Outside the Inca capital of Cusco lies a 60-mile (100 km) long fertile valley irrigated by the Urubamba River. Over the course of multiple day trips from Cusco, we discovered well-preserved fortifications, religious temples, agricultural terraces, irrigation networks, and administrative structures in the Sacred Valley of the Inca.
At the eastern end of the Sacred Valley lies the citadel of Pisac. This impressive archeological site includes religious, military, and agricultural facilities built along a mountain crest. After sharing a taxi up to the top of the archeological site, I followed a steep and interesting trail back into town.
Descending the trail, I found a preserved Inca temple complex of pink granite block construction centered around a sacred altar honoring the sun god. All along the ridge, numerous military watchtowers and observation points with strategic views of the Sacred Valley protected Pisac and imparted its nickname of the “City of the Towers”.
Agricultural terraces flanking the floor of the Sacred Valley remain the most prevalent and discernible remains of the Inca civilization. A prime example is the enchanting archeological site of Tipón. Here, Inca stone masons erected a succession of walls to create twelve flat platforms for use in the cultivation of crops.
Inca agronomists cleverly situated the agricultural terraces to take full advantage of natural water sources. At Tipón, a series of cascading spring-fed channels irrigate the rectangular terraces. Nowhere else in the Sacred Valley did I observe a better exhibition of Inca skill and expertise in hydrology.
Another example of the scientific sophistication of the Inca are the unusual circular ruins at Moray. Archeologists believe the terraced depressions to be an agricultural research laboratory and seedling nursery. Within the nested stone rings, Inca agronomists created microclimates and cultivated a variety of test beds to improve crop production.
Like all great civilizations throughout history, the Inca also relied on the cultivation of salt. At Maras, a natural salt water thermal spring continuously re-fills 5,000 interconnected polygonal pans. Still in operation, independent “farmers” continue to harvest salt by hand-scraping the crystals from the surface of the evaporating brine.
Further along the Sacred Valley, the Inca considered Chinchero to be the mythological birthplace of the rainbow. At the archeological site, ruins of embedded stone walls, trapezoidal terraces, and labyrinthine aqueducts are all that remain of the former country retreat of Inca ruler Tupac Yapanqui.
When the Spanish arrived in Chinchero during the 16th century, they destroyed the elaborate palace of Tupac Yapanqui. Today, anchored by the flawless cyclopean stone foundation of the Inca ruler’s refuge, only an unpretentious colonial parish church and its accompanying bell tower endure.
Finally, at the western end of the valley is the former Inca administrative center of Ollantaytambo. At this location, the Inca achieved a rare military victory against the Spanish conquistadors. Nearly five hundred years later, it remains another exceptionally well-preserved archeological site in the Sacred Valley of the Inca.
Feature Photo: Farmers drying corn outside Pisac in the fertile Sacred Valley of the Inca. Because of its proximity to the Inca capital city of Cusco and its lower elevation and warmer climate, the Sacred Valley was the most important area for maize (corn) production in the Inca Empire. For the Inca, maize was a prestigious crop that was dried, ground, mixed with water and fermented to make the alcoholic beverage chicha, which the Inca elite often guzzled for ceremonial purposes.