El Valle Sagrado de los Incas

As I suggested previously, there is a lot to see in and around Cusco. This place is bathed in Inca history and culture.

One afternoon between morning rounds and the afternoon lectures, a couple of us took a cab to Saqsayhuaman. This site is located about 15 minutes above and to the north of Cusco. From the top you get a wonderful view of city. The site itself is actually pre-Inca. The Incas added some of their own touches and the Spanish ruined large parts of it, pilfering stone to build churches in Cusco. Starting there and through our tour of El Valle Sagrado de los Incas, it became clear to me how little people know about what, how and why the Incas did what they did.  The guides that we engaged at Saqsayhuaman and later for a day long trip along the Urubamba River offered up their version. They are justly proud of their heritage and understandably bitter about the European invaders so the spin that they put into their presentations makes sense. I have subsequently read somewhat different explanations on the web. It is always fun to speculate but that is all that it is. I am sucker for modern day efforts to reproduce the tools and technology used in the past, but it is safe to say that our 21st century efforts using hypothesized 15th century technology fall far short of what the Inca people actual accomplished.  These speculators were either dead wrong or their clumsy efforts further underscore how masterful Inca engineers and builders really were.  Today’s pre-stressed concrete and glass structures, erected with complex machinery pale in comparison, if not in scale then at least in grandeur and mystery. Further, it looks like the Incas did not change the environment to accommodate the structure like we do. Everything that I saw seemed to fit in with the topography that was (and is) there. Maybe they had no other choice because they lacked heavy construction machinery that could destroy and then rehabilitate the environment (unless you still believe that this was all the work of aliens). These were and are remarkable people.

I was really surprised at how verdant the rolling hills outside of Cusco are. It reminded me of the farm country along the Mohawk River Valley and on south of there in upstate NY. There were patchworks of various shades of green dotted with the colorful flower blossoms of potato, corn, quinoa and a wide variety of other vegetables. Heading up the valley, the fields give way to more steep landscape that is terraced for planting. This style of construction and agriculture is the sine qua non for an Inca community. It is pretty remarkable that in many locations these areas are still being cultivated, the structural integrity still intact. The magnitude and breadth of the terraces is particularly evident at Pisac where it is possible to get a really panoramic view of them snaking around the irregular contour and marching up the slopes, covering a vast area.

Further up the valley we visited Ollantaytambo. Although not as famous or as isolated as Machu Picchu, it is nonetheless spectacular. You have to climb a steep stairway of large stones to gain access to the terraces and the upper reaches with their buildings. Horses could not have climbed them and foot soldiers would have struggled, their clanking armor providing an alarm for awaiting adversaries. I won’t venture a guess as to the height but it is a very impressive exposure, dizzying actually, when you walk along the edge. Some large stones lying around randomly on one of the flat areas at the upper reaches provided evidence that the site was never finished but that their plans were ambitious. Some had the remains of elaborate three-dimensional surface carvings, most of which had been defaced by the Spaniards. You can also see where the large stones came from – over a mountain, along a river and then up a graded earth-ramp to the top. The view from the top to the old town below and the other side are spectacular.

Chinchero was our last stop. Even though we missed their famous Sunday Inca market we did get what was billed as a private demonstration session showing how they produce the fabrics sold at the market. The most interesting part was how they made dyes from natural products by mixing mostly plant-based powders in water. By using more than one dye on consecutive dips almost magically they transformed one color into another. They even crushed dead beetles to produce a vibrant red used for makeup.

This is only part of what I saw and certainly not much of a detailed description. There are plenty of references on the web and I did take a few picts if you want to see more.  Read 1491 to get one revisionist’s view. Machu Picchu seems to be THE destination but there is more than enough to see just in the Valley for a lot less money.


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