Jordan and I arrived in Cusco and awaited the arrival of our friend, Sarah Ann, to continue onward. She landed in Cusco on May 13th, the day after our wedding anniversary, and we made our plans for Machu Picchu. Latin Americans are so laid back that it is easiest to make plans a day or two in advance, no more. Machu Picchu requires quite a bit of planning and forethought, so it was a little jarring to all of a sudden be planning weeks in advance. We did not buy tickets to Machu Picchu online or far in advance because I wanted the student discount, which I believe you can only get in person at the government office in Cusco. So we did that and then wandered around Cusco. Sarah Ann brought some sort of virus or bad reaction to vaccines with her, and flying into Cusco is difficult for most people, so she unfortunately didn’t feel good for several days. Cusco is around 11,000 feet, which is not fun when everything is built up the hillside (which means lots of stairs!) However, we did enjoy the free Choco museum, where we got to try chocolate tea, chocolate jam, and chocolate chips, all grown and produced in Peru using fair trade practices. It took about 45 minutes and was fun–we recommend it. The rest of our plans were delayed due to a strike in Cusco and down in the Sacred Valley. I think it was about how to locals don’t like the trains that take tourists to Machu Picchu–they are loud, bump up against the locals’ property, and don’t help the local economy at all because the trains are owned and managed by a multi-national company. We planned our trip toward Machu Picchu to coincide with a day-trip into the Sacred Valley, which is on the way to Machu Picchu. We chose Llama Path as a tour provider because it was 20 USD a person and still seemed respectable. I think we made a pretty good choice. On our way out of town on the beginning of the tour (at 8:30 am) a nice, black car backed into the tour bus. It was just a fender-bender, no one was hurt, but the black car was very angry, even though it was all clearly his fault. So we waited around for about 30 minutes watching the whole exchange grow. Multiple police showed up, but only some where helpful. One just stood there and picked at his gloves while the other two tried to look interested in the argument between drivers. Then local people came up and offered their opinions. It was quite the attraction, so we moved to a different bus and resumed our tour. We began the descent into the Valle Sagrada, or Sacred Valley, with some beautiful views of the Andean mountains and the villages below in the valley.
The first ruins we visited were near the town of Pisac. High on the hill, because Incans loved living on mountain sides, was the ruins. In the mountain above were tombs cut from the stone. There are more graves in the mountain than what people suspect lived in the town (4,000 graves to around 400 townspeople), so some of the graves were possibly for workers that helped build the terraces or town. There was no value of gold or silver to the Incans, so it was better to offer flowers or food to Mother Earth or place in burials chambers. however, they still used gold and silver in the burial process. The Incans dried and mummified their dead bodies, which helped when they hauled the bodies into the chiseled caves, although we still don’t know for certain how they got the bodies into the cliff. There aren’t any trails or signs of suspension ropes.Tomb raiders (or Spanish conquistadors) saw the silver glinting in the sun and stole everything. By the time archeologists arrived during the modern era, almost everything was gone.
The terraces are probably the most impressive part of the town. Because the fields are built at different altitudes, they could grow different vegetables. Potatoes and herbs tended to be at the top, corn and quinoa nearer the bottom of the Urubamba valley. The Incans were very careful builders. They often scoped out a potential construction site for a year to see how the are changed with the seasons before actually building and moving there. They were also excellent at drainage, since they were farmers on a mountain.
We stopped for lunch an hour later, and the three of us ate lunch with a nice Belgian couple. They told us their native language was Flemish, which was similar enough to Dutch that they can understand one another. I had never met anyone who spoke Flemish before! They old both speak five languages and told us about Brussels.
Our last stop was in Ollaytantambo, where we would stop for the night before heading on to Machu Picchu. There are fantastic ruins there on the mountainside that we climbed. It was a great leg workout! At the end of the sacred valley, just before the Urubamba river and the hills dip down into the beginnings of the jungle, this was more of a military fortress than a rural farming community, based on the amount of storage buildings on the mountain opposite the edge of the valley. The suncatcher was, as always, higher on the mountain top, and below were the temples, military barracks, and homes of the wealthy. Almost everyone that lived in this town would have been well-to-do. It was the last stop on the Incan trail before Machu Picchu. The photo below is of the storage buildings on another mountain.
No one is sure what happened here when the Spanish came through, but the current theory is that when they heard the cannons echoing through the valley they pulled back, perhaps leaving some soldiers behind, and escaped along the Incan trail to Machu Picchu, destroying it as they went. The Spanish did not find the Incan trail, as they never discovered Machu Picchu, and probably went parallel along the trail, paddling downriver, until they hit the jungle and never saw the other Incan cities. Any poor Incans that escaped the Spanish also went into the jungle.
The town was primarily made of granite, which was cut down a valley, up a mountain, and each block was up to 10 tons each. They don’t believe several of the temples were completed by the time the Spanish arrived, so the town was never officially finished. The Incans constructed their large buildings, like temples, by placing the large granite stones over smaller stones, also wedging the smaller ones in between the large ones to prevent the large stones from cracking during earthquakes, which happened regularly.
We enjoyed the view of the ruins, caught our breath, and then descended again into the current town and found our hostel. We enjoyed our tour, our guide, and thought that the price was reasonable. We paid 20 USD per person for the tour and 24 USD per person for the boleto touristicos to get into the ruins (a one-day pass for route #3).
Next up: Machu Picchu!