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Water is life: Three of Peru’s ancient agricultural secrets

by Jessie Kwak | 5 February 2010 2 Comments

Some time ago we were asked by Steven at Traveojos to post our three best kept travel secrets, in response to a meme that’s been floating around the travel blogging community.

After five months in Peru I thought we’d have plenty of material, but the problem was that Peru is so full of fascinating places to visit that it was hard for us to choose. The country is often divided into three ecological strips: the western coastal desert, the Andean altiplano in the middle, and the Amazon jungle on the eastern border. That practice glosses over the vast amount of microclimates, from high-altitude cloud forests on the “eyebrow of the jungle” to sweeping sand dunes to fertile farm valleys. Really, Peru’s got it all.

I finally decided to focus this piece on something that I’ve been struck by over and over while traveling in Peru: the ingenious ways that Peru’s ancient cultures manipulated their water supplies, whatever their microclimate, in order to survive. Here are three of Peru’s best examples:

Cumbe Mayo

The hills above the Cajamarca Valley are rich with water—the porous volcanic rock soaks it in during the rainy season and releases it during the dry in a multitude of springs. The Cajamarca people (200-1300 AD) took advantage of this, carving over 20 kilometers of perfectly square channels through solid stone, diverting water that once would have run west into the Pacific east over the continental divide to irrigate the Cajamarca Valley.

The site is somewhat remote, a 45-minute drive from Cajamarca city, set amid the stone forest Los Frailones, where rain has worked over the centuries to shape marvelous natural sculptures. Read more here.

Nazca Aqueducts

When the Incas first arrived in the Nazca desert they found it so inhospitable that they named it with a word normally associated with pain and heartbreak. The native Nazca people, however, had thrived there since 1000 BC, in part through an ingenious system of underground aqueducts and wells (thought to be built around 500 AD). Since the seasonal rivers couldn’t be relied upon for irrigation, they took advantage of the water flowing from a fault beneath nearby Cerro Blanco, the world’s highest sand dune.

These aqueducts are still in use today, although the increase in population and the growing number of wells being dug are now decreasing the farmers’ water supply. The most intriguing aspect are the spiral wells, the puquios, which farmers use to access and clean the aqueducts. Read more here.


While all of Peru’s ancient cultures consistently went out of their way to create works that were not only functional but also beautiful, the Incas are most renowned for their obsession with aesthetic. Tipón is no exception, with its symmetrical terraces and unique vertical irrigation channels, and typical stunning view of the valley far below.

Archaeologists believe that these terraces, built high in a ravine just outside of Cusco city, were a sort of agricultural research site. Water flows from a natural spring through a beautiful series of cascading channels and fountains in order to irrigate their crops, and visitors can hike along an aqueduct which runs 1400 meters up from the ruins to the walled remains of what may have been a fortress. The aqueducts are in remarkably good condition even almost 500 years after the collapse of the Inca empire. (More information coming soon.)

The original Three Best Kept Travel Secrets at Tripbase

I’d love to tag these bloggers to share their three travel secrets:

Written by Jessie Kwak

I am a farm girl who moved to the big city, and then just kept right on moving. I love camping, hoppy beer, and good conversations. See all posts by


  • Katarina said:

    Dear Jessie,

    Your article is really interesting.

    Our charity, RISC – Reading International Solidarity Centre, is a development education organization. We are producing resources which can bring a global dimension to the outdoor clasroom.

    The article about the Peruvian water management deals with one of the topics we are working on at the moment. Do you have some more relevant information and pictures?

    Hope to hear from you soon.

    With warm regards,

  • Ben Johansen said:

    Awesome info Jessie. Just wanted to let you know about the water purification system in Alhambra castle in Spain. They engineered running water from the mountaintop into the castle(before christ I think), and made basins where the channels break and change direction. This purifies it as the alga etc. naturally sink to the bottom of these.

    Keep up the good work.