Secrets of the Sacred Valley of the Incas

"Meet my mother and father," says our guide Yashi, interpreting for the elderly Quechua woman who has invited us into her home. "They still live with us." Peering through the flickering candlelight I can just make out the handsome couple – two human skulls propped on a stone shelf flanked by a mummified llama foetus. Family portraits take on a whole new meaning in Ollantaytambo​ in Peru's Sacred Valley of the Incas.

According to Quechua custom the skulls of ancestors are often kept for protection. "Sometimes my mother's jaw chatters to warn of earthquakes," Yashi interprets. "Or my father throws stones to scare off intruders." With the candles casting finger-like shadows across the tiny kitchen-cum-bedroom I take in the rest of the room; guinea pigs scurrying across the stone floor, purple and gold-speckled corn hanging like garlands, feathers, hooves and horns papering every surface. I doubt little has changed since the 15th century when this Inca fortress town was built as a checkpoint to guard access to Machu Picchu.

The Sacred Valley lies north of Cusco, a swathe of villages and citadels strung along the Urubamba River between Pisac and Ollantaytambo from the time of the Inca Empire (early 13th century – 1572). On a previous trip I'd blazed through by train from Cusco, hell-bent on reaching one of the Wonders of the World, oblivious of the region's best sights. This trip, with more time on my hands, I've joined a 20-day Icons of South America tour with Scenic, which includes three nights in the Sacred Valley before moving on to Machu Picchu.

After flying into Cusco,​ we drive to Tambo del Inka Resort and Spa, our luxurious base in the Sacred Valley on the Urubamba​ River. The zigzag road winds between glacier-topped mountains before descending to the river valley, a rolling ribbon of green that is both Peru's granary and garden. At an average elevation of 2792 metres, the Sacred Valley is lower than Cusco's lung-busting 3400 metres, so  we have plenty of time to acclimatise before heading back to Cusco. In any case we have oxyshot canisters and two complimentary Medical Assist vouchers on hand if required. I find sipping coca tea and taking things easy on the first evening prevention enough.

On our first morning we visit the Inca ruins at Ollantaytambo​ with Yashi, our young Quechua guide. The Quechua people, who inhabit much of Peru's Andean spine, are direct descendants of the Incas, as well as the myriad peoples the Incas conquered. Under a cobalt-blue sky we clamber up the steep agricultural terraces that guard the ruins, one of the few places where the Incas had a major, though short-lived victory over the Spanish conquistadors. 

Stopping at points of interest Yashi explains that though Ollantaytambo was an effective fortress and the royal estate of Emperor Pachacuti it also served as a temple. At the summit six megalithic granite stones, known as the Temple of the Sun, smile up at the heavens like a set of giant teeth.

Continuously inhabited for more than 700 years, the village of Ollantaytambo​ offers one of the best-preserved examples of Inca city planning. Wandering the cobbled streets, each one cleaved down the middle by an irrigation channel, we pass people going about their business; women in colourful shawls grilling meat, men mending stone walls and children dressed in crisp school uniforms kicking footballs.

Unfortunately, not all children are so lucky. Some disadvantaged families remove their children from school, encouraging them to pose for photographs with tourists for a few meager coins. In a bid to break this cycle Scenic supports three schools in the area by donating school supplies, basic foods and kitchen equipment. "We can now provide breakfast and lunch for all 70 students," says Miriam, a teacher at Tanccac School. "This provides incentive for parents to send their children to school everyday." 

After we unload crates of eggs, sugar and milk, the school repays by inviting us to share their humble lunch. Piled on trestle tables are mounds of steaming potatoes, from golden yellow to regal purple, their tough wrinkled skins looking like elephants' hides. Following the children's lead I dip an egg-sized orb into a dish of pesto, biting through the leathery outer to discover a fluffy centre that yields an unexpected and earthy taste of terroir. 

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Afterwards, the children delight us with a rousing music and drama performance. The Incas did not have a written language, relying instead on music, poetry and oral literature for the passing of stories. As the children's sweet voices rise and fall across the mountains I'm sure I'm not the only one with a lump in my throat the size of the Andes. 

The Incas also used textiles as a form of visual communication and were considered some of the finest weavers in the world. Today, the village of Chinchero​ maintains its centuries-old tradition through a weaving co-op, which we visit on our second day. Surrounded by women dressed in a colour wheel of fabrics we learn that the threads are coloured using natural dyes to produce a staggering 180 different shades. With fingers flying they demonstrate the process of spinning, dying, fixing and weaving both lama and sheep wool. "Can you guess what type of bone this is?" one of the ladies asks, holding up a weaving hook that looks remarkably like a human finger. "It's from the last visitor who didn't buy something." Her full-bellied laugh and constant ribbing becomes one of my fondest memories from this trip.

On another day we have free choice, a chance to sample an activity that interests us. While some choose to visit the Inca ruins at Pisac or a horse ranch, I sign up for a tour of the salt flats and agricultural terraces near Maras.

Leaving Urubamba​, we drive out of the valley, following a steep and winding road to an elevation of 3500 metres where a blanket of salt flats tumbles down the mountainside like a brown and white patchwork quilt. Since pre-Inca times, salt has been harvested here by evaporating salty water from a local subterranean stream. Walking the tightrope between plots, of which there are more than 3500, we learn that each pool is owned by an individual family, who still scrape and bag by hand each dry season as they have for centuries. From Maras we drive to Moray, passing through classic potato country; where red earth is pinned down by heavy grey clouds, where donkeys rule and shepherds sleep in fields at night to guard their stock. It's also where the Incas conducted genetic research, producing more than 5000 varieties of potatoes and developing multiple hybrids of quinoa in stadium-sized sets of concentric stone terraces. 

Yashi points out three separate circles or muyu; one that was used for corn and quinoa experiments, one for potatoes and one for subtropical crops. While the first two have been excavated, the third has been left in its ruinous state, the arcs of white rocks looking like discarded rib bones. "Archaeologists have suggested that the depth and orientation produced a temperature difference from top to bottom by as much as 15 degrees Celsius," Yashi explains. "It's thought the Incas used this to study the effects of climate on crops." 

Before entering the first circle Yashi introduces us to Mother Earth or Pachamama, a benevolent deity worshipped year round, but especially in August just before the sowing season. Clutching three coca leaves, one each for our past, present and future, we stand in a circle while Yashi calls to the mountains, thanking Mother Earth for her generous bounty and protection. 

While the ghosts from an empire long past can be felt amid these bleached ruins, it's in the inhabited villages and the stories told by people  such as Yashi and the weaving ladies, that the real tale is fleshed out. You just need to pause long enough, and listen.

Five other Sacred Valley sights:

- Hike Ollantaytambo's Pinkuylluna Hill to see Inca storehouses built into the rocks for the preservation of grains and Tunupa, a rock visage named for a deity that watches over the village.

- Visit the village of Pisac for its well-preserved Inca ruins and Sunday markets.

- Watch an Andean priest perform a ritual to Mother Earth at Chinchero village.

- Visit the gallery of internationally acclaimed artist Pablo Seminario in Urubamba to learn about the past and present of Peruvian pottery.

- Visit Maras, a lost-in-time agricultural village where donkeys dominate; from a donkey statue in the main square to donkey jams on every dusty corner.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

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GETTING THERE

LAN Airlines operates seven one-stop flights each week from Sydney to Santiago, Chile, with onward connections to Lima, Peru. Travellers from Melbourne can connect to their LAN Airlines flight to Santiago in Sydney. Phone 1800 126 038, see lan.com.

TOURING THERE

Scenic's (formerly Scenic Tours)  20-day "Icons of South America",  tours Peru, Argentina and Brazil and includes  Machu Picchu, the Sacred Valley,  Cusco and Lake Titicaca,  Iguazu Falls and the cities of Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro; from  $12,795 per person twin share.

Earlybird offers out now for 2016 bookings made by September 30, 2015 – buy one airfare and your partner will fly free including air taxes of up to $180. Phone 1300 723 642, see scenic.com.au

The writer was a guest of Scenic and LAN Airlines

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