We are now firmly in the sacred valley of the Incas, in thin air some 3400m above sea level. Cusco is our base camp, and Don’s oldest son Christopher and his girlfriend Tiffany have joined us for our exploration of the valley and Machupicchu (it’s one word here, not two).
We started with purchasing a mandatory boleto turistico each, which gives us access to Inca sites near town and up the valley, and then stuffed ourselves into a little Renault taxi for the 8 km ride to Tambomachay, often referred to as the Inca Baths, and sometimes thought of as an ancient resort for the ruling class. It features an underground water source that has never ceased to flow into what used to be the bathing pools (must have been cold though!). We then walked along the road back towards town for the next attraction, Pucapucara. It is known as the Red Fortress but the current thinking is that it was less a fort and more likely a checkpoint and perhaps roadhouse for Inca leaders and commoners on their way up the valley. It does have a commanding view of the surrounding countryside, so no chance of a sneak attack here.
Several kilometres further we reached Qenqo, an outcrop of rock set in a low bit of land on the side of a hill. the Incas cut pathways and staircases into the rocks, and made use of underground areas for what some travel books suggest were either human or llama sacrifices, but our guide the following day said this was where the Inca mummified their dead from throughout the valley, prior to further ceremony and then burial. A large monolith at one end of the outcrop that faces an amphitheatre likely featured carved images at one time, but the Spanish conquistadors so hated and feared Inca culture they destroyed everything they could find. Sadly this was the case at all the sites we visited – often all that remains of a once powerful empire are the foundations. But even these are often strikingly impressive.
The last stop on our self-directed trek was the fortification at Sacsayhuaman, the largest of the four sites with its unique set of zigzag walls, wide ceremonial grounds, and numerous other structures. The walls, which run for 360m, feature stones that had to be brought here and sculpted to fit perfectly together, some as high as 8.5m and weighing as much at 130 tons. There is some speculation that this was primarily a temple to the sun, rather than a fort, based in part on the discovery in 1982 of the graves of priests buried on site.
Unfortunately, between Spanish destruction, general looting, and the fact builders were allowed to truck away the carved stone for construction right up until the 1930s, much remains unknown about this site. Nevertheless, from the top one gets a panoramic view of the entire city of Cusco.
To reach sites further up the valley we signed up for a day tour, first stop, Pisaq. This incredible site is set on a mountaintop with massive, terraced agricultural fields running halfway down one side, another fountain that taps into an underground stream, and across a narrow valley behind, a wall of holes in the rock that once housed hundreds of mummies, long since looted by the Spanish for the silver and gold items usually buried with the deceased. At the top of the mountain was the astronomer’s residence/workspace – a very important figure in the Inca hierarchy. The tour stopped in some small colonial towns for us to wander through markets, and later enjoy a buffet lunch, but the next Inca site was the almost as incredible ruins at Ollantaytambo. More terraced fields and mountaintop construction – and a view of buildings and huge carving in the mountainside across the valley.
The temple of the sun at the top features six huge carved stones arranged in a row like a wall; you can barely make out relief-carved pumas probably defaced by the Spanish. At the base of the whole site is the Temple of Water – the fountain here is fed from melting glaciers several kilometres away which our guide optimistically states “will never disappear”. We were told that it was here that the bodies processed at Qenqo were brought for final rites involving water, before being taken to Pisaq for hillside burial (about 65 km away). The city below was laid out by the Inca in the shape of a puma, and according to our guide, about 80 percent of the buildings and houses there now are built on Incan foundations.
Our last stop for the day was the colonial town of Chinchero for a visit to the old church, built on the foundation of a destroyed Inca palace, and featuring another panoramic view. The palace was home to one of the last Inca rulers to resist the Spanish invasion and they made sure no sign was left here of the Inca.
The visit to Chinchero included visiting a local home/workshop for a brief demonstration of traditional wool dyeing and weaving techniques, and of course a pitch from our tour guide to buy from their vast stock of sheep and alpaca wool clothes, blankets, and stuffed llamas! These past two days involved climbing more crooked and rocky steps than we thought we might see in a lifetime – hopefully we’re hardened up and ready for Machupicchu!
A shout out to Jeremy W. today – Happy Birthday!