Cover Photo: This is the view of the back side of the terraces from the descending Puma Marca Trail.
By Briley Hebner, Marketing and Communications Intern
With little to no directions on how to find the start of the hike, Anna, another volunteer, and I set off heading north to find the Muskay Puquio Terraces that can be seen on the drive to the weaving communities. While it is not a popular tourist destination, it lies along the Puma Marca Trail which is a stunning hike that takes about half a day in total.
From the center of town, La Plaza de Armas, we headed north on Pata Calle. We walked until we crossed a small bridge and the road transitioned to gravel. At the first fork in the road, we took the right path and walked along the Patacancha River for about 20 minutes before connecting back to the dirt road. The walk continued for another 10 minutes or so until we saw a trail to our left and headed closer to the terraces. As we passed beautiful streams, agricultural fields, and lush green pastures, the terraces seemed to appear before our eyes. They stretched up the entire side of the mountain, with a long skinny staircase resting in the middle.
The land was so steep that we could not see the top of the stairs when standing at the base, alluding to a several thousand feet incline to the uppermost flats. After hydrating and taking a few deep breaths, Anna and I set off on the Andean StairMaster. Without exaggeration, we took a break every 10 or 15 steps, quickly realizing that it would be no easy feat to reach the top. Even after being in Ollantaytambo for the past week, we could still feel the effects of the altitude on our lungs and hearts as we trekked up the mountain, far surpassing the base of the town at 9,160 feet in elevation.
After 800 steps of ancient stone, we finally summited. Turning around to gaze at the fields below and the mountains that were then eye-level, I was truly breathless (literally and figuratively) from what we had accomplished. There is no way to fully describe the quiet grace of the mountains and their rich history among Peruvian culture. What seems like pale dusty slopes are actually ecosystems teeming with life of flowers, butterflies, vibrant desert plants, and rich agricultural land.
This is a view from the Puma Marca Trail that takes you back to Ollantaytambo once you have summited the terraces. Huilloc to the left, Ollanta to the right.
Everywhere I looked I could see traces of Inca engineering and innovation that connected Andeans with their food and Pachamama (Mother Earth), for centuries to come.
In addition to their sheer beauty, these lands function as cultural cores of Peruvian livelihoods. Sometime during the Inca Empire that ranged from 1400 to 1533 CE, these were among the countless agricultural terraces carved into the natural landscape to improve food production and security throughout the dry and wet seasons. They were used for planting potatoes and other crops, as well as grazing livestock. Because the sunlight barely penetrates the deep valleys between the mountain ranges, terraces ensure that sun will reach crops for longer in the day, increasing the area available for agriculture and control of water for irrigation of crops. The ingenuity and the strength of the Andean people helped to make the Sacred Valley one of the most agriculturally productive regions in the world for many years.
This is an open-air platform used by farmers to dry out and prepare crops like corn before bringing to market.
When returning from the hike, we connected to the Puma Marca Trail that runs along the top of the terraces and across the length of the mountain range. It winded along farms, mountain springs, and more terraces that lead us back towards Ollanta. The descent on the trail was favorable to the stairs as it is much more gradual and cuts out the walk on the road. In total, the hike to the terraces takes about 30 to 40 minutes, the stair climb takes about 20 minutes, and the walk back along the trail lasts about 40 minutes. If you are interested in a challenge, I highly recommend finding your way to Muskay Puquio and taking your time to explore the expansive views of the local mountains.
It is hard to believe that despite their overwhelming beauty and purpose, these terraces are a regular sight in the Cusco Region. The opportunity to hike through them on a whim is a gift that I am very grateful to have for the three months I am living here, and I am looking forward to venturing further off the beaten path.