Once the capital of the Inca Empire, Cusco is a city in the Peruvian Andes set 3400m above sea level. With over a week here to acclimatise before our trek over Machu Picchu, we spent our time exploring the archaeological remains and watching the world go by in central square of the old city, Plaza de Armas.

The Sacred Valley

Chinchero

A steep walk up cobbled steps and we were greeted by a Colonial church, which led to misty mountains and green terraces. Inca´s used the terraces to grow produce including potatoes and field beans. During lunch we found out that these mystical beans are what we call lentils.

Moray

Amphitheatre, alien landing pad or huge agricultural laboratory? Let’s go with the latter. The use of Moray is still questioned. The large circular levels provide temperature differences for varying crops and surprisingly, the area never floods due to the clever underground drainage systems. Each platform has a set of stairs, unusually large when considering the average of height of an Inca. The agricultural experiments of the Inca’s has contributed to the 2000 varieties of potatoes that exist in Peru, not all of which are edible and some can be stored for up to ten years.

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Salt mines at Maras

Pop on your hat and some sun cream, the climates of Maras Salt Mines are significantly warmer due to the evaporating salt in the air. A spectacular view of over 4000 salt pools dug in the mountains, one for each family in Maras. A natural salt spring (70% salt and 30% water) filters down to fill the shallow pools. In the dry season, salt flowers form on the surface of the pools, with each pool creating 3-400 kilograms of salt. Known as Salineras de Maras, this is one of three sites in the world where salt can be mined using this natural method. During the wet season, the pools are out of order due to the rain water contaminating the salt water springs. We visited during rainy season, hence the murky pools in the pictures below.

Ollantaytambo

Chew on a Coca leaf or Coca toffee before walking up the many stairs of one of the biggest Inca ruins. Set above vast agricultural terraces sits the sun temple, visited by Inca’s for winter solstice on the 21st June and the summer solstice on the 21st December. Unfortunately the sun dial structure is incomplete due to the Spanish invasions. This was a religious site with prisons carved into the mountain side, perhaps for reflection and forgiveness from the Gods. Parallel to the sun temple lay store houses for the crops. From the top you can view the remains of the water temple, which was re-walled each year. Leave the ruins and take a wander in Ollantaytambo town, a popular spot for tourists. Find cafes, restaurants and an abundance of Peruvian markets around a quaint square. Perfect for a day trip if you have extra time in Cusco and only a short train ride away from Machu Picchu.

Pisac

A sacred site where Inca mummification and burial rituals took place. Tombs were carved into the mountain face, with nobility in one area featuring carefully designed structures. In comparison, those of lower class were placed in hole-in-the-wall type tombs. Walk to the highest point of the ruins for an incredible view across the Andean mountain landscape. Be careful not to lose your buddy among the many levels of the ruins and if you do, meet back at the bus! Tour guides are very punctual and don’t like being put off schedule.

We did this all in one day, including lunch at a authentic Peruvian restaurant, set in a large tree house. The day was full on but very well organised by our tour guides. It cost 90 Soles, which equates to around £22.50 per person. We booked this through our hostel, Milhouse who have their own travel agency. Highly recommended if you want to see a lot of the Sacred Valley, whilst being pressed for time.

City tour of Cusco

Koricancha the Temple of the Sun and the Cathedral

The first stop of the tour introduced us to the fascinating engineering of the Inca empire. Large stones were layered into Tetris structures using large wooden frames. Without any need for cement, the stones fitted perfectly together. Windows were in the shape of trapezoids to help the structures withstand earthquakes and allow mobility. This method worked so well that the Spanish built on top of the Inca structures. Despite being impressed with the engineering they were keen to remove any Inca traces. The structures were covered in plaster by the Spanish and a new cathedral was built on top. Luckily today, the plaster has been scraped off to reveal the history, but speckles still remain over the stone.

Sacsayhuaman

Situated high above Cusco and offering magnificent views, it can get quite windy at Sacsayhuaman. The material used to build this Inca empire was lime stone, carried from at least 9km away. It is still a mystery as to how the Inca’s managed to move such mass. The largest stone in Sacsayhuaman weighs approximately 120 tons.

Tambomachay

Time for another coca leaf, this sacred spot 3800m high marked the beginning of the journey for those on the Inca Trail all those years ago. The water temple at the top of the hill illustrates the Inca belief of the equilibrium way of life. Combining three waterfalls the Inca engineering still works today, acting as a pump for the water.

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Q’enqo

Shaped as a Puma, Cusco’s stomach marks the village of Q’enco – a place of spiritual importance. Mummifications took place here inside a cave, using the sunlight reflected off a mirror on to a flat surface carved out of the cave. Here, the embalming process would take place. Dead bodies were placed in fetal positions by cutting ligaments, as the Inca’s believed in reincarnation where you were born back into Mother Earth. This process did not only happen to the dead. Humans, often young virgins, were occasionally sacrificed to the gods.

This was a half day tour costing 30 soles, which equates to £7.50 per person. A great introduction to the Inca history. Take snacks, plenty of water and layers.

Inca ruins, fleeces and walking boots are going to play a big part in our lives over the next few weeks as we prepare for our four day trek over Machu Picchu. All will be revealed in our next blog post.