Story and Photos by John Sundsmo.
Considering the once in a lifetime nature of a visit to Machu Picchu, my wife and I decided to spend two weeks in the Peru highlands and Sacred Valley of the Inca to better appreciate the special culture and scenery of the Andes. In this, the first of three articles, we describe our explorations from Cusco to Pisac on the road to Machu Picchu. The second article in the series describes the unique nature of Pisac and the third the route from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu.
In Cusco, Peru (elevation 11,152 ft.): As we walked into our Cusco hotel lobby, Javier, the manager, greeted us in excellent English, “how was your flight from Lima?” I answered, “Fine, just a few bumps and an amazing view as we landed. I can see why it was called the Sacred Valley of the Inca. ” “Yes, the valley is beautiful this time of year but a month ago everything was very green. The view from our rooftop garden is very good. Will you have some tea? We recommend a special tea to help with the altitude.” My wife asked, “what’s in it” thinking it might be caffeinated. “Just coca leaves to help with any altitude sickness.” My scientist brain was quickly thinking, how much cocaine might be in coca leaves and how it might affect me. “Sure, I’ll try it.”
After two pleasantly light and pleasingly scented cups of tea, we were ushered to our cozy corner room on the second floor of the colonial mansion that is now Hotel Andenes al Cielo . So began our adventure in the Sacred Valley of the Inca.
The hotel with its beautiful Spanish influences including large interior garden courtyards, fountains and surrounding balconies was beautiful, warm and inviting. After dropping our bags, we climbed to the roof top deck where all of Cusco was laid out before us. Tucked against the hills at the end of the Inca’s sacred plateau, the site was ready made for ruling their empire. In the 14th and 15th century, the Inca ruled the largest empire known. All of the roads led to Cusco; and to the administrative centers within 100 yards of our hotel. I quietly reflected, which of Pizzaro’s conquistadors had occupied this, our mansion/hotel, and which Inca Yupanqui lord and family had he dispatched to do so.
As we looked north, we saw that the Inca empire had stretched from here through Ecuador into Columbia and behind us, it ran south to the border with Chile. The city was conquered and the empire broken in the 1530s by Pizzaro’s conquistadors in just a few years. Above us on a hill, with a commanding view of the city, we could see where the Inca citadel had stood, now sanctified with a large Christian cross. Indeed, a very sacred site, as 10,000 Inca defending their emperor with stone clubs gave up their lives to 200 horse-mounted armored conquistadors with swords and lances. So much incredible history had happened right here, within our sight, but in such a beautiful setting on this high verdant mountain plateau.
After dinner at a nearby restaurant, where I tried the local Chu stew delicacy, (comprising tough flavorless guinea pig; pronounced kwee), we retired: I, with a splitting headache, my wife not well either, and so we began a long night. A call by my wife to the front desk around midnight brought the question, “is your tongue black?” It was, and so was mine; in a few minutes a bell boy delivered a tank of oxygen. We “sipped oxygen” off-and-on all night and in the morning, much revived, only the edges of our tongues were black and the headaches were gone. While our bodies were still weak from altitude sickness, our brains were eager to explore Cusco. Surprisingly, we were hungry. After a hearty breakfast of quinoa, homemade granola, fresh eggs and mountain yogurt, fruit, berries and pastries baked that morning we were waddling, but ready to take on Cusco.
A short walk from our hotel we found our first finely fitted Inca stone work and signs of the snake which identified the foundation of a gift shop as a former royal residence. The imperial masonry was so tight that not even a knife blade would fit between stones weighing many hundreds of pounds. For me, the tenacity and patience of Inca stone masons is one of the great wonders of the ancient world.
Rounding the corner into Cusco’s main Plaza de Armes, a banner waving procession was just coming up the street. As we got closer we realized it was a protest march against Monsanto. “Por la defense de la tierra y semillos” (for the defense of the land and seeds), “No Transgenicos” (no transgenics), was such an emotionally charged issue that riot police with shields were dispatched to control the protest.
The contrast between the drab Policia uniforms and the protestor’s colorful highland handwoven ethnic clothing was stark. The protest gave us an insight into the spirit of the people. We were struck by the strength of character and apparent warm humanity in the weathered faces of the hill people and hoped they would win their fight against the greedy gringo corporation.
Built on the foundations of an Inca temple, the Cathedral Basilica de la Virgen de la Asuncion (Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of the Assumption) stands prominently in the Plaza de Armes as a monument to the fortitude of the Inca, their exceptional stone masons, as well as, the tenacity of the Catholic Padres and the architects Juan Miguel de Veramendi, Miguel Gutiérrez Sencio and Juan Correa.
After a few days exploring Cusco, visiting the wonderful pre-Columbian art museum and obtaining the mandatory tourist passes for traveling in the Sacred Valley and visiting Machu Pichu, we knew where we wanted to go, but weren’t sure how to arrange the transportation. The train didn’t go where we wanted or when. Our agenda included visits to Inca historic sites, local markets, artisans and painters. After discussions with our hotel staff, we decided to hire a car for the day to take us to Chincero for the Thursday market; then on to Urubama for Ceramicas Seminario; and finally to Pisac, in order to be there for the Sunday market. It was the long way round the valley to Pisac but, as it turned out, it gave us a great introduction to the culture, geography and beauty of this high mountain region.
Thursday market in Chincero was subdued. Blankets were spread on the grass in front of the church with its Inca foundation. Local weavers and artisans offered up handicrafts, hand woven blankets and sweaters of Alpaca, mixed in with well tooled silver jewelry and traditional baskets. Experiencing the local flavor of the small market, the beauty of the countryside with the ancient-terraced hillsides, distant snow-capped mountains and lush highland plateau made hiring the car well worthwhile. I recalled reading that the Inca–when they conquered a town–immediately sent in a team of engineers to assess community needs along with a cadre of politicos and teachers to educate the population. In Chinchero, running down the sidewalk in front of each doorway, was a carved stone channel containing cold fast-running fresh water, i.e., the Inca water at your doorstep system. Small wonder that their empire survived for hundreds of years with satisfied citizens.
The high plateau stretched out before us and we had to ask the driver to stop and give us time to take in the beauty. Crisp clear mountain air and the smell of new mowed hay filled our lungs. The lush landscape, cold mountain air and slight breeze filled our eyes to overflowing. Back in the car, our driver suggested the next stop should be at the top of the plateau (elevation 12,343 ft.) where the road switch-backed many times to slowly reach the bridge across the Urubama river (elevation 9,420 ft.). Although we could see our destination clearly below us, it took the better part of an hour to reach it on the slow tight mountain roads just wide enough for one bus or truck to maneuver the corners. Cars dutifully pulled to the side and waited.
Pablo Seminario and Marilú Behar are world renown for their art with prior exhibitions in the Smithsonian, United Nations headquarters (New York City) and Chicago Field Museum. They are best known for expressing the arts and culture of pre-Columbian Peru. By using ancient motifs and techniques blended with artistry, they create unique new modern sculptures and ceramics. True to their heritage, they live and work in Urubamba. During our visit we were fortunate to find Pablo hard at work on a sculptured vase in his studio but willing to take time for us foreign visitors. A soft spoken man of few words, he exudes a tranquility that permeates his studio, workshop and staff. Browsing the shop filled with such a wealth of beautiful ceramic dinnerware, tiles, sculpture and murals, we wished we had brought an extra suitcase. Sadly, we had to leave with just a few beautiful tiles and suitcase-sized ceramics as mementos. It now was late in the day; the sun had already set behind the high surrounding hills, and we urgently pushed on for Pisac so our driver wouldn’t have to negotiate the treacherous mountain roads home in the dark. We were looking forward to the ethnic culture of Pisac Sunday market and hiking among the ruins of the Intihuatana, a sun god religious site, and Inca Pisac, the former Inca gateway to the Amazon.
This story is continued in a second article: “Road to Machu Picchu: Pisac in Highlands Peru“. The third article in this series will detail Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu; and, with the return to Cusco. For coastal Peru see Adventurous Pursuits in Coastal Peru by Monique Burns. Click here for more articles by John.