The Magic of Moray

After writing class today, we took an afternoon field trip to Moray, the ancient archeological site built by the Incas. A local guide from Urubamba, the next province over, joined us on our excursion today. Valentin grew up high in the mountains, the son of farmers. “The soil is very fertile with the good weather,” he told us. “It is a very good place to grow things. Our main crops were wheat, barley and potatoes. Potatoes like high elevations.”

Valentin worked as a porter on the Inca trail from the age of 16-18—hard physical labor doing all the lifting and carrying for tourists and trekkers. After that, he became a chef on the Inca Trail. “It was hard,” he said. “It had to be vegetarian food over here and gluten-free food over there.” We all laughed, recognizing how odd our culture with its excess of food options must seem to someone who grew up on the simplest diet of potatoes and meat occasionally.

Valentin’s first language was Quechua; he learned Spanish in high school. Once tourism came into the Sacred Valley and promised a good living, he grew determined to learn English. “English is a very hard language. I had to have a private tutor.” Valentin’s English, however, was excellent; his stories and what he shared of the Inca history was even better. Apart from being trilingual, Valentin was a captivating guide. The first phrase he taught us in Quechua was “surpikey” or thank you.

In our old Mercedes bus, named Bruce, nineteen of us took in endless corn fields. We drove past cows and chickens. Stopped to let a herd of sheep cross the road. Passed little lambs and cows and dogs. A pack of little pigs, three black and one tan with black spots, galloped in fields that had been picked clean. Chickens pecked the last gleanings left over after harvest. A boy with a red cap kicked a soccer ball on a vast expanse of green. Over his head, we got our first glimpse of Veronica, the snow-capped peak that protects Machu Picchu. A hawk flew by.

When we crossed the Urubamba River, Valentin told us it was the longest river on the planet.” “It feeds right into the Amazon,” he said, his voice muffled rather than enhanced by the bus microphone.

(Remember to read all the captions under the pictures. This story continues there.)

Valentin stood balanced on the landing near the bus driver, teaching us about the topography, the history and the traditions of his country.

On our right, steep green and brown mountains rose up rugged and powerful, edging an ever-changing sky.

Soon craggy mountains rose up on both sides of the bus.

Each view was more amazing than the next.

Corn on the ground, mountains in the sky.

As we drove, light rain beaded up on the windshield. “You call it raining cats and dogs?” Valentin asked. “Here we call it raining llamas and alpacas. We have two seasons here—wet and dry. The part of the Andes that faces the Pacific gets super dry and the part facing the Atlantic is always green.”

We passed through small town after small town, jagged mountains always looming in the background. When reached Urubamba, where Valentin lives, the streets were so narrow that the bus almost touched the buildings on either side of the cobblestone streets. The adobe was rough, unpainted, peeling, crumbling. Doors came in many colors. Women sold vegetables by the side of the road. Mountains rose above the curved tiles roofs of all the houses and shops, ever present.

It was as we left Urubamba and headed out again on the open road that we got our first glance of the glacier Cicoa, a great white expanse like icing on the peaks.

Along the road, I kept seeing these strange twisting plants, usually just one lone plant, standing in the fields. Some of them were twisted like question marks. “What are they?” I asked.

“Agave,” Valentin explained. “The Incans used them for roofing, and they’re so strong, they moved huge stones by placing them on top of the agave and rolling them.”

This is a flowering agave.

Old agaves, twisted by the weather, have curves like this one.

Young ones look like giant asparagus.

As the rain stopped and the sun competed with grey and white clouds for the sky, a man herded his flock of sheep. Donkeys tended by a boy stood against a crumbling adobe wall. Regularly spaced holes in a row had been dug alongside the road waiting for agave to be planted. “It’s used as a fence to keep animals in,” Valentin explained.

Around one curve, In the midst of fields, both growing and gleaned, an expanse of shabby shacks and tiny brick homes were sprinkled haphazardly on the hillsides to our right and to our left. “Those are homes built by the Mafia,” Valentin explained. I was a bit taken aback by that word here in Peru. I grew up in Long Branch, New Jersey and we always whispered that the Mafia owned the town. When I think Mafia, I think Chicago. I think New York City. I think of The Godfather and The Sopranos. I think of the Italian Mafia. The Chinese Mafia. The Vietnamese Mafia. But the Peruvian Mafia?

But according to Valentin, the people who actually owned this land lived far away. The Mafia had come in and built these illegal shacks on this unstable, unsafe land and rented them out to the very poorest of the poor, people who couldn’t afford to live in the valley. And now the owners were having to fight to get their land back.

As the rain stopped and the sun competed with grey and white clouds for the sky, a man herded his flock of sheep. Donkeys tended by a boy stood against a crumbling adobe wall. Regularly spaced holes in a row had been dug alongside the road waiting for agave to be planted. “It’s used as a fence to keep animals in,” Valentin explained.

Someone in the front of the bus asked Valentine about tourism. “It’s 50-50. It brings in lots of jobs but the hotels and all the building has taken land away from the farmers. We call it the factory without a chimney.” The other big industry in the area, besides tourism, is mining—coal, silver, copper, gold and natural gas. “It’s a huge struggle,” he said, “because of the way it’s polluting the streams and lakes.”

It was a long stunning bus ride to Moray. I really didn’t know what we’d see in Moray because I hadn’t done my homework. I’d rather just experience a place than read about it beforehand. My life is too busy and besides, that’s just the kind of traveler I am. I like being surprised in the moment. This drive was one big long surprise—I was blown away by the stunning vast incredible beauty. “It’s like driving into a painting, isn’t it?” Valentine asked, and I’m sure all of us on the bus were nodding. If we’d had no destination, and had just driven in the bus through that countryside and had just turned around and come home, I would have been perfectly satisfied.

But there was more. There was Moray.

As we approached the gate of this Incan archeological site, we saw this sign.

And then this warning sign, telling visitors all the things not allowed in Moray. Notice the picture on the top right—drones apparently were forbidden.

As we piled off the bus and waited to get our passes, Valentin called us over to the railing for a little briefing about what we about to see. That’s when I looked down and took my first look at Moray. To say it blew me away is putting it mildly. I think I could safely say we all felt that way. None of us were prepared for the amazing Incan terraces below us.

Here I am modeling for my students that they should write wherever they go.

Valentin began to tell us the history of the place. “The Incans built Moray in the 14th century as a symbol to Panchamama, Mother Earth. They performed ceremonies in the central ring. They meditated and did healings and rituals here. They played music. Because life is made by sounds. Life if made of colors. Life is made by symbols.”

But primarily, the Incans used Moray as a natural greenhouse. They farmed medicinal plants here. “Do you know how many kinds of potatoes the Incans grew?” Valentin asked us. When none of us responded, he answered the question himself, “More than 5000 types. You can Google it. And more than 500 types of corn. Right now, scientists here in Peru are working to recover all of these ancient Incan varieties.”

“They created different microclimates on the terraces at different levels so they could make genetic improvements to their crops. They used these terraces to acclimatize different crops to new elevations. For instance, they’d take a coca plant that only grew under 6000 feet and they’d want to grow it high in the mountains. So, they’d grow it in the lowest terrace and then gradually grow it on higher and higher terraces. Because of the conditions here, each terrace is like a different microclimate. And they’d keep growing it on higher and higher terraces and the plant would adapt to different conditions. It could be grown high up in the mountains rather than just at lower elevations. The same thing worked in the opposite direction as well. Quinoa only grows at higher elevations and they wanted it to grow at lower elevations in the jungle, so they did the same process in reverse. The temperatures change dramatically from terrace to terrace, creating the perfect conditions for acclimatizing crops.”

Someone in our group asked how scientists knew all of this. “They analyzed the pollen of plant residue in the rings to determine was had been planted in each terrace. Pollen is like the black box of plants.”

Then Valentin posed a question to us. “How did the Incans open this massive hole in the ground without machines?” Then he answered his own question. “The hole was already there. A meteor made the original hole. The Incans just took advantage of the conditions it created.”

The stones that built Moray came from a quarry that was eight miles away. The smaller stones were shaped with chisels made of bronze.

It was time for us to descend down a curving path that led us closer and closer to these ancient terraces. It began to rain, yet the sun was out. I kept looking for a rainbow. But five minutes later, the weather had changed again. School children ran down the circular path ahead of us.

A closer look.

From the bottom.

As we got closer, the intricacies of the stone work became more amazing. Nancy said, “It’s not concentric circles. It’s actually a spiral!” Spirals are the symbol of Pachamama, Mother Earth.

Ancient steps.

Still good for climbing.

Mount Veronica.

This is ichu, which grew along the path on the way back up to the bus. It’s woven into rope so strong that the Incas made suspension bridges out of it. One of them still exists and is in use.

As we slowly ascended the steps out of Moray, we heard a loud buzzing, like a hornet’s nest above us. We looked up. It was a drone. Someone was breaking the rules.

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