Friday, May 21, 2010

Sacred Valley

Field Trip to the Ruins

I fell asleep with magnificent images of carved rocks and massive fortresses, in awe of what I had seen our first day in Cusco. I am not sure what I had expected, but I knew that what we did see was incredible, and that there is much more in store for today and tomorrow. There was a large fountain just outside the window of our hotel, which moved tons of water constantly during the night, and functioned as a lullaby. We were all so exhausted after 3 AM wake up calls these last two days, so sleeping in until 7:30 was a treat.

We met Edison, our guide for the day, Milagros, our host for the four day tour, and Cesar, our driver for the day. The sun was shining intensely and I tried to figure out if I felt the 11,000 feet altitude, but in truth, it felt no different than Quito at 93000 feet. Sherry had ordered a tank of oxygen, thinking she may need it to adjust to the thin air, but decided it was not necessary.

We left Cusco by driving up the side of the valley in the direction of Sacsayhuaman. The brown/red adobe and stone houses and churches shone in the bright sunshine. We have all decided that we like Cusco very much and asked Milagro to check if she could change our tickets so we could stay an extra day. Not only is there so much more to see and explore, it also feels welcoming in a way that Lima does not. She called us later to tell us that changing our flight would be too expensive, and it is possible we will not make it to our Lima flight anyway.

We drove past the fortress, and Edison pointed out several more sites nearby. The Incas were in the habit of carving 'temples' out of the rock, wherever there appeared to be spiritual access. They liked to blend in with the natural elements and use whatever rocks or materials presented themselves nearby. We stopped at a 'pucara' or a military fortess. There are pucaras dotted all over the Andes, wherever the Incas conquered, they built these pucaras at strategic viewpoints.

Puca Pucara means 'red fort', and it may have been a storage facility or a lodge. The Inca's court may have stayed at the 'tambo' or lodge while he visited the bath at Tambomachay, a few hundred metres away. Sacred water temples were built at every temple, and at Tambomachay, natural spring water is channeled through several waterfalls, which still work today. The Incas worshipped water as a vital life element and every major Inca site has fountains and aqueducts and ceremonial baths. What is amazing is that the water channels and fountains continue to work today.

Red Adobe Brick Houses

We continued driving toward the Sacred Valley, stopping along the way to look at the quinoa fields. Jeff and Sherry had developed an interest in quinoa, and wanted to learn as much as they could about the grain ( it may not be a grain, but in fact it may be a vegetable). There were magnificent craggy snow capped mountains accompanying us as we descended into the valley. Fields of corn and potato and grains I did not know covered uneven terraces over the hillsides. Edison informed us that these were not Inca terraces, which are even and built up with stones. We would be seeing the Inca terraces throughout the next few days, and they are very distinct and impressive. Our destination was Pisac, known to have one of the most famous artesania markets in South America. It is located around a huge plane tree, with all manner of textiles and leather goods and antiques and musical instruments and jewellery. It reminded me of the Plaza de Ponchos in Otavalo, but felt more compact and concentrated. Maya and I bought stones to remember the place. I need more time to shop; I like to walk around and see what is available and compare and contrast and debate and in the end go back and forth with a decision, but we did not have adequate time to make such a purchase, so I enjoyed strolling around and watching Sherry and Jeff shop. I was more interested in the ruins above the town. Magnificent terraces climbed up all side of the hill. I could see stone structures at the top, and I wanted very much to climb up and get closer. Unfortunately, it was not part of our agenda today and Edison urged us back into the van and on our way to Ollantaytambo.

Textiles for Sale

We stopped at a the Sonesta Posada del Inca in Yucay, not far from Pisac, along the Urubamba River. The hotel is built around a sixteenth century monastery, with a chapel, fountains, plazas and gardens, and of course, yummy food.

The Sacred Valley follows the Urubamba River, and evidence of Inca terraces line both sides of the river. They appear to have a dual purpose, both as retaining walls and agricultural platforms. They have not lost their shape or solidity, even after more than five hundred years, and many are still used by farmers today. Inca roads run above the valley floor, along the sides of the mountains. Both terraces and roads are so remarkably well preserved.

Our final destination of the day was Ollantaytambo, the last town in the Sacred Valley before the Urubamba Valley narrows on its way to Machu Picchu. It is the best preserved Inca village in Peru, and is utterly magnificent and stunning. I was in awe as we climbed up the interminable steps to the top of the ruin. Ollantaytambo was occupied long before the Incas arrived, and was built as a ceremonial centre and royal estate by the great Inca builder Pachacutec. It is most famous as being the site of a bloody 'last stand' between Manco Inca and the Spanish in 1537. Manco Inca had retreated to Ollantaytambo after being defeated by the Spanish at Sacsayhuaman during the Inca rebellion.
What remains today are massive terraces, and on top the temple of the Sun, made of huge pink stones, fit together perfectly, without mortar or cement. Fountains and more temples occupy the lower parts of the ruin, and well preserved granaries (the Incas maintained large amounts of stores to feed their people in times of need) dot the mountain on the other side of town. When looking down at the town from above, it is clear that many of the buildings are Inca ruins, many of the townspeople still live in the ancient structures.

The sun set as we scrambled over the ruins, which were in fact amazingly well preserved. I was so impressed with what we saw today. I had never imagined that our visit to Machu Picchu would be so impressive, that we would see so much already, and still had more to see.

Our hotel, Sol y Luna, was delightful. We had a spacious cabin, with a loft where Maya planned to sleep, but we all ended up in the kingsize bed, exhausted and excited about the climax of our visit.

Young CusceƱo

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