I’ll begin with a bit of history, since those who know me well know no story of mine is complete without it. Nearly 500 years ago Cusco was the political, cultural, religious, and military center of Tawantinsuyu, known better to gringos as the Inca Empire. It was from here that their power radiated out across the vast expanse of their lands, which stretched some 3000 miles in extent from what is now Columbia in the north to about halfway down Chile in the south. Quite an impressive feat for a civilization which possessed neither a written language nor the wheel. The Children of the Sun (as the Inca nobility referred to themselves) lived a life of opulence amid buildings and temples that were clad in massive sheets of pure gold and whose stone masonry would not only have been the envy of any European contemporary, but to this day still elicits awe from those who witness it. All this came to an abrupt end in 1532 when an illiterate, illegitimate, former swineherd named Francisco Pizarro landed on their shores. He arrived with a force of just 168 fellow zealots and butchers and in the course of a mere decade managed to subdue a nation of millions. The Incas were arguably the most powerful force ever to rule the Americas, but in the end they were no match for guns, germs, steel, and horses.
Our very first overnight bus ride brought us to Cusco, a beautiful city perched high (11,200 ft) in the Andes mountains of southeastern Peru. My life’s travels have taken me to some truly fascinating places, however few of them have ever been put into a category that warrants an immediate return, owing largely to a practically infinite list of locales I’d like to visit coupled with the blunt reality of a finite life in which to see them all. Cusco was one of those places though. I had been here once before some three years ago, blazing through en route to the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu, and was excited to return to such an interesting place where I felt unfinished business still remained. The thin air was taxing even for these two hardy Coloradans, but still we managed to enjoy ourselves whiling away the hours roaming through the narrow, hilly streets. As mentioned above, what remains of the original Incan stonework is still impressive. When their conquest was complete the Spanish rebuilt the city to their tastes literally right on top of the original Incan walls and foundations. They knocked down exterior walls in order to widen the streets and facilitate the passage of men on horseback, so what you see are primarily the interior walls of the former structures. Some of the stones are massive, and the precision and complexity with which they were fit together is truly astounding. The city is also host to numerous beautiful cathedrals and most of them, again, were built above former Incan religious sites. We found it humorous that the Spanish not only built their primary cathedral atop the main Incan temple, but also built their convent atop the Incas’ Temple of the Virgins.
Cusco also has some great restaurants thanks to the many tourists and tourist dollars flooding the place. We had a very nice first anniversary dinner while we were in town, and we even got to sample the famous local “delicacy” cuy. If you´ve never heard of cuy, it’s guinea pig. The look and texture of the meat are somewhere in the neighborhood of duck, and the flavor is similar to a slightly gamey dark meat chicken. Would I bother to eat it again? Probably not. We also enjoyed our fair share of Cusqueña beer (the darker malt version is particularly pleasing, and our guide in the Colca Canyon claimed with a straight face it’s a cure-all) and even gulped down a few bottles of local favorite Inca Kola, a neon yellow swill which has sort of a cream soda flavor with notes of, many say, bubble gum.
As much as we enjoyed the city, few come to Cusco for Cusco alone. The city serves as the gateway to the Sacred Valley, and since we were eager to explore the many fine villages and ruins it contains, one morning we hailed a cab outside of our hotel to take us to catch a combi to Pisac. Of course, no self-respecting cab driver in Peru is going to just give two gringos a ride to a bus station or combi station and leave it at that. Oh no, amigos, oh no. Along the way he’ll coyly ask what you’re up to and then offer his own services as a most logical and economical replacement. When told we were taking a combi to Pisac to spend the day exploring the huge ruins there he offered to simply drive us himself. So, an itinerary was formed, a brief haggle ensued, a price was agreed upon, and Ysac (Isaac) was our own personal chauffeur for the day. In the end we were very happy with our decision, too, since he turned out to be an excellent guide. He was friendly, cheerful, and very informative. Though he spoke no English, he seemed to purposefully speak Spanish in a slow and clear manner, using only the most basic vocabulary. For $35 Ysac drove us the hour from Cusco to Pisca stopping at numerous vistas along the way for photos, waited at the ruins for two hours while we explored, drove us down to the village and waited another hour while we checked out the market, drove us back to Cusco including another wait at the bus station there while we purchased some future tickets, and finally back to our hotel. He was really great. The ruins weren’t too shabby either. The site is huge and, along with the customary gigantic agricultural terraces, the structures are divided into four main groupings of various functionality. The first section was packed due to all the day trippers who breeze through the entire valley on a tour bus in a single day, but as we moved deeper into the ruins we eventually had the place nearly to ourselves. Again we saw some of the high-quality stonework its builders are famous for. We also saw a complex system of water canals/baths and an intihuatana, two features we would see again later at other ruins. The market in the town below was fairly large, but at this point we had seen enough markets in Peru to know what one looks like. We did however get to see an interesting display taking place in the square. It appeared to be some sort of reenactment of an ancient ritual, and there were all these people dressed up like Incas in brightly colored clothing. They made some offerings to the earth, did some chanting and dancing, then paraded around the square. It was thoroughly entertaining in its bizarre randomness.
Pisac and Cusco were both great introductions to the history and architecture of the Incas, but the real jewel of this trip was about to be seen. At the opposite end of the Sacred Valley from Pisac lies Machu Picchu, the most familiar icon of the Incan world, the famed ¨Lost City of the Incas¨, and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. We packed our smaller backpacks and left the rest of our belongings at our hotel in Cusco, catching a combi for the hour and a half ride to the village of Ollyantaytambo. Ollyanta is the literal end of the road, and from there the only remaining approach that doesn’t involve four days of hiking on the Inca Trail is a two-hour train ride to Aguas Calientes, often referred to as Machu Picchu Village. There’s not really much to say about A.C., other than that it is somehow both the world’s greatest and worst tourist trap. The entire town seems to exist purely to concoct new and crafty ways to separate foreigners from their money, and despite the millions of visitors who stream through it every year, there’s nary a decent hotel or restaurant to be found. Nevertheless, with great excitement we awoke early the next morning, joined up with the guide we had hired, and took the 20-minute bus ride up the winding road to the entrance. What came next defies all attempts at description. Many words have been written, many pictures have been taken, but none of them offer even the slightest bit of justice to the site our eyes beheld.
We spent about the next two hours with our guide exploring the ruins and learning about its history, construction, and varied mythology. It’s considered a very sacred and mystical site, not only by the modern-day decendants of the Incas, but also by the multitude of new-age hippy types that seemed to swarm the place. It took Herculean feats of strength not to laugh out loud at all the kooky people standing around the various rocks of significance, their hands hold out as if to absorb the “energy” they somehow believed was radiating from it. After our guide departed we spent the rest of the afternoon just wandering around the site and taking in the incredible views. We also took a short hike over the the Incan bridge, a narrow causeway hewn from the side of a sheer cliff and a further testament to the engineering prowess of those people. Exhausted from the constant climbing of stairs and mentally drained, we finally caught a late afternoon bus and descended the set of switchback back down to A.C.
The next morning we took the train back to Ollyantaytambo. Since this town had its own set of unique ruins and was also the only place where the Incas managed to successfully repell an attack by the Spanish, I wanted to stay there for a few days for some final exploring in the Sacred Valley. We set up base at a nice little B&B called Apu Lodge and headed straight for the ruin complex that could be seen right from our window. Some of the stonework here, most notably the Wall of the Six Monoliths, was quite unlike any that we had seen before both in their size and the way they were put together. We also saw massive blocks lying on the ground half finished, abandoned in place when the Empire rapidly collapsed, and an impressive array of water works and fountains. The next day we hired another cabbie to drive us to a couple of other sites in the area. The first, called Moray, contains an interesting ruin comprised of a set of concentric circles set within a deep depression in the ground. The most prevalent theory is that it was a place to experiment with the effects of different climatic conditions on crops. Supposedly the temperature changes substantially at each level, allowing for a sort of microcosm of conditions at various altitudes. This would have been pretty important for a culture that depended on vertical farming in terraces. The other site called Moras, consisted of huge salt pans that have been in production for thousands of years. A warm saline stream flows out of the ground, its water cascading into a series of small pools. Over time the pools fill and the water eventually evaporates leaving behind a crust of salt that is then shoveled out.
After a couple of days in Ollyanta our time was up, and we headed back to Cusco for one more night before departing again for the Lake Titicaca region. It’s impossible for me to overstate how much I enjoyed the whole Sacred Valley. The entire area is like one giant living, breathing archaeology museum stretching for hundreds of square miles and packed will all manner of towns and fascinating ruins to explore. I feel very lucky to have been there twice, but not so lucky that I wouldn’t make it a third time, just in case anyone is ever interested…