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Machu Picchu is spectacular—more stunning than any poster, more alive than any ruin—and the highlight of The Sacred Valley. The drive from Cusco educates travelers about the incredible Incas and their sophisticated history, architecture, science and engineering. Hard to believe they only ruled 100 years.

1. Moray: How do you grow crops in high altitude?

Circular terraces reveal the Incan talent for farming and experimentation. Perfect drainage and scientific savvy have developed 3,800 types of potatoes and 1,500 types of corn.

Crop circles

Each terrace is a micro climate; temperatures vary 60 degrees from top to bottom

potatoes



2. Maras: How do you find salt at high altitude?

In salt evaporation ponds.

Salt evaporation pondsToday families tend up to 40 plots and earn about $10 per plot per month. Too bad the warehouse is way up where I am shooting this photo. We saw both men and women carrying these bags—one at a time.

salt bag warehouse

3. The Incan Fortress at Ollantaytambo: How do you protect yourself from the Conquistadores?

Climb to the top and flood the valley below.

Steps leading up to the fort

 

Guard House

 

carving of the creator god

Viracocha, The Creator God

Some advice: If your 21st-century knees aren’t at 100 percent, save them for Machu Picchu.

4. Machu Picchu: Why didn’t our schools teach Incan culture?

Guess you had to be at Yale and sign up for a class with Professor and explorer Hiram Bingham, the inspiration for Indiana Jones. Bingham re-discovered Machu Picchu during his 1911 quest to find the last capital of the Incas before the Conquistadores overran them in the 1500s.

After several days acclimating to the altitude, you’re ready for Machu Picchu, reached by the Inca Trail (3-5 days) or by train from Ollantaytambo and then a bus. Either route offers great views.

Ollantayambo River

Ollantayambo River

Translated, Machu Picchu means old or ancient peak. Before you set foot on sacred ground, your guide will shame you into pronouncing it correctly: machu, like it looks, and pik-chu, a pronunciation new to most tourists.

Climb the ruins and discover a royal city, important for spirituality and agriculture. Discover the secret to why Incan structures survive major earthquakes, while the Conquistadores’ “high-tech” European cathedrals crumbled at the first seismic jolt.

Note the intricate terracing to manage water run-off.

Machu Picchu from above

Some advice: Note the lack of handrails while you are looking around.

Steep steps, no handrails.

Then observe the earthquake-proof buildings with trapezoid-shaped doors and windows, walls of interlocking blocks that slant in, and uneven rock shapes that create stability.

buildings at Machu Picchu

trapezoid doorsTherein lies the magic of Machu Picchu (did you pronounce that right?). It is preserved like Ephesus in Turkey so you can still get a good feel for the life and times.

The Temple of the Sun, the most spiritual site, still stands near the king’s residence, and the June solstice sun still shines through a trapezoid window to illuminate the altar rock.

Temple of the sun

The first of those royal residents, Emperor Pachacuti (or Pachacutec), transformed the Cusco region into the Incan Empire and initiated the building of Machu Picchu as a summer residence. Excavations have unearthed elongated skulls, which lead archaeologists to believe that royal family members had cranial alterations as a sign of superiority.

We spent five hours among the ruins and on the way out met these cuties:

Chinchilla

chinchilla

llama

llama (ya-ma)

5. Cusco: Where do you need more than 1 day?

In this Incan capital at the classy Palacio del Inca Hotel.

Palacio del Inca hotel lobby

Meet a friendly Pachacuti at the front door.

Man dressed as Pachacuti

The hotel is not far from, what Conde Nast calls, “the most charming plaza in South America.”

Cusco town square

Cusco town square by day

Town square at night

The square by night

My only regret: I needed more than 36 hours to explore Cusco, enjoy the fun restaurants, where you’ll learn the Pachacuti song, and shop for alpaca products.

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Next blog: Spiritual Peru