As tourist attractions in southern Peru go the ancient Inca city of Machu Picchu, situated more than a mile above the town of Aguas Calientes in the Andes Mountains, tends to generate the most interest, attention and therefore hype. As I blogged about earlier this year, said interest, attention and hype are absolutely justified.
Unfortunately, most of the rest of what this region has to offer goes largely unnoticed as a result. If you’re headed to Cusco, the nearest urban settlement to Machu Picchu, plan a day trip out to the Moray Inca Ruins, about 50 km from the city center — and set amid what’s literally the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever laid eyes upon.
When you wake up the morning you plan to head out to Moray — and you’re doing yourself a great disservice if you don’t get started by 8 a.m. — call or hail a taxi to Cusco’s Santiago bus terminal, which doesn’t look like much of a bus terminal at all from the small road it’s on. Upon exiting the cab, make your way inside the white walls of the station and approach any of the people standing near vehicles. Ask them for the bus to Maras — or, if your Spanish isn’t go0d, simply write the word down on a piece of paper and give it to the person who helps you.
The notion of a bus schedule is about as native to this part of the world as the Queen’s English, but you shouldn’t wait more than 15 minutes for your vehicle, which may be a large tourist bus or, in some cases, a smaller collectivo van. Whichever chariot brings you to your destination, the fare should be no more than three soles, which was around $1 US as of April 2011.
As your bus climbs over the mountains that almost completely encircle Cusco, you’ll notice a gradual increase in the number of flat fields around you, which gradually begin to fill with golden- and lavender-colored wildflowers as the journey progresses. Given Cusco’s highly-indigenous population, the excess of native-looking people won’t surprise you, although the herds of goats, cattle and other livestock crossing the road at their own leisure may take you aback. You might characterize the overall aesthetic as being “Sacred.”
One would I myself would never use to describe this region, however, is “Valley.” Wikipedia concurs: according to the site’s article on Moray, the ruins themselves — which lie relatively deep within the crevice the Incas dug for them — sit nearly 12,000 feet above sea level, only slightly lower than Cusco and higher, in fact, than Machu Picchu.
Don’t let the altitude of the region — or, as the case may be, the misnomer “Valley” — deter you from enjoying your experience to the most sacred extent possible. The entire area you’ll need to traverse to get to the bizarre ruins themselves is flat and yes, I did say traverse. If you’re having trouble with altitude sickness, ask any local if he can bum you some coca leaves, which truly do help.
Your vehicle will drop you off at a taxi stand a short walk from the nondescript town center of Maras — or about 13 kilometers from the Moray Ruins themselves. Resist the urge to hire a taxi, however low a fare the driver promises you. Indeed, my vow is more sincere: the scenery here is among the most pristine and beautiful I have ever seen in my life. I’ve seen blue skies and massive mountain towering into them, rolling hills and fields of phlox rolling over them like outdoor carpeting. I’ve come face to face with more than my fair share of farm animals and hiked harrowing cliffs over dried up riverbeds that mean certain death for those who fall into them.
Peru’s Sacred Valley is home to all these incredible things and more — and something else I can’t put my finger on. I suppose this could be partially because once you pass over Maras’ two of three paved roads, the only people you encounter are the few that tend to the animals that roam across this plateau — and their children, some of whom seem never to have seen white tourists, as enchanted by your presence there as you are by the place they’ve called home their whole lives.
After between one and two hours of walking — your time in transit depends, understandably, on how quickly you move — you’ll notice a modern-looking (albeit small) building and the taxis you waved off when you began your walk. This is the entrance to Moray.
Enter and Descend
The attendant blocking your would-be complimentary entrance into Moray will do his best to upsell you into a “Sacred Valley Tourist Ticket,” one which permits you entry into all the sites of the Sacred Valley over a several day period for a low price of more than S./100. Unless you’re spending several weeks in Cusco — and I say this because if you’re only staying a week or two, the city itself and Machu Picchu will more than occupy your time — decline this offer and buy a one-day pass to enter Moray, which costs just 10 soles.
You won’t realize how grand and magnificent the ruins — a series of concentric, stone-walled circles that descend gradually as you go inward — are until you reach the bottom and look up. On the day I went, I was lucky enough that my companion Assaf descended into the abyss while I was still at the top, affording me an incredible vantage point that put the scale of the construction into breaktaking perspective.
We happened to be the only tourists there for most of the hour or so we spent actually exploring the ruins, which would seem to have been used as an amphitheater of sorts back in the day based on its incredible acoustics. I later learned that it was allegedly an “agricultural experiment,” according once again to our friend Wikipedia.
Whatever Moray’s purpose actually was for those who built it, it’s an otherworldly, fascinating, secluded diversion from the gringo madness of Cusco and Machu Picchu, as wonderful as both are in their own ways — and by trekking 13 kilometers through Peru’s Sacred Valley to get to the ruins, you re-pay yourself the entry fee several times over before you even buy your ticket.