Machu Picchu and more from Peru's Sacred Valley

Trip Start Jan 30, 2010
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Trip End Sep 12, 2010


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Flag of Peru  , Sacred Valley,
Sunday, May 23, 2010

Most people visit Cusco to see Machu Picchu, the number #1 tourist attraction in Peru and South America, jetting in for just a few days before heading onwards in their 2 to 3 week vacations. We have been very fortunate to have more time to explore Cusco and it's surroundings The Sacred Valley follows the Urubamba River, running from Cusco towards Machu Picchu, and contains many beautiful Incan ruins and Pre-Columbian and colonial towns. 
We spent time in Aguas Calientes, Ollantaytambo and Pisac, all with Incan cities towering over the colonial towns. Aguas Calientes is a modern town built to serve the many tourists visiting Machu Picchu and there is little to write about this ugly collection of overpriced hotels (rooms to $650 and beyond) and restaurants.The one redeeming feature are the thermal baths to soak your muscles after hiking to Machu Picchu. 
Machu Picchu itself, invisible on the hill above the town, remained undiscovered and hence largely intact and unlooted) by the Spaniards, until the 'discovery' by Hiram Bingham from Yale University in 1911. Actually, other westerners visited earlier, but Bingham and his sponsor National Geographic Magazine made the big splash 'discovery'. Bingham went to his death claiming that Machu Picchu was the lost city of Vilcabamba, city of the last of Incas, from where they made their last stand against the Spanish. Bingham was proved mistaken when the real Vilcabamba was later found, deep in the eastern jungle. 
Built over the period 1450 - 1528, Machu Picchu's most important structures are its three temples - Sun, Moon and Condor. Here were performed rituals to the Incan gods during major festivals centered around the winter and summer solstices, and in times of peril to invoke favors from the gods. A large stone for sacrifices was used for offering llama and other animals; there is no evidence of human sacrifice. Scholars believe Machu Picchu was a ceremonial site, rather than a city. Its fine stonework and stunning temples as well as its remote location suggest that it was a very important city, and most likely the destination for nobles and priests on pilgrimage from Cusco. Many mummies were found throughout the city, tucked into crevices and alcoves. Quite a few of these were women, but who these revered people were remains a mystery.  Other outstanding buildings are the a convent for beautiful, noble-born women, who lived in seclusion in a separate building with no windows. These chosen women wove the fine textiles that were worn by nobles and priests, and also possibly were concubines. The observatory was for star gazing, an advanced science in Incan times. There is extensive housing for the nobles, grain and textile storehouses and terraces, largely used for decoration, rather than food production. Adding the Machu Picchu's unique beauty is its "organic" architecture;  temple walls and carved stairways are formed out of existing rock outcroppings, as though the gods themselves played a hand in the creation of the city. Also, many details are purely aesthetic, such as the cylindrical stones shaping the Sun Temple and the Temple of the Condor's abstract condor, suggested with three smooth stones; two for wings and one smaller for the condor's head (see photo).
Machu Picchu's location is stunning. It is deservedly one of the major tourist sites in Peru, but it's fame means that the city is overrun with tourists; 2,000-4,000 pour in every day. At the peak of the day, it seemed more like Disneyland than a sacred Inca city. with crowds queuing for photos at key lookouts; security guards blowing their whistles to keep people off closed areas; groups representing various religions chanting and singing; people meditating on the grassy terraces; buses running their engines at the entrance gate etc. But at quieter times, ie early and late in the day, the magic of Machu Picchu shines through.
In comparison to Machu Picchu, other locations in the Sacred Valley host major Incan ruins with their own magic, and with a small fraction of the number of tourists. We visited some of the many sites in the valley, including Ollataytambo, Pisac, Mara, Cochabamba; each with its own special features. Often we would be the only ones wandering the cities. Ollantaytambo was built as a fortress and served as one of four regional headquarters. It was also a storage site for grain and extra commodities - comparable to our taxes -- collected by the Inca (King). Ollataytambo's Inca ruins dominate the town from both sides of the valley. On one side are the extensive terraces and temples of the main fortress, one of the last to hold out against the Spaniards, before the Inca retreated to Vilcabamba, deep in the jungle lowlands, where they made their last stand. Ollantaytambo repeatedly turned the Spanish army away with clever tactics. In one battle, the Incan army hurled boulders from the temples down on the besieging Spaniards, and then released a temporary dam onto the field of battle, washing both soldiers and horses away. Horse skeletons were found during recent excavations here. In the end, the Spaniards prevailed of course, slaughtering the inhabitants and taking over the town in the valley for their own garrison. Today's town of Ollantaytambo is built directly over the Incan city, with colonial courtyards incorporating the beautiful Incan stonework. This consists of huge precisely cut stones with millimeter gaps between. The old walls enclose cobbled streets just two meters wide, perfectly sized for pedestrians and llamas. Lack of access for motorised vehicles means the only sounds are those of the locals, their horses, llamas and dogs and of the occasional TV. In the ruins themselves are the remains of the Templo de la Luna (Temple of the Moon), oriented to catch the sunrise on winter solstice, and built from huge blocks of pink granite, perfectly interlocked against 'seismic events'. The Andes are a young mountain chain with almost continuous earthquakes. Five hundred years on, the perfectly aligned walls are evidence of the Inca's mastery of building to withstand such events. By comparison, the Spaniards extensive use of adobe and unreinforced simple masonry left a legacy of poor construction and repeated building collapses. On the opposite valley wall are the ruins of the tambos (granaries) in which the Incans stored surplus food to be distributed in the event  of poor harvest or famine. These were placed high above the valley floor to catch the prevailing cold dry winds, to keep the dehydrated potatoes, dried corn, quinoa, abas (broad beans) and other vegetables dry and free of rot. 
There's a shocking likeness to a glowering bearded face carved in the cliff high above the city (see photo). The Inca, who have little body hair, considered this face to be that of a protector god, and were thus thrown off guard by the arrival of the Spaniards, all with long beards, and far from benevolent.  
Unlike Ollantaytambo, largely a ceremonial site and fortress, Pisac, was primarily a large city and agricultural center with temples built on the hill of the valley. Pisac's ruins are spread across steep hillsides, commanding views of three routes into the Sacred Valley: the jungle, highlands and the river valley. To see this extensive site fully can easily take a full day, as there are hundreds of structures over the entire hillside. Temples here include a Templo del Sol with a sacred spring and a sacrificial alter. There are also guard houses, an observatory and residential complexes. The extensive terraces here were cultivated until just a few years ago, when the ministry of tourism closed them. An interesting feature is the cemetery built into the cliff walls above the city. We were not allowed near the site, which has been closed to the public due to repeated looting. Through binoculars, we saw many small burial chambers, some with bones peeking out of open tombs. At one time this site contained thousands of mummies and their artifacts, but all have long since been stolen. As we've seen in other Incan cities, the Temple of the Sun is aligned perfectly to catch the sunrise at the winter solstice on June 21. The sacred fountains and underground canals still run with water as they have for five centuries. Far below in the valley floor lies the colonial town of Pisac, known for its Sunday market, where locals mix with tourists to buy fruit, vegetables, meat and household goods. Pisac's market is oriented to the bus loads of tourists that arrive on day tours from Cusco, and there are hundreds of stalls selling textiles wool clothing and jewelry. The discerning, and determined, shopper can find a few high quality goods among the tat. Our only purchase was the delicious local snack of boiled corn with salt and lime.
We also visited Maris, a terraced salt flat, continually in production since pre-Inca times, and several other Inca cities in the valley. We were very fortunate to have had enough time to visit these lesser-known ancient sites in the Sacred Valley, and to marvel again and again at Inca skill and ingenuity, There is so much more than Machu Picchu to discover in the Sacred Valley.
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