Discovering Machu Picchu, Cusco and the Colorful Inca Heritage of Peru’s Sacred Valley

By Barbara Rizza Mellin

On my way to Machu Picchu, more than a century after Hiram Bingham rediscovered the “Lost City of the Inca” in 1911, I fell in love with Cusco and the Urubamba Sacred Valley, where the legacy of Inca civilization resides and their ancient Quechuan language is still spoken.

Once the capital of the Inca Empire, Cuzco is the oldest continuously inhabited city in South America. High in the Andes mountains (altitude 11, 316 ft.), it provides magnificent panoramas and a wonderful introduction to Inca heritage. At the Centro de Textiles Tradicionales del Cusco, Inca traditions are maintained and explained. Here, I learned that dark alpaca wool, silky soft to the touch, is washed white in a plant-based “soap” before being dyed using natural materials, such a purple corn. Our hostess picked a small black parasite, no bigger than a grain of pepper, from a cactus plant. When she suddenly crushed it in a clap of her hands, she revealed the source of the color red. All the stages are here: raw wool, drop-spindle spinning, yarn dyeing, back-strapped weaving looms, and finished products such as hats, scarves, and bags are available in the gift shop.

Authentic souvenirs are abundant, too, at Chinchero Market (12,375 ft.), called the birthplace of the rainbow. Locals, dressed in their native attire, welcome shoppers with handmade products.

This valley is also home to Moray and Maras, two historically significant villages. Incredibly, the Inca conducted agricultural experiments for their potato crops, (more than 400 varieties). Looking like contemporary environmental art, the concentric circles at Moray served as outdoor laboratories, testing climate, soil and altitude conditions. The Salineras of Maras are equally fascinating. These evaporation ponds have been used since the time of the Incas. Water flows over the rocks, naturally washing minerals into waiting pools, where sun and time evaporate the liquid, leaving pink salt crystals, prized by the gourmet centers of Europe.

To reach Machu Picchu (7,970 ft.), we boarded a train at Ollanta Station and headed for the site designated by UNESCO as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. In addition to the 2,500 tourists allowed entrance each day, scientists are visiting to determine how ancient engineers managed to construct their earthquake-proof, mortarless stone walls. The terraced palace ruins progress in accessible stages to such areas as the Temple of the Sun or the Priest’s House. Views are breathtaking.

Back in Cusco, I visited La Cathedral, where the spirits of Spanish Conquistadors mingle with those of their conquests. Begun in 1560, and completed nearly a century later, the Renaissance church sits victoriously on the site of an Inca palace. Its Baroque interior, lavishly decorated with confiscated colonial gold and silver, houses more than 400 paintings from the famed “Cusco School.” This important artistic movement grew out of the Spanish desire to convert a mostly illiterate population to Christianity by means of imported Renaissance paintings. The result was art by native artists, influenced by European works, but still fundamentally Peruvian. The most striking example is a large painting of the Last Supper by Marcos Zapata showing Christ and his disciples sitting at a table set with the Inca delicacy, roasted guinea pig, as the main course, and drinking chicha (corn beer) from Inca cups. The colorful tapestry of this area is woven through with Inca threads.

As the poet, Pablo Neruda, wrote: “Machu Picchu is a trip to the serenity of the soul, to the eternal fusion with the cosmos; where we feel our fragility.”

Barbara Rizza Mellin is a local artist and writer who received the 2017 Arts Council’s ArtPop award. You can see her art on a billboard on Rt. 52 N. between exits 13 and 14. For more information visit


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