on the terraces to make chicha, an alcoholic brew. Moray’s location on the Royal Incan road from Cusco to Ollantaytambo meant it could have been a ceremonial stop for the royalty to enjoy their stash of chicha.
The most common theory is that it was an agricultural laboratory where the Incas studied the effect of altitude and light on different crops. They planted wheat, quinoa, panti, grain and kantu flowers across levels ranging over 150m in depth. It is said that the cooler temperatures of the deeper levels simulated the high altitude conditions in the surrounding countryside so the Incans could breed selected varieties to thrive in different areas.
We clambered down to explore and muse for a while about the people who built this structure. By the time we puffed our way back to the top, we were thoroughly warmed up for our ride, and powered off into the Peruvian countryside.
This valley was singing with beauty. Rippling golden fields surrounded us, and the hills slumbered peacefully under a glorious patchwork quilt. KB told us we were lucky it was still so green. The dry season was beginning and the countryside would soon be parched into shades of blonde and brown.
We rolled amongst sheep, and tiny, black piglets. “Buenos días!” we called to a man hitching a plough to his burly black ox. He waved and smiled, his face creased from a lifetime of living off the land. Adobe cottages with thatched roofs were sprinkled across the fields like tiny trinkets under the looming presence of the snow capped Andes.
Further down the road we made way for busy little donkeys trotting along the dusty road with big straw bushels on their backs.
After following KB’s playful lines through the humps and furrows of the trail we came to the charming village of Maras. Our bikes rumbled down the quaint, cobbled streets and KB pointed out the 16th century colonial stone doorways and intricate facades which were influenced by the Spanish who arrived here nearly 500 years ago. The traditional Andean community seemed frozen in time maintaining the same peaceful rhythms of the past generations. People sat drinking coca leaf tea, a popular brew for reducing altitude sickness. Women with hats and layered skirts carried bundles on their backs, the vivid colours of the cheerfully striped cloth, glowing next to their olive skin and long dark plaits.
The cobbled streets became a dirt road once again as we headed back into the countryside. The locals had made bike trails here and even an impressive jump where braver riders could soar over the road below. The trail became rougher and rockier and we were glad of our suspension when we passed another rider clattering along on a fully rigid bike. Rounding a corner we suddenly spotted our destination below – the spectacular, cascading terraces of the Maras Salt Mines.
Even though Maras lay over 500km from the coast and 4000m above sea level, a saltwater spring flowed from the earth, feeding into over 3000 small pools that lined the mountainside. The squares of the salt pans were varying shades of white, cream and coffee, reminding me again of a patchwork quilt. The whitest ones were full of salt crystals ready to be harvested, and the mines produce thousands of kilos of this ‘white gold’ every month, destined for dinner tables across Peru.
KB told us that the Incas used to come to the Salt Mines, and send salt on the back of Incan messengers called ‘chasquis’ who would run it all the way to Lima on the coast. There they would catch fish, pack it in the salt, and relay run it non-stop back to Cusco so that the royalty could dine on fresh fish from the ocean. Chasquis were specially chosen athletes, with hearts and lungs that could sustain the high altitude, and hands and feet that were were nimble through the dangerous mountains, across narrow precipices and over rope bridges slung across ravines. Relay stations were spaced along the route so a chasqui could recover while a fresh runner continued. In this way it took only 35 hours to cover the 500km from the coast back to Cusco, a feat that even the Spaniards on horses could not come close to matching.
Inspired by the tales of swift athletes we leapt back on our bikes for the smooth, fast finish. We swooped around banked turns, tucked and aerodynamic, absorbing the rush of speed. All wide smiles and laughter we gathered at the bottom, fizzing about the day. KB told us there were dozens more amazing rides in the Sacred Valley but with our tight schedule today’s little beauty had really hit the spot. Exploring this mix of ancient treasures was certainly worth its salt.