One Thousand and One Incan Rocks

*NOTE: This post includes events from June 11-12

When I was five years old, I developed a peculiar fascination with rocks. Every day at recess, I would scour the playground for new additions to my little collection. I gathered gray pebbles that were as smooth as robin eggs; speckled granite stones that were cold to the touch; and russet sedimentary rocks that were flatter than pennies. All these I brought to class – safely ensconced in the palm of my hand – and deposited in my backpack. Each day, I would add a new set of adoptees to my steadily growing collection. And, each day, my backpack grew heavier and heavier. One evening, my mother tried to lift my bag with one hand – and immediately dropped it with a “Thud!” “What is in here?” she asked incredulously, unzipping the front pocket. My entire rock hoard spilled out. “My rocks!” I exclaimed, beaming happily up at her. Needless to say, she was not impressed.

I tell you this story not to kick-start my autobiography – but to show you just how little I’ve outgrown my childhood passions. Fourteen years have elapsed since my mother discovered my prized rock collection. And yet I still cherish an ardent and inexplicable love for stones – or piedras, as they are called in Spanish. This weekend, I had my fill of wonderful, well-worn rocks during our trips to the Incan sites of Moray, Maras, and Saqsaywaman. Each ancient assembly of stones was a work of art in its own right.

We reached Moray via bus. Through the Saturday morning haze, the thirty concentric circles hewn into the earth resembled a dichromatic Kandinsky painting, green and brown in equal parts. Round stone tiers arose from the ground – each a little wider and higher than the one before it. According to our tour guide, each tier was suited for a particular type of crop. This agricultural variety was predicated on the unique climate present at each tier. From a tier to the one above, the temperature drops by 0.5ºC, for a total difference of 15ºC across all thirty tiers. And how did we tourists appreciate this agricultural miracle? By taking copious photos, of course. With the azure sky above and the green grass below, it was too perfect a chance to pass up.

Pictures taken and artistic cravings satisfied, we filed back into the bus for the remainder of our tour. Next up: the Maras salt mines!

I can now say with full confidence that Google Images does not do “rock salt” justice. Now, when I hear those two words together, I picture a deep ravine filled with stacks of solid salt blocks. From above, it resembles a patchwork quilt of white, silver, and pale beige. From inside, it’s like a bleached, saline causeway with staircases propped against the ravine walls. Each salt block is a tricolored confection of multiple products. The topmost layer is pearly white in color and consists of fine-grained table salt. Just below it is a pale salmon slab from which the most delicious cooking salt is procured. And at the very bottom of the block lies a layer of beige medicinal salt. I bought a packet of each – of course – effectively upgrading my rock collection from “inedible” to “tasty.”

In Maras, too, I sampled the most delicious salty chocolate I’d ever tasted. “Salty chocolate” may sound like an oxymoron, but trust me when I say that the delicate salinity of Maras salt perfectly rounds off the rich sweetness of Peruvian cocoa. In a word: delectable.

It was a whole day until I saw my next set of impressive rocks. On Sunday afternoon, we took another tour bus to Saqsaywaman. Upon pronouncing the word, you might think the Incans named this famous site after a “sexy woman.” But, in fact, the truth is even stranger. “Saqsaywaman” – in Quechua – means “satisfied falcon.” When the Spaniards first discovered this massive rock construction atop a hill, they assumed it was a fortress. In actuality, it was a temple – with a full view of Cusco city.

Saqsaywaman was crafted from the sedimentary rocks of an evaporated lake. All construction materials were obtained on site. As I traipsed through the ruins, I noted the sheer size of the temple’s rocks – the largest of which weighed 120 tons. “And my mom thought my rock collection was heavy,” I mused to myself. “The Incas outdid me by leaps and bounds.”

If you haven’t guessed already, this closeted geologist spent two days in paradise last weekend. From concentric circles to patchwork salt mines to the largest stones I’d ever seen, the Incan rock collections around Cusco were impressive to the point of being unforgettable. And I’ve got the photos to prove it.

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7 Responses to One Thousand and One Incan Rocks

  1. Srinivas Devgaonkar says:

    Thank God your ambition of pebbles and rock is fulfilled. Your caricature of rocks visit needs telescopic checking through dictionary. Admire your vacabulary and await for next blog to learn more of your visit. All the best.

  2. Sushma Joshi says:

    Riya: this was another great read! I wish it was accompanied by a few picutres!

  3. Noel Bearden says:

    Riya , great descriptions of your experiences and interpretations …
    excellent blog … Noel Bearden , Davis’ grandmother

  4. Belle Toren says:

    You painted a picture of your travels around Cuzco, so we could enjoy them almost as much as you. Thank you for triggering my memory of Saqsaywaman and many other sites around Cuzco. I never visited the Maras salt mines, such a shame.

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