Salineras De Maras ★★
10km (6 miles) NW of Urubamba
Near Urubamba (in the mountains above the Sacred Valley between Urubamba and Chinchero) is the amazing sight of the Salineras de Maras, thousands of individual ancient salt mines that form unique terraces in a hillside. The mines, small pools thickly coated with crystallized salt like dirty snow, have existed in the same spot since Inca days and are still operable. The salt has become a gourmet item in top restaurants around Peru. Families pass them down like deeds and continue the backbreaking and poorly remunerated tradition of salt extraction (crystallizing salt from subterranean spring water). Although the site as a whole is extraordinary and photogenic—from afar it looks like a patchwork quilt spread over a ravine, or a sprawling, multilevel cake with white and caramel-colored
icing—it’s surreal to watch workers standing ankle-deep and mining salt from one of nearly 6,000 pools cascading down the hillside. If you have a good sense of balance, you can walk among salt-encrusted paths to get close-up photographs. A small fee (S/7) is collected at the entrance, where a collection of small shops sells nicely packaged salts, salt carvings, and other gifts touched with Maras salt in some way. Opening hours are from dawn to dusk.
Getting There -- To get to Maras, take a taxi from the Maras/Moray turnoff on the road from Chinchero to Urubamba (about S/30 round-trip), where there are usually taxis waiting. Most visitors will combine a visit to Maras with a trip to Moray (S/70–S/80 round-trip from the turnoff, or around S/90 from Urubamba). Even better is the walk (5km/3 miles) along a path (a little over 1 hr.) from the village of Maras, a route taken by some of the salt-mine workers (as if their work weren’t grueling enough). Still more extreme and rewarding is the trek to the salt mines from the Inca ruins at Moray. It is one of the most stunningly beautiful walks in the region, a feast of blue-green cacti, deep red-brown earth, snowcapped mountains, plantings of corn and purple flowering potatoes, and small children tending to sheep. It’s only for those who are in good shape, however; allow about 4–5 hr. to cover the entire 14km (7 1/2 miles), all the way out to the main Urubamba–Ollantaytambo road.
9km (5 1/2 miles) NW of Maras
Among the wilder and more enigmatic Inca sites in Peru are the concentric ring terraces found in Moray. Unique in the Inca oeuvre, the site is not the ruins of a palace or fortress or typical temple, but what almost appears to be a large-scale environmental art installation. Three main sets of rings, like bowls, are set deep into the earth, forming strange sculpted terraces. The largest of the three has 15 levels. From above, they’re intriguing, but it’s even cooler to go down into them and contemplate their ancient functions. Many spiritually inclined travelers who come to the Sacred Valley for its special energy find that Moray possesses a very strong and unique vibe. The site may have had ritualistic purposes, but it was likely an agricultural development station where masterful and relentlessly curious farmers among the Incas tested experimental crops and conditions. The depressions in the earth (caused by erosion) produced intense variations in microclimates, with remarkable differences in temperature from top to bottom, that the Incas were evidently studying. Moray is at its most spectacular after the end of the rainy season, when the terraces are a magnificent emerald green. Entrance to Moray is by Cusco boleto turístico.
Sitting above the terraces is the restaurant Mil ★★★ (http://milcentro.pe; tel. 926/948-088), operated by Lima chef of Central, Virgilio Martínez, and his research team, Mater Iniciativa. Working directly with the farming communities that surround Moray, as well as sourcing other ingredients from around the Sacred Valley, Mil is a unique dining experience. The eight-course menu ($145 per person) can be paired with local distillations or infusions and extracts (additional fee). The restaurant seats a handful of tables during lunch time only, so reservations (prepaid through the restaurant’s website) are essential.
Getting There -- Moray is usually visited on a combined trip with Maras (see above), though from the Maras/Moray turnoff round-trip taxi fare is around S/40. Moray is removed from the main road that travels from Urubamba to Chinchero, so there is no public transportation of any kind. Increasingly, Sacred Valley tours are beginning to include the site on their itineraries.
28km (17 miles) NW of Cusco
Popular among tour groups for its bustling Sunday market that begins promptly at 8am, Chinchero is spectacularly sited and much higher than the rest of the valley and even Cusco; at 3,800m (12,500 ft.) and far removed from the river, technically Chinchero doesn’t belong to the Urubamba Valley. The sleepy village has gorgeous views of the snowy peak of Salcantay and the Vilcabamba and Urubamba mountain ranges in the distance. Sunset turns the fields next to the church—where child shepherds herd their flocks and grown men play soccer without goal posts—gold against the deepening blue sky.
It might once have been a great Inca city, but except on the main market day, Chinchero remains a graceful, traditional Andean Indian village. Its 15,000 inhabitants represent as many as 12 different indigenous communities. The town’s main points of interest, in addition to the fine market, are the expansive main square, with a handsome colonial church made of adobe and built on Inca foundations, and some Inca ruins, mostly terraces that aren’t quite as awe-inspiring today as their counterparts in Ollantaytambo and Pisac.
In the main plaza is a formidable and famous Inca wall composed of huge stones and 10 trapezoidal niches. The foundations once formed the palace of the late-15th-century Inca Tupac Yupanqui. The early-17th-century iglesia (church) ★ has some very interesting, if faded, frescoes outside under the porticoes and mural paintings that cover the entire ceiling. The church is open Monday through Saturday from 9am to 5pm and Sunday from 9am to 6pm. Across the plaza is the Museo de Sitio (no phone), a rather spare municipal museum that holds a few Inca ceramics and instruments; it’s open Tuesday through Sunday from 8am to 5pm, and admission is free.
The market comprises two marketplaces: one focusing on handicrafts; the
other, mainly produce. The Chinchero market ★★ is one of the best places in the entire valley for Andean textiles and common goods such as hats, gloves, and shawls. Even on Sunday, it is more authentic than the one at Pisac (although some visitors might find Pisac more lively and fun). Chinchero’s sellers of artesanía—who are more often than not also the craftspeople, unlike the mere agents you’ll find in Pisac and other places—dress in traditional garb, and even the kids seem less manipulative in pleading for your attention and soles. Midweek (especially Tues and Thurs), there are usually fewer sellers who set their wares on blankets around the main square, and you’ll have a better chance of bargaining then. There are several small textile shops center in town with good quality items, too.
Through the terraces to the left of the church is a path leading toward a stream and to some finely sculpted Inca masonry, including stone steps, water canals, and huge stones with animal figures.
Nearly everyone visits Chinchero on a half-day visit from either Cusco or Urubamba; there’s not much else in the way of infrastructure to detain you, although there are a handful of small shops and inexpensive restaurants in town or on the main road where the bus drops you off. One serving pretty good Andean specialties is Merienda, Calle Albergue s/n (www.restaurante-merienda.com; tel. 98/375-0516), owned by a young couple that trained in some of Cusco’s top restaurants. It’s open daily from 8:30am to 8:30pm.
There are just a couple of spots in and around town to spend the night, the best of which is the charming adobe lodge La Casa de Barro, Calle Miraflores 147, beside the municipality (www.lacasadebarro.com; tel. 084/306-031; $80 doubles), with a restaurant and 11 cheery rooms with wood floors.
Getting There -- Colectivos leave every 1/2 hr. or so from Tullumayo in Cusco for Chinchero (a 90-min. journey). Buses also leave every 20 min. or so from the Terminal Terrestre in Urubamba (a 50-min. trip). Entrance to Chinchero—officially to just the market and church, but, in practice, to the whole town, it seems—is by boleto turístico. If you try to visit the church and main square without a boleto, you will be asked to purchase one (you can purchase the partial version that covers only Sacred Valley sites if you wish, rather than the entire Cusco ticket).
Chicha Here, Get Your Warm Chicha
Throughout the valley, you’ll see modest homes marked by long poles topped by red or white flags (or balloons). These chicha flags indicate that home-brewed fermented maize beer, or chicha, is for sale inside. What you’ll usually find is a small, barren room with a handful of locals quietly drinking huge tumblers of pale yellow liquid. Tepid chicha, which costs next to nothing, is definitely an acquired taste.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.