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Chasing Legends in the Sacred Valley

From issue 88 • Words and images by Clive Pursehouse

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Legend has it that Manco Capac, the first Inca king, emerged from a cave on Lake Titicaca in the Andes. From there a civilization grew. By the time the ninth Incan king, Pachacuti, came to inherit the throne in the 1400s, his aptitude on the battlefield and capacity to conquer grew the Incan dominion from Cusco to an expanse covering much of the western reaches of South America.

The Sacred Valley of the Incas is our destination when Luis and I leave our driver on a rutted side road near Chinchero, Peru. A highway—effectively a paved road with one designated lane in each direction—passes through this town on the way from the bustling city of Cusco to the Sacred Valley. It winds beside the Urubamba River and eventually, where the fertile plain takes a turn toward jungle, the highway makes a sharp right a few kilometers shy of the world’s most legendary summer home, Machu Picchu.

Chinchero is a town at a cultural crossroads. It’s a place where farmers who hand-till the surrounding Andean plateau cross paths with tourists making their treks from Cusco to Machu Picchu. It’s a jumping off point for Luis and I; today, we plan to pick our way across the plains of Anta toward the mysterious Incan archaeological site of Moray.

The dusty side roads in Chinchero quickly give way to rutted dirt trails that take us around the lake of Laguna Piuray. Luis motions that he’s pulling over and takes a small, green plastic bag of leaves from his backpack. Coca leaves are a staple of the high country here. Chinchero sits at well over 12,000 feet, and though we know the plant in the states for the illicit production of cocaine, the coca leaf may be the world’s first superfood. Some archaeologists even credit the presence and properties of the coca plant with the ability for humans to pursue and sustain culture at these high altitudes. Chewing coca leaves has a number of palliative effects, including heightened energy and pain relief, but the most important is its ability to stave off altitude sickness. I’ve been chewing the stuff for a few days now and haven’t felt the heights at all.

Luis holds a few leaves in front of his chest, says a blessing in Quechua (the real language of this country) and tosses a few leaves to the wind. We both pack a large pinch of coca leaves into our cheeks and pedal into the horizon, with the snowcapped Andean peaks of Salcantay and Kiswar in the distance.

When the Incas extended their kingdom beyond the borders of Cusco, they were one tribe of Quechua people. Their expansion, a combination of both tactical diplomacy and military might, along with a nearly unbelievable engineering prowess, led to an empire that ranged from the southern tip of Colombia to the far southern reaches of Chile. It was the most expansive empire in the New World. While the legendary Machu Picchu gets all the Instagram love, the Incas’ true marvel is the Inca Road. The system is just shy of 40,000 kilometers of paved, cobblestone roads, with bridges, causeways and tunnels, still intact in many places.

We head west across the “highway” and pick our way across farm roads, often a liberal application of the term. As we turn a corner there’s a car parked on the roadside and a number of Quechua farmers taking five. Luis stops to ask them what they’re up to. A young guy, probably college-age, tells him they’re planting potatoes, and one of the women asks if I’d like to have a drink. “Do you want some chicha?” Luis asks me. As a rule, wherever I am in the world, if I’m offered a drink, I take it. Even if, as in this case, I don’t really know what it is and that it comes in a blue plastic gas can.

Chicha de jora is a corn-based drink that goes back thousands of years to the Incas in the Andean high country. It is essentially corn beer, fermented and often sold at home all over this part of Peru. It’s got a vague effervescence and a slightly sweet, undeniably pleasant corn taste. One of the farmers pours the chicha from the gas can into a painted tin mug and I take a large swig. It’s delicious, though Luis warns me to “be careful; that will destroy your insides” (he’s lying). He then kindly offers to finish it off for me in one chug.

We pedal to a small rise in the plateau, on past a few clusters of squat earthen houses, possibly home to the family we just shared a drink with, and then big, cold raindrops start to fall on us. Luis had arranged to have our driver meet us in the tiny town of Cruzpata, really no more than an intersection, and his timing is immaculate. I climb into the van for a minute while Luis disappears into one of the doorways up the road from us. I do my best to communicate with our driver with my junior-high-school-level Spanish. Within a few minutes Luis reappears and the thunking of the dense raindrops subsides; that’s the last weather we’ll have to deal with today.

We pedal past Laguna Huaypo and turn off of well-graded dirt and gravel roads onto a short, steep climb that lands us on a red-stripe road of pure clay. We’re fortunate that it’s dry and we climb rollers up toward the horizon. The moody Andean giant, Chicón, and the rest of the Urubamba cordillera sprawl in front of us. A local couple comes toward us on an old motorcycle; the whole scene takes my breath away. We’re pedaling along, at well over 12,000 feet in elevation, with an occasional boost from an e-assist. This is an elevation that would put you close to the top of Mount Rainier back where I live. And this is just a Tuesday in the farm country above the Sacred Valley.

Standing above Moray, we look down into one of the most impressive feats of Inca ingenuity. The circular terraces descend down in concentric circles, comprised of a variety of soil types from throughout the region. The altitude and soil variations, coupled with the range in temperatures, which vary by 30 degrees Fahrenheit from top to bottom, provided the Incas with a wealth of growing conditions. Life at this elevation was difficult enough, and with an empire to feed, the Incas were masters at discerning what crops would thrive at different elevations and within a variety of soil types. These days, there are more than 4,000 varieties of potato and 2,000 different kinds of quinoa grown in this part of the world. The Incas created an agricultural laboratory at an insanely high altitude before the New World was even “discovered.”

Some black clouds convince me and Luis to hustle, bombing our way through a canyon into the super-cool little town of Maras, home of one of the culinary world’s most sought-after natural resources. Salt has been mined here since pre-Inca times. An underground stream comes to the surface as the steep slope drops away to the Sacred Valley and flows through a series of hundreds of tiny shallow pools. It is a wild sight to behold, the canyon walls seemingly caked in white as far as the eye can see. Each pool allows for the evaporation of the water in the sun’s heat, and is then closed off to harvest the salt from the sides and bottom of the clay basins. Luis gives the guy at the gate a couple of coins and we ride through, past the pools and into what feels like an enduro trail, bombing the salt-crusted canyon and dropping 3,000 feet in less than two miles of dirt switchbacks!

I bid Luis buenas noches and leave behind the wilds of the Anta plains for the four-star accommodation and world-class gastronomical interpretations of local cuisine at the Tambo del Inka. Far from roughing it here in the Sacred Valley, I’ve got a full hydro treatment and a sports massage on deck for the evening. There are several resorts in the Sacred Valley catering to tourists, but Tambo del Inka partners with an active-sports agency, Venturia, where Luis is a guide. (The train to Aguas Calientes, the gateway to Machu Picchu, also departs from the Tambo del Inka).

The following morning Luis and I embark from Ollantaytambo, which is both the former estate of Inca emperor Pachacuti and the last stronghold for the Inca resistance during the Spanish conquest of Peru. These days, it’s a jumping-off point for the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu. We mosey along some of the original Inca Road, terraced above the Urubamba River with serious cobblestones that have stood the test of time. We meander along the floor of the Sacred Valley, outrunning local dogs, dodging a train and stopping in for a micro-brewed beer (the valley has two microbreweries) before heading to Urubamba’s huge public market.

The public market in Urubamba is a celebration of Peru—heritage, culture, the past and today. It’s a place where legends of lost kings and brave warriors give way to the everyday people who still till these soils, farm the steep countryside and call the Sacred Valley home. Many of us come to this part of Peru to discover Machu Picchu, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. If we’re lucky we’ll take a bicycle and instead focus on those that give this Valley life today. The Incas called this place “sacred” because of its temples as well as its fertile soils and ability to sustain life and an empire. Today, that life is as vibrant and captivating in the faces and smiles of the locals in Urubamba or school children of Maras as it is in the stones that make up Machu Picchu—and all of it is worth seeing.

When in the Sacred Valley…
The organic gardens on the premises and the fantastic restaurant at the Tambo del Inka make for an incredible dining experience. The first-class amenities, spa and all the coca tea you can drink, not to mention full access to all the services that Venturia offers, make it an easy choice as a cycling basecamp:

Grab a pint or three (after you’ve acclimated to the altitude) at Cervecería del Valle Sagrado: