I touch down in Cusco exhausted. The woman seated next to me on the flight had a phone that kept “accidentally” ringing throughout the short one hour flight. Whilst the tunes were quite catchy, needless to say, I did not sleep. Disembarking, I meet a couple of TV journalists. They are very curious about me and my blond hair,but I shake free of them at baggage claim. As promised, Oscar, a kind mustached man, is waiting outside with a placard and transports me to the hostel. He settles me in on the balcony with a cup of coca tea which is meant to stave off altitude sickness. I am to stay a couple days in Cusco in order to get acclimated to the altitude before I begin my trek to Machu Picchu. I sleep for what seems like half the day, only to wake alone in a strange room to bright noonday sun. I gather some essential belongings and venture out to explore Cusco.
The city is bustling with tourists and backpackers, and the occasional local person, perched in a storefront selling handicrafts. A few girls dressed in traditional clothing walk about cradling lambs, and for the price of a sol, you can take their picture. Aside from the teeming tourists, the city and the scenery itself are remarkable. The main square is sun drenched with a fountain extolling the center in lustrous gold. Stonefaced cathedrals line the outside. Weary travelers perch on steps like pigeons; sitting targets for panderers of sunglasses, paintings, and other handicrafts. The beginnings of the Andes peek over the buildings; dusky and promising, alternating patches of shadows with houses stacked one atop the next like boxes. I feel so very small amidst the bustle of the square and the grandness of the mountains in this city, the former center of the Incan world. Cusco still exudes a certain energy; there is the underlining feeling that something is about to happen. Trekkers use Cusco as a stopover before they venture on the Inca trail to find Machu Picchu; to bear witness to this wonder of the world. I cannot wait to leave behind these dusty steps and join them.
The next day is reserved for another day of acclimating before I begin my trek, and I decide to embark on a guided tour of the Sacred Valley. Reasonably priced for a ten hour adventure, the bus shuttles us around the mountains stopping in Pisac, Ollantaytambo, and Chinchero. I am a bit put off when a tourist market is the first stop instead of the promised ruins; however, the stop is brief and I find solace in chatting with two other folks from China and Slovenia who are equally anxious to see the ruins. Our first stop is Pisac, named for the local bird that used to habitate the area. The site was built over six centuries ago as an extension of Cusco, the axis of the Incan trade world. Pisaq could just as well be called “the giant’s staircase”: 16 terraces, 3-6 meters tall, ascend the mountainside in what was once a thriving, if not revolutionary, agricultural zone. In order to ensure good crops,the soil in the terrace came from the jungle and the valley. Unlike most ancient civilizations, the Incans were able to grow enough food to feed and sustain their population, making them the first true pioneers of domestic agriculture.
The Incans built here in the mountains instead of in the valley for military purposes but also to be closer to God. The spiritual sector in Pisac culminates with three mountaintops to form a celestrial center point known for its tangible magnetic energy. Pukara and Pachatusan are used to mark the summer and winter solstice (June 21st and December 21st), whereas Lin Lin, delineates the equinox. As I stand amidst these mountains, I am privy to a view of hundreds of holes on the surface of Lin Lin. Pisaq is the home of the largest cemetary from Incan times, with 10,000 womb-like tombs carved into the mountainsides. The deceased were placed in the fetal position, laden with gold and silver, and wrapped in nine blankets. Pisac sits juxtaposed to life and death. From where I am standing, I can see both the beginning and the end, marked by the solstices but also in the growth that blossomed in the terraces and the death burrowed away in the mountainside.
Our next stop, Ollantaytambo, served as both a military check point as well as a resting stop along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Standing from atop of the mountainside, you can see the village below that touts the existence of original walls mixed in with more modern ones while still maintinining the same design from centuries ago. It reminds me of a maze. What I find most interesting is the Sun and Moon temple. Three carved figures are stacked on top of each other. They are meant to represent the Quechua worldview: the world is not round, but like a staircase. There are also seven stone faced carvings that coincide with the seven sisters constellation that is visible from this spot on the soltices. Laying about are massive stones that assumedly were meant to be used in building the temple. Weighing in at seven tons each, these stones were lugged from a quarry 8 kilometers away! It is hard to fathom how this was made possible by the hands of mere humans; but the act was re-created by a skeptic in 1993. At first, the group of local people were unable to pull the stones. After much struggle, they realized their mindset was wrong and they altered their tactics. They needed to do it the way their ancestors would have, utilizing their spirituality and connection to God. It worked, and they were able to pull the stones. I may have missed critical details of this story so aptly told by our guide; however, I was truly intrigued by it. A few years ago I visited, Tiwanaku, a site in Bolivia, with similar stones. There is much skepticism surrounding the construction of a pyramid there because it appears impossible for people to have gotten the stones there without a known water source nearby, as well as fitting them seemlessly into place without advanced technology. Extraterrestrials are often credited by some scholars to have been the masterminds behind these precarious structures.
Our last stop is Chinchero, a picturesque village complete with adobe roofs. The original structure served as a palace for the 10th Incan ruler but was later transformed into a 17th century Spanish Catholic chapel. The chapel is spectacular; your immediate reaction is to reach for your camera but photography is prohibited, though our guide points out that the church sells postcard pictures of it. Never underestimate the Catholic church’s aptitude to profit off their religion. Like most Catholic churhes, it is decadent. The walls climb with paintings of potato flowers, a testiment to the Quechua influence of the painters that were paid to do the work; this being one last act of cultural resistance against their Spanish invaders. The chapel is laden with the sublties of two disparate religions, making it a most unique place indeed.
I am very gratified that I have been a member of this tour of the Sacred Valley and that I had the opportunity to visit such sacred places. We embark on one last trip to a weaving workshop and then we head back to Cusco, where my next adventure to Machu Picchu awaits me tomorrow.
Yvonne Leclair is a researcher and blogger with the Karikuy Volunteer Program in Lima, Peru.