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Published: November 13th 2013
Chinchero and Magical Earthworks
Green circles spiral down into the earth, glistening white polygons tumble down a canyon, and grassy step pyramids carve a mountainside--otherwordly landscapes created five hundred years ago by those master builders, the Inca.
Between Cusco and its Sacred Valley, lie three remarkable Incan sites--the experimental agricultural circles of Moray at 3500m/14,000 ft, the still-used salt pans of Salineras and the town of Chinchero built upon Incan foundations. While many breeze through all three in a day tour or even combine them with a couple of other sites, I took a slower route.
Moray and Its Mystical Circles
I'd heard that it was a lovely, all-day walk from Moray to Salineras, and so caught a couple of local buses up to Maras, the Moray turnoff, passing through green, rolling-hill countryside in the end of April rainy season. Taxis waited at the crossroads to take tourists the several kilometers to the site.
Meeting a French couple, I acted as translator and negotiator. Since the taxi driver would take us to both sites for the same price as Moray alone, a case of the lazies set in. It was not my
best decision, for I would have liked to linger longer at each site, confirming my dislike of even an informal tour. Still....
Moray was gorgeous with classic Incan stone terraces built in concentric circles, now covered with grass, descending into the earth in natural depressions.
Of course, no one really knows how the Inca used the site, but current speculation postulates that these were agricultural experimental stations, testing various strains of crops, perhaps coca, maize and quinoa at different elevations since the temperature difference between the highest and lowest terraces is significant. This could help them adapt old strains to new settlements, such as Machu Picchu, and to feed populations much larger than live in these areas today.
I would have liked to hike around the gorgeous area more, for there were several circles, some unexcavated, but after an hour and a half, we were off on back roads, passing donkeys almost invisible under their burdens of hay, huge Incan granaries and views of Ausungate, the highest mountain in the area, to visit the Salineras.
Salineras, A Cooperative Enterprise
A sodium-laden stream springs from the side of a
mountain which, from pre-Inca times, has been diverted into canals and captured in hundreds of shallow ponds as it flows down the canyon. The water evaporates leaving a salt deposit which is then scraped from the bottom and sides of the pools, processed and shipped all over the country.
The whitest salt is the finest, but I bought the pink, which lies under the white, for it was prettier and contained more minerals. Not being mush of a salt eater, I've just admired it and haven't managed to try it in six months. Certainly, sometime...
Most fabulous about the salt flats is that they are operated as a cooperative. Anyone who is willing to work the flats, is given as many polygons as they like and the cooperative cleans, packages and sells the salt. Really, my favorite model!
Chinchero Market and Weavers
The small pueblo of Chinchero is, like Cusco, built on the foundations of an Incan city. I visited on Sunday for the weekly market when villagers in traditional clothing from surrounding settlements came in to sell and barter their goods. Most people head to the more famous market
at Pisac, but I preferred this since I was one of the few foreigners, and it had a more authentic, local feel.
In the off-season, there were few tourists for the gorgeous, woven textiles. If I'd had the money and either space in my suitcase or an affordable post service, I suppose I would have gone wild. As it is, I consider shops and markets like museums--places to admire beauty. It is such a freeing feeling!
Like the locals I bought produce and sat at a long table, chatting with others and enjoying a bowl of soup. With fruit and veggies, I'm an adventurous eater, so I tried some weird, spiky, green fruit; then, we all laughed at my shock at tasting its sourness--win some, lose some.
I climbed up the steep hills through the town, past a gauntlet of shops and stalls, visiting a weaving studio/shop. The friendly weaver showed me the natural dyes, weaving techniques, and the very elaborate, multilevel home for her adorable guinea pigs who would later be dinner.
Incan Terraces and Ruins
I continued up original Incan streets to the town plaza with
its church built on the foundations of an Incan temple. The church was a little gem completely covered with murals inside. Outside was the longest, finely-cut, Incan wall in existence with niches, probably for sacred images or ancestors' mummies.
The town has been built on top of the Incan palaces and temples, so while there are lots of foundations, there are only a few Incan buildings near the plaza. Most of the archaeological site consists of stone terraces once used to grow food, but now covered with green grass in this rainy season. The site also held several sacred Incan sculptures--curious, seat-like forms carved into rock outcroppings.
Most of the time, I had the site to myself; it was heavenly to walk on the earth of the terraces, follow the steep, stone steps down to the river or gaze off into the mountains that receded into the distance. Sometimes, I just like to stop and listen to the wind for awhile--it was my favorite kind of peaceful day.
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