A couple of days ago I made a last minute decision to take a colectivo into the Sacred Valley to a rarely visited town called Yucay barely touched by tourism and dominated by agriculture still using Inca terraces built centuries ago.
Despite being on the busy highway that runs the length of the wondrous Sacred Valley near Cusco, no one stops in Yucay and the only people walking the quiet streets are locals.
It doesn’t take long to leave the central part of town which lines the main road through town and head into the agricultural fields where people still plant and harvest by hand probably using the same techniques that their ancestors used before the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century.
Walking Through the Agricultural Terraces
I like to quickly get into the fields quickly so I took a shortcut through an empty lot and past a couple of huge cows eating grass to access the network trails that criss-cross among the small farm plots and majestic stone walls in what is might be Peru’s largest Inca agricultural terrace complex.
Once you get into the fields, it’s easy to get “lost”, but as long as you head east towards the canyon in the distance you’ll eventually find your way there. The trails usually run alongside water channels that carry water throughout the terraces. While the channels are relatively newly lined with concrete, I’m certain they are part of the same intricate network designed by Inca engineers to irrigate the extensive farms necessary to supply food for the empire.
I’ve hiked up and down and along a number of trails here and the experience is never the same. Changes in seasons and weather make every visit different as crops change, plants along the trails become more lush, flowers bloom in season, etc.
The trails are usually quiet and empty except during the rest time in the middle of the day — around noon to 2 pm — because people are working in the fields. This leaves the trails to me to explore in relative quiet with usually just the sound of birds and my footsteps to break the silence.
I always smile and say “buenos dias” or “buenas tardes” to everyone I see and the responses are always the same — a big, friendly smile. Often I pass a campesino who responds in Quechua — the language of the Incas spoken by most people in the region besides Spanish.
The high walls of the terraces sometimes approach 6 meters (nearly 20 feet) in height. Occasionally you must climb stone steps built into the walls to reach the next level above which can be a bit unnerving if you are afraid of heights!
A mix of old walls, newer adobe walls, and hedges created by an abundance of cactus and agave plants dampens ambient sound and frequently only the sound of cascading irrigation water is the only sound you hear.
The feeling of going back in time is very real. In a way, as I walk through these ancient paths through timeless landscapes, I have done just that as they are probably nearly the same as the in the time of the Incas. It is an indescribably experience that permeates your soul in a way that can’t be explained.
Once I passed through the terraces, I came upon a dirt road that leads up into the canyon. A handful of people live along this road, but you’ll likely only see people walking up and down as it’s little more than a trail.
Along the way is a small chapel perched high on a bluff above the valley. I didn’t go this time, but the view from there is spectacular. Indeed, the Sacred Valley is lined with small chapels on the mountainsides that are rarely visited by outsiders.
On the way up, you need to keep an eye out for a set of holes high up on the left side of the canyon. I spotted these on a previous trip and confirmed from a friend who grew up there that it is, indeed, an ancient Inca cemetery! He told me when he was a child there were still bones, but that they are gone now.
Also along the road on the right side is an adobe ruin perched high above that has intrigued me since my first time there. It reminds of me of some old Scottish castle ruin because of its commanding position in controlling the entire valley. I doubt it was ever more than a home, but it still impressed me.
Farther Up the Canyon
Eventually the road evolves into a trail climbing up the canyon. Ahead I saw a good bit of snow in the higher elevations — probably on the beautiful mountain called Chicón which its small glacier on the west face.
The climb can be pretty steep at times and tough when it is raining as it was on my last hike here. Fortunately, the dark clouds held off and I only felt a few small drops along the way. (Thank goodness since I had neglected to bring rain gear!)
One of my favorite places along the way is a tiny little building, but one that must hold a lot of history. As I climbed up, the trail followed a very nice wall on the right just before the ruins of the Yucay hydroelectric plant. At some time in the past, electricity for the village below must have been produced from the stream roaring on the other side of the trail.
Because of the possibility of rain and my poorly planned unpreparedness, I decided to return back down the trail at this point, but it’s worth climbing on up to the San Juan Bautista an hour or more farther up the canyon.
Needless to say, this is an area that I strongly recommend exploring for anyone who has the time. Passing old women carrying goods up and down the trail from the town below on the backs of burros is an experience that hasn’t changed in centuries.
An hour or so farther up the trail you’ll eventually come upon the pueblo of San Juan Bautista. Don’t expect to see much because it is just a remote scattering of small homes and farm animals.
The only person I saw was a single woman peeking out from inside her home watching the strange gringo passing through her village. I’ll bet outsiders are pretty rare here.
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