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Published: August 27th 2012
Extraordinary craftsmanship, OllantaytamboAnd then there was one...after over ten months of non-stop, intrepid travel around South America, Alex has decided to return to the UK and to the family, friends and creature comforts we've been denying ourselves for the better part of a year. My fuel tank, however, still has a fair bit left in it and I will be continuing the journey through Peru, Bolivia and Brazil, hopefully to its planned conclusion this December. So if I say "we" from now on, it's purely out of habit...
The handles are thought to have been used to maneuver the huge stones into place
There is an awful lot more to Cusco than Machu Picchu - as spellbinding as the famed citadel is, it would be criminal to come to Cusco and not venture out into the Sacred Valley, the name often given to the Río Urubamba valley which runs roughly east-west a couple of hours' drive to the north of the city. The valley, hemmed in by snowbound peaks, is a beautiful sight in itself - it was settled and farmed long before the Inca arrived, but when they did they really got to work: the valley is an absolute treasure-trove of spectacular Inca ruins which - although their names, Ollantaytambo, Pisac, Moray, do not have the
ring of Machu Picchu to them - deserve as much recognition as their more famous neighbour.
Travelling solo after ten months with Alex comes as something of a change, and I plan a gentle circuit through the Sacred Valley to get myself used to the idea. From Cusco I head northwards to the small village of Písac - locally famous for its craft market - which is overlooked by a vast Inca complex of watchtowers, temples and, above all, huge sweeping terraces with cover the hillsides over the modern town. The steep climb up in the baking heat is rewarded with fabulous views over a huge swath of the Urubamba valley, and lots of brilliant clambering opportunities among the 600 year-old ruins, which cover the hill in an exhilarating maze.
From Písac the road runs alongside the Urubamba river through tiny Andean communities to the town of Ollantaytambo, known to most visitors to Peru as the boarding point for the train towards Machu Picchu. Ollantaytambo itself is a gem of a place, its plan not having changed since the days of the Incas: cobbled streets, houses built on unmistakeably Inca foundations, water channels everywhere. Not to mention the
huge Inca complex of temples and terraces standing guard over the "modern" town, which contains some particularly wonderful examples of famous Inca masonry, with stones fitted together so perfectly that not even a sheet of paper can be pushed into the spaces between them. As in Písac, the ruins of Ollantaytambo are a perfect place to spend hours and hours wandering along the steep terraces, walking along vertigo-inducing, cliff-hugging paths, and wondering what this incredible place must have looked like only 500 years ago. Over to the other side of town, perched on an unbelievably steep hillside, are the remains of the granaries used by the Incas to store what they produced - cleverly, the ruins are swept by constant winds which would have helped keep the stored crops dry and free of mould. Clever Incas!
Using Ollantaytambo (with its wonderful restaurants and cafés - I even managed to find some banoffee pie there...) as a base, I spent a morning in the delightful village of Chinchero, famous for its colourful Sunday market. While the outer sections of the market were given over, inevitably, to the ubiquitous (but nonetheless beautiful) crafts aimed at foreign visitors, the central food area
was simply astounding. Dozens of Andean women dressed head to toe in traditional garb had decended from their tiny communities around the valley to buy, sell and barter. Herbs, potatoes and maize of all shapes and colours, fruit and vegetables changed hands amid gossip and chatter conducted, quite naturally, in Quechua. Many of the more elderly ladies seemed to barely speak any Spanish at all - even after over four centuries of Spanish dominion in Peru, there are isolated communities here where the language of the Incas still rules. Incredible. And splendid.
A little way west of Chinchero is the particularly mysterious Inca site of Moray, a collection of deep, concentric circular terraces which resemble crop circles more than anything else. Again, we will never know exactly what the Incas used the site for, but archaeologists have proposed that - due to the extreme differences in temperature and microclimate experienced by the different levels - Moray was some sort of Inca agricultural laboratory, where the growing conditions for different varieties of crops were investigated. It's certainly an interesting theory, and it is indeed said that farmers in the Sacred Valley, who still work terraces as the Incas did, know
exactly at which level to plant each type of potato, each variety of maize. A beautiful and easy hour-long walk north of the village of Maras, the access point for the terraces of Moray, are the spellbinding salt terraces of Salinas. These salt pans tumble down a steep hillside in a blinding display of whites. The way in which salt is harvested here - and has been since the days of the Incas - is quite wonderful: at the top of the hill, a warm and intensely salty spring emerges from the rock face. The water is then channeled through a maze-like system of canals to hundreds of evaporation ponds scattered down the hillside. As the water evaporates and the salt crystallises, it is harvested by hand by a local cooperative from Maras, packed into sacks and carried out for sale. Each pan is worked by a different personm and the maintenance of the water channels and the opening and closing of the myriad tiny dams all require a huge degree of cooperation between the hundreds of workers, to ensure that everybody gets his or her fair share of spring water. In addition to being a thoroughly extraordinary sight, the
salt pans of Maras are a particularly harmonious and gratifying example of community cooperation.
Back in Cusco, the capital city of the Incas itself is not short on extraordinary sights: its miles and miles of cobblestoned streets make for some wonderful aimless wandering. It's almost impossible to walk a hundred metres in Cusco without stumbling upon beautifully fashioned Inca foundations or intricately carved colonial Spanish churches. Cusco's heady blend of precolombian and colonial is compelling and beautiful. High above town, the monumental fortress of Saqsaywamán (which, as you might assume, is indeed known to foreigners as "Sexy Woman") with its immense, minutely-carved limestone blocks - some of which are estimated to weigh well over one hundred tonnes - is particularly impressive. The fortress's jagged walls are thought to have been built to resemble the teeth of a puma, an intensely sacred animal for the Incas, with Saqsaywamán its head and Cusco its body. The site's absolutely massive walls were ingeniously built to withstand earthquakes - wchich they did very well indeed. They did not, however, withstand the Spanish, who systematically took the complex to pieces after they gained control of Cusco at the end of the sixteenth century. One
Letting them know who's boss...
A Catholic church built right on top of the foundations of an Inca palace...nice, tactful behaviour by the new Spanish overlords!
wonders what the place would look like if they'd left it alone...How were Saqsaywamán's colossal blocks transported up the steep hillside without wheels? How were such huge pieces of stone shaped so exactly that you can't even slide a banknote between them? How were the site's structures oriented so precisely by a civilisation to whom writing was unknown? These questions, perhaps unanswerable, continue to puzzle archaeologists and visitors to this day. The Sacred Valley still holds many secrets...
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