“La madre se murió ayer.” Their mother died yesterday. Maria told us solemnly, gesturing to the two tumbling puppies at her feet. “Una víbora le picó.” She was bitten by a snake. Maria’s broad-brimmed hat and the bright pink and orange striped bundle tied around her shoulders hid a tiny frame. She said she was ten but her small stature made me think of a seven year-old yet her determined gait and confidence dragging a herder’s stick behind her on the trail created an impression of a much older girl. All three of us practically pounced on her as she came down the path because…puppies.
We were still huffing and puffing as our blood tried to get oxygen at altitude and were happy for a break from walking to talk to Maria. After chatting a while and getting some wiggly love from the tragically motherless Oso (Bear) and Rambo (Stallone) we asked her which way to Salinas. Maria gestured down the hill and told us that she was going in that direction too.
We were at the half-way point of our planned hike for the day in the mountains above Urubamba in Peru’s Sacred Valley. This post will tell you how to get the most out of this wonderful day walking. General directions are included and some tips and lessons learned at the end of the post.
Kick Off Your Moray-Maras-Salinas Hike in Urubamba
We’d arrived in the valley the day before, aiming to reduce our altitude sickness by descending slightly from Cusco’s 11,100 feet. See this post and this one for altitude recommendations. The pull of an Incan agricultural laboratory outside of Moray and the picture-perfect salt-drying pools of Salinas de Maras were too strong to let us rest long. After breakfast we caught a moto-taxi from the small town where we were staying, Huarán, to a larger town about 20 minutes down the road, Urubamba.
“No, no, no. No puedo, es muy chiquito este torito.” Nope, I can’t make it, this little toro is too small. We had asked our moto-taxi driver if he could take us all the way up to Moray in his plastic-covered motorcycle. We weren’t too reluctant to exit after 20 minutes of bouncing heavily against each other and breathing exhaust fumes. He happily took his 6 sole fare and pointed us toward a taxista with a full-on car.
Taxi to Moray
We arrived at the Incan site of Moray and went to pay the woman manning the massive logbook with a meticulously handwritten history of each visitor, their country of origin, and the payment made. To get in we needed to purchase a Boleto Turistica del Cusco (Cusco Tourist Ticket) that would serve as entry fee for several heritage sites in the valley. “Lo siento, no se aceptan las tarjetas y no tenemos cambio. Preguntale a ella por allá.” We don’t take credit cards and don’t have any change. Go ask the women over there. Fifteen minutes and a snack of dried plantains later we had our tickets punched and were in.
The sinkhole terracing at the site is as beautiful as it was functional. The drop from each terrace and angle of the sun hitting them creates a unique microclimate at each level. The Incas used this place as a testing ground for identifying which crops would thrive at different altitudes and climates. We wandered through the terraces taking our raincoats on and off as the weather kept shifting above us.
Walk from Moray to Maras
We followed the pointed finger of the logbook-master toward the brown path that cut through the fields. We ate our snack of corn and cheese looking out to the wet peaks surrounding us and the men encouraging their oxen to deepen the furrows while women and children followed behind dropping seed potatoes into the depressions. Our slow meander through the fields toward the village of Maras was a chance to get to know the blades of grass, texture of the mud, and the bright rainbows of women’s skirts as they worked. They made their way into our consciousness with each step. Views through the car window just can’t compare.
We took a break as we wandered into Maras’ main plaza to talk to the park landscapers, bought some cancha (dried corn kernels) and plátanos fritos (sweet plantain snacks). A few minutes with our feet up and we were ready to head toward Las Salinas de Maras. The cancha saleswoman pointed us toward the trail. And that is where we meet up with Maria. Just outside of town headed toward the salt pools.
Head from Maras to Salinas
We walked with Maria for about 40 minutes peppering her with questions about her family, school, and life. Jay led addition and subtraction practice for fun. When we came to a fork in the road she pointed us toward our destination and said she’d be going down the path to the right to move her family’s cows from one field to another. We waved goodbye to our tiny friend and left her with a handful of snacks and some soles for her puppies.
We continued alone, a little less sure that we were on the correct path without our expert guide, enjoying the sun and cool breeze. When we peaked the hill we looked down over Salinas de Maras and the white terraced salt pans that were like giant rows of smiling teeth. And again we were with friends. A shout of “¡Hola niña!” came across the entry gate. It was the taxi driver that dropped us at Moray earlier in the day. Jay is never one to lose an opportunity to make a friend, and it pays off. They exchanged greetings and he pointed us toward the main entrance.
The sun made the honeycomb of salt pools glow all the way down the hillside. Of course Jay had to put his finger in the running water to see how it tasted. “Wow, that is salty!” So we all sampled and screwed up our faces at the briny intensity. After a half-hour of teetering on the edges of the pools and enjoying the lacy salt patterns along the rims we continued in the direction of Urubamba. We were halted by a sign telling us to go no further. Hmmmm.
Walk through Salinas to the Urubamba River
A little boy was running below us on the narrow path between pools with ice creams in each hand. Jay called out to him, “¿Podemos pasar por aquí?” Can we go through here? He motioned for us to follow him. We tried to keep up on a slightly wider path than the one he was expertly navigating. He turned into a set of sheds and we exchanged greetings with a set of adults sitting on large bags of salt and asked them how to get to Urubamba. The boy handed off the ice creams to the adults and they instructed little Mario to show us the way down.
Mario raced ahead of us, periodically waiting patiently as we picked our way down the trail. He was like a little billy goat hopping from one steep outcropping to another. We chose the more sensible routes, but ultimately made it down the hill to a little community where Mario shouted up at a woman in a window. She opened the gates for him and his two dogs mauled him with canine kisses. He rolled in the dirt laughing and loving his pups. We waved goodbye and heard his giggles fading as we continued on.
We passed a dog with blue paint on its head. “¿Qué le pasó a tu perro?” What happened to your dog? We asked the little girl and her brother who were near him. “Está pintado.” They answered that there’s paint on him. Yep, I saw that. I took a picture of the dog with my phone and the little girl asked to see it. The girl and her brother loved the photo and we started taking selfies together, resulting in giggles and manly poses.
At the end of the trail we caught a taxi back to our little casita and fell into a deep, sunburned sleep.
Summing up the Moray, Maras, Salinas Hike
So along with the mechanics of doing the Moray Maras Salinas hike we have some lessons learned:
- Be prepared with water and snacks. This hike ended up being about 12 miles (per my FitBit).
- Ask locals if you are on the right track. Looking backward, the path was obvious, but there were several times that there was an unmarked fork in the road and we took our best guess. As far as I know we never chose wrong.
- Wear hats and sunscreen. Even if it is overcast the sun is quite strong at altitude. I wore sunscreen and still ended up with a second degree sunburn on my neck.
- Talk to children. Our small interactions with kids made this walk so rich and connected. I still think about Maria, Mario, and the siblings by the river. I wonder what they are doing and what their lives are like.
These are the kind of experiences that turn a trip into “riveted travel” and tourists into “temporary locals.” Go far and travel deep, friends!