Peru VIII-An Adventure in the Land of the Incas

Cusco, Sacred Valley, Pisac and Ollantaytambo

Friday, December 15, 2017

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As though welcoming everyone to the Land of the Incas, this Inca king atop the central plaza fountain, greets visitors to Cusco, the ancient capitol and center of the Incan Empire. Here began our journey into the very heart of the renowned Inca civilization

October 11 marked the end of our first two weeks in Peru. We had covered a lot of territory and had seen some really incredible sites. Much more was in store for us including being much closer to seeing the iconic Inca ruins of Machu Picchu. Before that, however, we would see equally impressive ancient sites.

Early in the morning, after breakfast, Tom and I walked the short distance to Cusco’s historic city center, the Plaza de Armas. As we had seen the night before when crowds watching the soccer match in the square prevented us from closer observations, the large Catholic cathedral and another large Catholic church dominated the scene. As in most of these colonial cities, these town squares or plazas were integral in the lives of the citizens. In many of these South American cities the central plaza were named “Plaza de Armas”. Translated this would be “Weapons Square” or “Parade Grounds”. The military were housed around the square as well as churches, government and cultural buildings. The Spanish fashioned their cities in a standard military fashion based on the Roman grid system with a central plaza from which they could take refuge and defend themselves. 

(While in Havana, Cuba earlier this year, we were also in their Plaza de Armas, which would have been the center of that city long ago).

The streets near the plaza were absolutely jammed with traffic, which we soon found out, is a daily occurance. Traffic cops were always present early in the mornings outside our hotel helping direct and keep the traffic flowing. Sounds of police whistles as they signaled traffic through the intersections, stopping and starting the flows from side streets, a few horns beeping, parents taking their children to schools nearby, multitudes of taxis picking up and letting off passengers, kids in their school uniforms walking to school all were part of the daily rituals outside our hotel. Add to that chaos, nearly every morning were heard loud explosions in the nearby streets. The first incidence of the explosions brought me to full attention, fearing a terrorist threat (fears not entirely unfounded given the world in which we now live). However, in looking outside from the hotel restaurant windows, there was no hesitation in the already hectic scene. Police carried on, pedestrians and motorists alike carried on with no concern for the sounds of explosions.                                                         

After intermittent but repeated explosions, it became apparent that we were hearing something similar to firecrackers. In asking our guide, we leaned that many religious celebrations are a nearly daily occurance in Cusco and that the firecrackers were a part of those ceremonies. In the next several days, early one morning in the plaza, we then saw one of those street processions as they entered the plaza, came around to the     cathedral, all the while in the lead, some were throwing firecrackers ahead into the street. What or whom the group were honoring is unknown to me, but they did make their way up to and into the cathedral, where, I assume, they completed the homage.

The Cusco Cathedral - dating back to the 1600’s

We were in Cusco several times before our journeys in Peru ended, but we always spent time in and around this Plaza de Armas. It was a wonderful place to people watch, to just pass the time, or explore outward from there. The cathedral is very large and we were treated to a tour inside during one of the stays in Cusco. It is very ornate, though not with gold lined walls and ceilings as we saw in the much smaller village church earlier in the trip. I cannot say with certainty that what you see in the entryway to this church is gold, but it may very well be just that. Tom and I also visited inside at least one other time when we heard the choir singing during one of the masses and we wandered in to observe.

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The other church kitty-corner to the cathedral.

In all, we were told, there are 82 churches in Cusco, these two are on the plaza and another is just down the block.

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Across the plaza is seen the steeple of the third church a block up from the other two churches. Around the square there were many shops and restaurants, including a McDonalds and KFC.

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We had another early start being picked up and then driven up into the hills above Cusco and then down through the Sacred Valley. Here, spread out before us, were fields upon fields of crops, often appearing like a crazy quilt of irregular shapes and sizes, but all very verdant with various crops. As elsewhere, the ever present terraces were also a part of this patchwork of vegetation.

Passing through the little town of Pisac, we drove up above to an incredible Inca site, the Pisac ruins. To say many of these places are ruins is misleading. Many of these historic places have been at least partially restored or preserved as much as possible in original styles.

Here at Pisac, wide stone walled terraces flowed down the hillsides. Topping it all were several stone buildings and stone walls overlooking the terraces and into the Sacred Valley. Standing there observing this huge complex, I marveled at the engineering and massive efforts it had to have taken to construct and then maintain this place. The Inca population was in the millions before the Spanish arrived, which makes it understandable that they had thriving lives. With the efforts of all, everyone working in some manner, the whole population benefited.

Here, as in many of the places we visited, large crowds were streaming in to see these Incan Empire creations.

Considering that many of these terraces were used for growing things, it occured to me that these may have resembled the fabled Hanging Gardens of Babylon of which I recalled from history. To have accomplished such building feats and then with the rich growth of various plants, these places had to have been incredibly impressive. It is impressive even without plants growing on the terraces.

Not forgetting the buildings and stone walls at the top of the mountain, they too are impressive. How many thousands of Incas trod up and down those steps over the centuries, toiling with stones, baskets of food gathered from the terraces, tools to cultivate the crops, all as part of daily living?

I wish that we could have spent more unlimited time exploring around this site at Pisac as well as many of the others on our discoveries. There were so many nooks and crannies and vantage points that would have been exciting to see. But, as with most organized tours, the bus was leaving and boarding it for our next stop meant moving on.

Photos below showing more of Pisac site:

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Close up view of terrace walls.

Great vantage point to see if intruders are coming down the valley or across the mountains.

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Stopping back in the town of Pisac, we visited a local potter and then a jeweler where we learned more about making their fine pieces. There was time enough to also walk through a local market filled with produce, fresh meats and beautiful flowers.

Back on the bus, we continued through the Sacred Valley, passing by the neat terraced fields some with corn and other crops sprouting, growing or fields being prepared for plantings. 

Arriving on the grounds of a lovely resort, we were treated to a very pleasant buffet lunch complete with Peruvian musicians to entertain us. 

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And then, not imagining that anything else we would see this day could top Pisac, we continued on through the Sacred Valley to a site that, to me, was astounding.

This was Ollantaytambo.

Ollantaytambo was even more crowded than Pisac, hordes of people were entering the grounds and were climbing the steep steps up the massive terraces to the upper levels. On the surrounding mountainside there were other (almost camouflaged) structures built into the very rocks. After slowly ascending to top of the terraces, our views down to the city and over the valley were magnificent. Huge stones that had been cut and fitted were a highlight on this site. We learned the stones had been quarried from a mountain across the valley, brought to this place, shaped and precisely fitted. How they transported such huge blocks of stone is mysterious, first down from the quarry, then up to this site. It is an amazing accomplishment. Looking down over the terraces, we could see that potatoes were growing upon some of the lower terraces. This gave a good idea of how many of the terraces may have appeared at the height of the Inca civilization. There were many, many buildings to explore, but again, not enough time to get to experience it all. A light drizzle hastened our excursion here before being taken to our hotel. 


Potatoes growing in the lowest terraces.

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These are the huge stones that were quarried from the mountains to the left of the picture, then transported across to this site where they were shaped and fitted in this location.

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In this photo to the left, ahead on the mountain you will see structures built into the mountainside. Others are out of sight, some of which they believe were apartments for the Incas. Higher up at the peaks are other buildings that may have served as watch towers.

To the right: original Inca stones and irrigation channel in the town of Ollantaytambo.

Tom and I chose to find a local restaurant where we were the only patrons. It was off on a side street and was probably not the best choice. We had been cautioned about where and what we ate, and while this was perhaps lacking more of the finer aspects of many eateries, and a kitchen that was primitive compared to nicer places, we stayed. We both had some sliced tomatoes and other vegetables from their small salad bar. 

That may have been a mistake.

After dinner we began wandering around the town square and bought hiking poles in preparation for the hike to Machu Picchu, we returned to the hotel and called it a day. 

Except that, during the night, my digestive system decided to rebel on me. Several visits to the toilet and dosing with Pepto Bismo and cipro brought relief, but not entirely. Still by the morning, while not 100%, I felt in good spirits and well enough to tackle our second hike. I definitely did NOT want to have any sort of repeat of our difficult hike in Colca Canyon 5 days earlier.

The long anticipated adventure and place to experience from my bucket list was dangling before me like a carrot on a stick...

Machu Picchu!

u © Donald E. Kline 2012