Thursday 4 to Sunday 7 January
We flew into Cusco in time to acquaint ourselves with the town and find somewhere for dinner. Cusco sits at an elevation of 3,399m but it seemed that the backpackers who crowd this small town have found how to manage the altitude by drinking coca tea. Coca tea comes from the coca plant, the same that cocaine is made from. Claims are that it is not dangerous and not addictive.
We aren’t tea drinkers and somehow never got around to trying coca tea – perhaps we were handling the altitude well enough.
We found an interesting restaurant, that put on a music show and served local food, called TuNuPa Bar & Grill. Bruce finally tried the guinea pig, a rich oily meat. As usual, Bruce was chosen out of the diners to get up and dance with the performers.
The restaurant was also something of a museum, with a lot of erotic statues around the walls. It was an interesting place.
At such high altitude, Cusco was cool and damp. We spent some time dodging rain – an opportunity to find good coffee.
Cusco is a city rich in local culture and the locals certainly make the most of it, wandering around in their colourful costumes, carrying baby alpacas and ready to be photographed by the tourists – for a fee of course.
We stepped outside our comfort zone and explored the local market. It was not gentrified for the tourists, and appeared to be very much the place locals go for their food. Alongside the market were a range of small stalls, perhaps a barrow or just a cloth on the ground – selling local produce.
In the evening the children came out to play – a sort of ball game, perhaps like rugby, perhaps like soccer. Following on from the Spanish tradition, children have the run of the squares in the evening.
From Cusco we joined a tour that would take us as far as Atacama in Chile. We were told to be ready at 7 o’clock in the morning for the first part of our excursion to Machu Picchu.
After collecting all the travellers we were on the road. Our first stop was Mirador Taray (Taray lookout), near Pisac, where we had our first view over the Sacred Valley. What we saw was the hills terraced in layers – the Inca Terraces. These terraces or andenes (Spanish for platform) were typically built on very steep terrain and permitted farming on otherwise unusable terrain and allowed the Incas to take advantage of different ecological zones created by variations in altitude.
I found a nice diagram of how the Inca Terraces are constructed, by Manco Capac.
We toured the Pisaq Archaeological Site, which sits at 3,448m above sea level, learning how the terraces were constructed, how food was stored and the villages that were built across the hills for security.
There was the mandatory souvenir stop where we were shown the art of silver-smithing, followed by the local, colourful market. The dried potatoes fascinated us – somehow they can be rehydrated, although our guide assured us they loose much of their flavour. There were bunches of herbs and black corn, colourful cloths and souvenirs.
We were hurried along for the inevitable lunch stop. We were dropped off at different locations, depending on which travel agency had booked us on the tour. It seemed quite complex.
It was mid-afternoon by the time we reached the highlight for the day – Ollantaytambo Archaeological site, which sits on the Patakancha River, another tributary of the Amazon.
Ollantaytambo is a UNESCO site in the northern most part of the Sacred Valley.
The ancient ruins were first established nearly 12,000 years ago, by a civilisation referred to as the Urin Pacha. Little is known about them or where they came from, however they built their city with colossal rocks, some weighing nearly 50 tons.
Emperor Pachacuti razed and conquered the region around 1448 and rebuilt the town and ceremonial centre of Temple Hill as his royal estate.
At the time of the Spanish conquest of Peru Ollantaytambo served as the stronghold for Manco Inca Yupanqui, which he defended from the Spanish in 1537. Manco Inca finally retreated to the Amazon jungles where he founded the Neo-Inca state, as the Spanish took control of the city.
Within the Inca ruins, the stone buildings high on terraces were for the elite, leaders and intelligencia. The rest of the population, called yanakuna retainers, lived in villages where they farmed in return for land they were allocated. The village, which dates from the late 15th century, has some of the oldest continuously occupied dwellings in South America.
The Incas did not use a currency, they used bartering and return of favours to keep the economy going.
The ceremonial centre is on a steep hill called Cerro Bandolist. Much of the area was unfinished, perhaps interrupted by an internal war or the Spanish Conquest.
There was the Sun Temple, used to indicate seasons and times of the day, monumental walls and a funery sector. The Incas made great use of mountain tops for ceremony and also as lookouts
From Ollantaytambo we boarded the train for the 90 minute journey to Machu Picchu.
The train journey was beside a fiercely flowing river. Clearly we were going ‘downhill’. The river was brown as it is the wet season.
We moved from agriculture in the valleys to jungle. Suddenly there were lots of different types of plants and trees with a variety of flowers.
Arriving at Aguas Calientes Station the scene was chaotic as various representatives tried to find their charges. It was dark and we were getting hungry.
I am known as Dorothea on this journey as it simplifies things like passport control and accommodation. Just as well, as we had to present our passports numerous times, such as to board a train and enter an archaeological site.
My name appeared twice at the station – turns out that the tour operator and the hotel had both come to fetch us.
After a briefing from our guide Nelly we found an Italian restaurant that made its own pasta. Apart from guinea pig and alpaca, the most common food on offer is trout from the local rivers. It suits me as I tend to order a lot of fish whilst travelling, it is easier to digest at night and the local meats are usually tough and often too rich in flavour.
But I do need to choose a red meat occasionally to satisfy Bruce’s need for red wine.
And so I had linguine with smoked trout and Parmesan cheese. Bruce was happy with his octopus pasta!
Our guide had suggested an early start for the famous Machu Picchu excursion, to beat the crowds. I think every other guide had suggested the same. We were up at 5am for breakfast and were joined in the queue by Edna and Stan from Caulfield, a couple from Los Angeles and a guy from Bern in Switzerland. It was a long but efficient wait for the shuttle bus to take us up the mountain. The 25 minute bus ride was something else! Steep zig zags on a narrow dirt road, slowing down to allow a bus to pass whenever the road was wide enough, sometimes backing up to a passing spot. The bus always ran close to the edge with its near vertical drop off. That’s why I let Bruce sit in the window seat on the way back.
We climbed from 2053m to 2453m.
As we did the required toilet stops before entering Machu Picchu the rain started. Nelly had suggested being prepared for rain, but it was even heavier than she had anticipated.
We had the opportunity to stay for the rest of the day, but after our two hour, wet, escorted tour we very reluctantly took our soggy bodies back to Aguas Calientes to dry out. So disappointed, as I had made up my mind that I would climb to the lookout at Sun Stone, but since you couldn’t even see it in the clouds there was little point in making the journey.
Our guide explained that Machu Picchu had been known to the local people after it was abandoned, unfinished, in the middle of the 16th century. They had used building materials from it and used the terraces to grow crops.
In the days of western adventurers these sites weren’t ‘discovered’, they were simply made known to the western world. And so in 1911 when Hiram Bingham arrived from the USA his intentions were not to show the world an amazing ancient city but rather to plunder its riches – the gold, silver and precious metals that were used to adorn the dead in the burial sites.
The Incas did not use a currency, so these precious items carried no value other than to decorate their dead.
While Cusco was the capital of the Inca empire, Machu Picchu held a significant role within the empire. The Inca (or high lord) of Machu Picchu had chosen the site for its height and access to water. The village was inhabited by about 400 people who formed the upper class. The Inca and the priest held the highest positions. Each had a wife and a large contingent of concubines. The successor was chosen from the family for his aptitude to the position rather than first born.
There was also a school for boys to learn astronomy, tool making, war strategies and for girls to learn domestic duties.
The buildings for the Inca and the priest, including their temples were built in the finest manner. Accurately cut rocks were laid without any kind of mortar, to fit perfectly. The curved wall of the Temple of The Sun followed the curve of a rock. Two windows let light in at the winter and summer solstices.
The very way that buildings were constructed without mortar, and with rocks fitting together so tightly a credit card could not be inserted between the stones, protected the buildings from earthquakes. During an earthquake the stones will bounce around and then fall back into place, as if they were dancing.
The rocky floor was carved to allow grains to be ground. In the case of the girl’s school, the rocks had a flat bottomed bowl about 5cm deep carved into it, which, when filled with water, acted as a mirror to reflect the sun, moon and constellations.
The main square was unfinished when the village was abandoned, a large rock sitting on a small rounded rock – it never reached its final resting point.
When the Spanish defeated the Incas at Ollantaytambo, Machu Picchu was abandoned. Trees disguised the paths leading to it and the jungle very quickly took hold to hide it from view.
After we returned to Aguas Calientes we decided to ‘do lunch’. There were others with the same idea, drying out their clothes by the circular fireplace. We had left our room looking like a Chinese laundry with jeans, jumpers, sox, hats and jackets strung over everything possible.
When the guide had picked us up for our journey to Machu Picchu he looked at our luggage and said the train would only allow 5 kg. We should have been told! But I mentioned that we couldn’t leave our bags as we had medication in them. As it turned out there were luggage racks on the train and space between the facing seats to store luggage.
And that is why we had a change of clothes with us and were able to change and go out again.
The return journey to Cusco by train and then car was uneventful. We climbed through the valley to Ollantaytambo alongside the Urubamba River. The water was tumbling down through the rocks. You could not be saved if you fell in.
We travelled from Aguas Calientes at 2053m to Cusco at 3407m, including rising up from the valley of the Urubamba River river to cross a range at 3448m.
In Cusco we managed to visit the Dominican Cathedral in Cusco and learnt even more about the Spanish invasion and the conversion of the Incas to Catholicism. The Spanish were desperate for the treasures that lined the Incas temples. They moved quickly, overcoming the Incas in just a few years. Many Incas fled to the Amazon forests where they were struck down by malaria, yellow fever or the wild animals. Those that remained succumbed to European illnesses like flu and colds.
Cusco was the centre of the Incan empire and the principal temple was Qorikancha (meaning gold enclosure), which was rebuilt in the 2nd half of the 14th century by Inca Pachakuti the Great Reformer. It was the richest temple in the new world, decorated with plants, flowers, animals and human figures of gold.
They worshipped the sun Inti, the moon Killa and God creator Viraqocha represented by an oval gold plate.
Qorikancha was the centre from which other sacred places, called seqe, spread through the four provinces of the Inca kingdom. From Qorikancha the celestial bodies that made up the Inca astronomy were also identified, with the dark spots interpreted as silhouettes of animals that come to drink at the waters of the celestial river mayu, which is our Milky Way.
The Dominican order was the first of the missionaries to arrive in Cusco and were handed the temple area for their church and monastery. The gold and silver that lavishly decorated the temples was melted down and moved to Spain.
The Christianisation of the America’s after the Spanish conquest formed part of the controversial cultural syncretism producing what is known as the mesitzo culture. The native Indians had a strong culture of art, combined with Christian art which is known as the Cusco School of Art.
The combination of the Christian and Inca traditions created some interesting stories.
In 1650 an earthquake shook Cusco. During the chaos a statue of a dark-skinned Jesus on the cross was paraded around, which was attributed to stopping the earthquake.
The image has become famous and is now known as Taitacha Tremors or Lord of Earthquakes. Since then a procession has been held each year at the end of March, where the image is paraded, draped with the petals of ñukch’u, which are the hue of the blood of Christ.
Another famous effigy on display is Our Lady of the Rosary of Pomata. For this it is believed that miracles are performed by the Queen of Heaven.
Note – all the elevations were measured using an App on my iPhone called MotionX-GPS