Road to Machu Picchu: Pisac in Highlands Peru

Story and Photos by John Sundsmo.

Our journey into the Sacred Valley of the Incas, on the road to Machu Picchu, began in Cusco and, with our driver, my wife and I stopped to experience the Thursday market in Chincero and the Ceramica Seminario in Urubamba before finally reaching our destination for the night in Pisac (Cusco to Pisac – Part One.)  As we approached Pisac, we thought it was late in the afternoon, but after checking into the hotel we discovered that the long days in the Southern latitudes had fooled us: instead of 5 PM, it was close to 8:30 PM. Hurrying, we found the hotel restaurant still open, but, with the ovens already extinguished, the choices from the grill were limited. After a little salad and some local pan-fried fish and lamb, we were still able to get a parting view of the sunset glimmering on the high hills behind our hotel. For the Sacred Valley of the Incas, Pisac is a gateway to the Amazon. There, in the fading sunlight hovering on the edge of a plateau, we could see Inca ruins near Pisac Intihuatana, a sacred sun god site. Hoping their gods would favor and watch over us, we tucked ourselves in for a chilly night’s sleep.

Pisac, Peru

When we awoke, we had been at altitude now for four days and the sickness and weariness we initially encountered had finally dissipated. We bounced out of bed full of energy and ready for some exploring. Two days before Sunday market in Pisac, we planned on hiking the surrounding hillsides. At breakfast, our hopes were realized when a weathered, aged, and well-worn German trekker in shorts and hiking boots, Gretchen, invited us to join her for breakfast. Despite the beauty of Switzerland, the Amazon, and Patagonia, she found herself inextricably drawn back to the Andes every few years. As a frequent long-time solo trekker in Peru, and veteran of the Inca trail to Machu Picchu, she was a wealth of information. Pisac was her favorite spot. We were soon to agree, as we too fell under the Pisac spell.

A Little Hike: Over fresh local eggs she told us of a “little” hike up a side valley along a stream to reach the road to Inca Pisac, Kantas Ray, and the Intihuatana. From there it wasn’t “too far” up to the ruins on the ridge. We should have known better. Late in the afternoon, we realized that a “little” hike to Gretchen, (probably at least age 68), was around 15-20 miles. It didn’t matter. She gave us a great tip. That little side valley trail was spectacular and one of the special highlights of our trip to the Inca’s sacred valley.

Gathering up our photo gear from the room, we were quickly out the door. Rounding the corner onto the small winding muddy trail, we wondered whether this was going to be a waste of time. Five minutes later, we were enchanted. Mudbrick walls separated us on the trail from ancient homesteads. An old cow blocking our path didn’t understand English or Spanish and we didn’t know Inca. Off to work, down the trail came a man dressed in the red-orange uniform of a street sweeper. Up the stream, a small waterfall gave us a short lunch break. Looking with a telephoto lens at the high cliffs across the valley below the Intihuatana showed us small caves with hieroglyph-like markings. Inca burial caves for sacred ancestors.

Pisac, Peru

Farther up the trail past long-abandoned stone ruins of an Inca long-house, we came on a woman in native highland dress, probably her own handiwork, tending her goats and cows. Disdainful of us, she turned her back and resumed her work. We didn’t feel like intruders but could understand that, as we joyfully soaked up the daily life of that small valley, the locals had lived to live and chores that couldn’t wait. Summers are short in the highlands of Peru and winters in the Andes can be harsh and long. In winter, that small muddy trail was likely the local’s lifeline connection to Pisac. Around 4 PM we realized that Gretchen moved much faster than we did, and if we didn’t turn around soon, it was going to be a long fast walk to get back before dark. Abandoning our exploration we retraced our steps.

Back at the hotel before sunset, we quickly decided to walk into town for dinner so we could experience a little of old Pisac before dark. Hungry from our small waterfall lunch, dusk found us comfortably seated at the Pisac Inn ordering a wonderful dinner prepared from local fresh-caught highland trout (or something very similar) and local garden vegetables. With a little fine wine from Chile, we were delighted and happily indulged. Unable to find a jitney, we hoofed it back to the hotel in the dark. Overall an exceedingly rewarding day that seemed to warrant a good night’s sleep.

Saturday at the Snake Market

Pisac market, Peru
Pisac Snake Market

When the Inca conquered a village they sent in engineers, teachers, and social scientists to educate and incorporate the local population into the empire. Fresh running water at your doorstep was an Inca inducement. The symbol of the royal snake was a constant reminder to behave or be struck. Walking into the narrow passageway between old stone houses in the canopy-covered bazaar, there, running zig-zag from house to house was an ancient 14th century Inca waterway complete with a small snake-head fountain at its end. For us, a reminder of the glories of the Inca empire that covered the largest geographic area of any ancient civilization.

The permanent bazaar was filled with local wares from potters, weavers, and highlands craftspeople hoping to satisfy tourist appetites for gifts and souvenirs. With only us and one or two other tourists, business was very slow. Sadly, we didn’t have room in our suitcases for anything but essentials.

Pisac Sunday Market

Bustling and brimming with life at 8 AM, the Pisac village square was transformed from empty cobblestone streets into a vibrant meeting place for highland peoples in colorful native dress. Blankets spread on the stones showed the industry of the hard-working families clawing potatoes, carrots, onions, yams, and corn from the rocky soil to sell at the market. The Inca are credited with cross-breeding plants to produce the first domesticated corn and potatoes which were traded between indigenous peoples all over South and North America. The International Potato Center in Lima is the worldwide genetic repository for different potato varieties. One look around the Pisac Sunday market showed why. Highland potato varieties in Pisac included small round, fat oblong, multicolored, and grotesquely misshapen long potatoes looking more like stuck-together lumps of dough. What we tasted in our meals was much more flavorful and very different than the US Idaho potato.

The significance of the Sunday market as a meeting place was unmistakable for all ages, from the deeply-lined weathered faces of gray-haired grandmothers to the playful children gorging on flavors of shaved ice. We were particularly taken with the variety of fine hats on display as well as the colorful ethnic handwoven Sunday-best clothing.

Pisac market, Pisac, Peru

With the market winding down by 1 PM to allow for the long uphill trudge home, farmers began wrapping up their blankets of produce and putting them on their backs, or if fortunate, on a donkey. After a quick bite to eat at a second-story restaurant with a view, we decided there was still time to take a taxi up to the Pisac Inca citadel.


Pisac Sunday Market, Peru, Sacred Valley of the Inca
Pisac Sunday Market

Pisac Kantas Ray

Kantas Ray, Pisac, Peru, Sacred Valley of the Inca
Kantas Ray

As the Inca gateway to the Amazon, the citadel at Pisac played an important role in controlling trade, regulating warring factions and diminishing robbery. Perched on a rocky crag at the top of an exposed ridge, winters must have been challenging for the lonely isolated community of gatekeepers. Expansive terraces line all available land in the surrounding hillsides, speaking to both the industry of the Inca and the great need for bountiful harvests in summer to provide sustenance through the cold winter months. Cobblestone cart roads led to Cuzco.

Kantas Ray, Pisac, Peru

The sheer beauty of landscape and ruins was spellbinding with fluffy white clouds marching across the sky in the crisp clean mountain air.

Pisac Intihuatana

Down a narrow dangerous path through a narrow mountain cave lies the trail to a plateau where Inca worshiped the sun god. Here, when the conquistadors took the citadel in Cuzco, the emperor fled with his followers. Steep, nearly impassible hillsides protect the site and even today it is a harrowing trail to hike. The narrow rocky dirt trail and steep stone steps without safety railings or protective walls add to the danger. One slip and it is a long way down before there is any possibility of stopping a fall. Now, short on time before sunset and hiking alone, was not a good time to rush on for a look-see,  so I reluctantly turned around and carefully retraced my steps.


Pisac Intihautana, Peru, Sacred Valley of the Inca
Pisac Intihautana

For us, Pisac epitomized the highland culture with its living vibrant traditions. Today this culture remains as effective for survival as it was six centuries ago at the height of the Inca empire. Reluctantly we packed our bags that night to continue our explorations in Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu.

This story will be continued in Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu. For the preceding article in this series see “Cusco to Pisac in the Sacred Valley of the Incas“; follow the attached link for the third article in this series, Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu; for coastal Peru see Adventurous Pursuits in Coastal Peru by Monique Burns. Click here for more articles by John. See also the Peru-Travel page.