Pisac and the Sacred Valley

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May 17th 2013
Published: November 20th 2013
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Pisac from Cusco

with a trip to remote Lares Hot Springs

Behind Cusco, the capital of the Incan Empire, lies the Sacred Valley of the Inca, so named because the impressive settlements along its Urubamba River were royal preserves of the emperors.

These royal estates, from Pisac to Machu Picchu, were spectacularly sited on mountains with views in all directions, and their temples were constructed of the exquisite stone work for which the Inca are famous. The valley is also 700 meters lower than Cusco's 3500mt/11,480 ft, and thus warmer and sunnier--a good place for a winter home.

I first came to Pisac to explore the ruins for a day and later returned for over a week to enjoy the little Andean town. The ride from Cusco was gorgeous over mountains, still green in late April, past small adobe settlements and agricultural terraces before descending into the Sacred Valley.

Graceful, Green Terraces

Upon arriving in Pisac, I waited for others to fill a taxi for the four vertical, but ten switchbacking kilometers up to the ruins, accompanied by curving terraces on all sides. My companions arranged for the taxi to wait for them to return, while I decided to savor my day and walk down the mountain.

Throughout the valley, many still-used, Incan terraces rose from the river up the steep mountains to 3350mt/11,000 ft. Topsoil had been hauled by hand to the top terraces to expand the area available for farming to provide a surplus to feed urban Cusco.

The graceful, curving terraces also helped stabilize the soil to prevent landslides in this seismically active land and acted as defensive barriers. They were a key to the survival and expansion of the Incan Empire and eye candy for us visitors.

At the site, we passed through a gauntlet of trinket sellers and guides, and I showed my expensive, recently purchased Boleto Touristico/Tourist Ticket. The ticket was good for ten days, six of which I'd spend at archaeological sites, generally seen by others on one- or two-day tours.

Incan Pisac

Pisac is one of the largest Incan sites and spreads around several mountains with paths, tunnels, bridges and ladders connecting the various sectors and with curving, agricultural terraces descending the steep gorges. I spent a fabulous day exploring the buildings and imagining life 500 years ago.

I first arrived at an area of workers' housing of rough-built, field stones and mortar, followed by a hillside with water channeled into fountains and baths, and then up to a citadel-like compound at the sites' highest point.

Across the river was an extraordinary sight--the largest Incan cemetery ever found. From the fortress, it looked like swallows' nests honeycombing the sheer mountainside (see panorama above). Closer inspection revealed these were hundreds of adobe and stone tombs on ledges and in hollows that had been broken into by grave robbers (photo bottom of page ). One wonders what treasures they found!

From here, a fun trail led around the mountain, through a monumental, perfectly cut stone gate, up steep staircases and a ladder, down a tunnel that opened to a grand view, past lookout towers to the highlight of the city--the temple area.

Ceremonial Center

The many buildings in this sacred area were of the finest Incan stonework, constructed without mortar and of the perfectly cut, beveled and fitted, rectangular blocks of the Imperial Style comparable to those at the most sacred Incan site, the Qoriconcha in Cusco.

As at Machu Picchu, there was a huge, volcanic bedrock carved with enigmatic, astronomical markers surrounded by a half-rounded Temple of the Sun. There was also a Temple of the Moon, baths, altars, water fountains, and a ceremonial platform--all of that miraculous stonework. I then descended to fine dwellings arranged in a semi-circle on the edge of a spur, thought to be the homes of the nobles, and then watchtowers and adobe storehouses, still intact after 500 years.

After a lovely day exploring, I hiked down to the valley and town below, first on a long trail winding around the cliffs (and confusingly forking a bit), then on knee-wracking Incan stone steps, over a rustic bridge, down a hand-built ladder and layers of ancient terraces, past a couple of waterfalls and into the colorful chaos of the Pisac market.

After visiting the town a bit, I returned to Cusco. The following day, I followed a different route over the mountains to the Sacred Valley to visit the ruins and town of Ollantaytambo. I'd return to Pisac for a proper stay once my Tourist Ticket had expired.

Pisac, Tourist Town

I returned in mid-May to a basic pension up a steep street above the market with a garden and mountain views. It was next to the church, whose bells rang out a concert every sunrise and sunset. In this lovely low season, I often had the place to myself.

Pisac is a charmingly spruced up Andean town of 3,000 with streets of stone, rock and water channels, painted adobes and the most tourist amenities in the valley. There were upscale restaurants, notices for yoga and meditation groups and Ulrike's Cafe where I indulged in carrot cake and used the wifi and book exchange. There was even a little market with western treats including the only place with drip coffee for my filter. My kind of town!

Every day, I enjoyed walks up into the hills or along the Rio Urubamba. All along the meandering river, there are stretches where the Inca walled it in to prevent flooding and conserve agricultural land. Here in Pisac is a 3km stretch, considered the longest pre-Columbian canal in the Americas.

The rainy season should have been over by the beginning of May, but
colorful tourist street with surrounding mountainscolorful tourist street with surrounding mountainscolorful tourist street with surrounding mountains

and water channel running down the center
due to climate change, it was cloudy and rainy throughout the month. This wrecked havoc with the corn and potato crops that had been harvested and were drying in the fields. Daily, farmers had to rush to cover the crops when the rain began and lots of the crops rotted. There would be hungry subsistence farmers this winter.

Sunday Market

Pisac's artisan market is perhaps the most famous in Peru. Unfortunately, it's set up in the plaza, so there's no plaza to hang out in. While there's talk of moving it, nothing's been done. The guide books say the market is three days a week, but really the stalls were set up every day, and it could be wise to visit on the mellow days the tour buses didn't pull up.

I walked through the colorful market each day leaving my place and got to know several of the sellers who work six or seven days a week and have to set up and dismantle the stalls every day. While there wasn't much business when I was there, I imagine it's a chaotic zoo in the high season. Some of beautiful textiles, ceramics and decorated gourds were produced in the valley, but others were from either Peruvian or Chinese factories--buyers beware!

The Sunday market is the largest because the artisan market is joined by an indigenous produce one. In the mountains that ring Pisac, Quechua people live in villages, some of which are hours away and inaccessible by vehicle. They have long walks into town with their donkeys laden with produce and perhaps textiles to barter or sell.

I loved buying my salad fixings and fruit here. The delicious oca in the panorama photo was one of many varieties of potato I'd buy when I had a kitchen back in Cusco. Stalls were set up Sunday selling delicious cooked food, and I joined locals on benches for fabulous soups and other treats.

To see people in traditional clothing, I went to the Sunday morning mass in Quechua with beautiful singing. After the mass, the chiefs in their full regalia posed for photos and took a collection from tourists--a win-win solution.

Lares Hot Springs

I love soaking in warm water in the midst of nature, so I caught a bus to the administrative town of Calca and then waited a long time until a minibus was full. We then wound up a narrow dirt road into endless chains of mountains. We passed Incan and pre-Incan ruins, waterfalls, and three-house settlements where people in traditional clothing tended alpaca and goats--it was too high for anything but bunch grasses to grow.

We ended up in Lares, a tiny, high mountain village. So amazing to think that for those from the surrounding, isolated settlements, Lares was their "big city," but for anyone else, it was miniscule. Such different perspectives!

From the plaza, I walked about 45 minutes up a peaceful gorge to the landscaped grounds of the Lares complex. There, several pools were nestled in the towering mountains and serenaded by the rushing river. As I entered the hottest pool and melted into the water, a drizzle began that kept the weekday crowds away. I stayed a few hours going from hot pools to a large, tepid one where I could do laps to the strong "showers" that gave fine massages. Finally, the rain stopped, more people arrived and I left.

I got back to Lares just as the rain started again and waited an hour until there were enough people to fill the van. Unfortunately, the driver was crazed and took the zillions of curves way too fast in the rain. We narrowed missed a head-on crash with a truck, and people were barfing from his wild driving. But then, we made it back, so all the drama became nothing more than an eye roll and a travel story.

After a bit over a week in Pisac, I caught a couple of funky, chicken buses further up the Sacred Valley to Ollantaytambo. I needed a place to leave my suitcase and start my slow journey to Machu Picchu since I wanted to be there on the full moon. Sometimes, even I have deadlines!

Additional photos below
Photos: 42, Displayed: 28


trail along the Urubamba Rivertrail along the Urubamba River
trail along the Urubamba River

with many sweet spots for reading and watching the river
harvested corn fieldharvested corn field
harvested corn field

or abstract painting
harvested corn spread out to dryharvested corn spread out to dry
harvested corn spread out to dry

the rain continued into the dry season, destroying much of the crop
from citadel across curving terracesfrom citadel across curving terraces
from citadel across curving terraces

to workers quarters at top of photo
robbed adobe and stone tombsrobbed adobe and stone tombs
robbed adobe and stone tombs

covered a mountainside

20th November 2013
field of red quinoa

I had no idea that's what it looked like.
20th November 2013
field of red quinoa

It's gorgeous!
There's also black quinoa, but the red and the black varieties are available mostly in health food stores. People export this and eat white rice instead. It's beautiful though and this is the UN Year of Quinoa! Yum!
20th November 2013

amazing scenery
What adventures! I love the colorful clothes and hotsprings. For a coffee-producing region it is wierd that it is so hard to find... No Sendero Luminosa in sight, huh? We met them twice in that general area, but that was a few years back now.
20th November 2013

Sendero Luminosa!
Wow Kaye, you're such an adventurer--I'd love to hear of your encounter! Now the Shining Path is pretty much in the coca-growing jungle. I do buy Peruvian drip coffee, but supermarkets have 1/2 shelf for this and 4 for instant brands--like quinoa, the good stuff is for export! Happy camping!
21st November 2013

Walk along Urubamba River
The trail along the Urubamba River is quite captivating. Would love to get lost there and walk along the trail for one full day and enjoy the natural beauty of the place. Sounds weird but believe me its more fun finding new and unexplored places than walk on the same path that has been walked over the years.
21st November 2013

So many trails
Glad you liked that Urubamba trail, Martin! All over the Sacred Valley, there were amazing places to walk, deep in nature and in great beauty. Happy hiking!
22nd November 2013
village boys

royal preserves of the emperors.
Like a meandering stream...or a butterfly hovering over a flower...Tara you have done it again. Lovely pics and the triples on page 1 superb, particularly lines 2 & 3 for the lines of colour and corn compared to water...nicely done!
22nd November 2013
village boys

Meandering stream...
I like your word images, David, and glad you enjoyed the artsy shots. Between incredible nature and traditionally dressed people, that valley is so picturesque I was in love!
23rd November 2013

thanks for your kind comments. Amazing photos with this blog, such colourful clothing and the scenery is incredible. With metta Rob & Lorenza
23rd November 2013

A visual delight!
Thanks for your kind comments, and yes, the visuals here are amazing--glad you enjoyed! With metta, Tara
23rd November 2013

Nice blog.
Hi Tara Cloud, I enjoy reading your blog. Very informative about the country I have never been and your photography just great. Totally awesome.
23rd November 2013

Thanks, Henry!
So glad to hear that you enjoy my photos and blog. Sometimes, I think I include too much information, so it's great to know that you like it.

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