Cusco and the Sacred Valley

Located high in the Andes mountains at 3,400 m (11,200 ft), Cusco was a capital of the Incan empire from the 13th century until the Spanish conquistadors took control in the 16th century. For this reason, Cusco is generally considered the most important Incan city. For my final cycle break, Luke, Kirsten and I decided to head to discover Peru. Cusco was our first stop.

Accustomed to Quito’s bustling streets and heavy pollution, I found Cusco completely refreshing. Walking from a traditional market to the impressive Plaza de Armas, there is a clear mixture of indigenous and modern influence. The pristine streets showcase authentic Incan architectural design, and a leisurely 10-minute walk will take you to the famous Temple of the Sun, or to my absolute delight, a Starbucks.

To get a taste of Cusco on our first day, we took a free(!) walking tour of the city. I will admit that this was not the greatest walking tour, but we’re on a budget, so we will take what we can get. The tour took us to a traditional market, to see a demonstration of Incan music (and for Luke to snap a picture with a llama), to the Plaza de Armas, which is home to a few incredible churches, and to the temple of the sun. The historic part of Cusco isn’t very big, so after the quick tour we headed back to the Temple of the Sun.

The Temple of the Sun, or Qoricancha, was one of the most important temples of the Incan empire. The lawn outside held hundreds of solid gold statues, and the walls were ornately decorated in pure gold. It was somewhat difficult to imagine, after so many years and a Spanish catholic facelift, the splendor of this temple, but due to the brilliant Incan mind for construction, the building has survived through the years. Inside the temple were many exhibits about the Incans, ranging from the agricultural and customs calendars (requiring sacrifices of children and llamas alike), to a large painting of the Incan sky. The Incans were astronomers far beyond their time. What I found was most interesting, was that their constellations did not come from the stars, but from the black spaces in the Milky Way. These took the shapes of things like pumas, llamas, and a snake. For this reason, the Incas built their cities to reflect these constellations. Cusco is shaped like a puma, Pisac is a partidge, and Machu Picchu is a condor.

After our Machu Picchu adventures, which I will blog about later, Luke and I took to the Sacred Valley to visit a few more Incan ruins. Otherwise known as the Urubamba valley, this lush valley stretches from Cusco to Machu Picchu. It covers the high Andean mountains, and flows down to a more temperate climate. The scenery was completely stunning as we drove to three different ruins.

Our first stop was at Pisac. Here we saw the genius of Incan terraces for farming. The terraces are not straight lines, but are each curved. Had they been curved, they would have collapsed years ago from earthquakes. The curve in the terrace allows the wall to move slightly without destroying it. Additionally, each 15 terraces, the temperature drops 1 degree Celsius. So, this ancient civilization was able to cultivate a diverse range of food on these very terraces. Interestingly, the Incas were able to pair seeds together to actually cultivate different species of foods—potatoes that are traditionally toxic to the human body were mixed with others to become eatable, and foods not found in the region were found on these terraces, grown in the perfect conditions. Our tour guide kept telling us that “this was not a coincidence”. They knew what they were doing. Pisac also showcased thousands of tombs. When Incas were buried, they were mummified in the fetal position, and were buried with lots of gold. While the gold was all pillaged years ago, little holes remain where they were, which is high on a cliffside.

Secondly, we came to Ollantaytambo, which I found to be the most beautiful. These ruins are located at the intersection of three valley, and feature a refrigerator of sorts high in the mountains that used the cooling effects of the wind to preserve food. There were also terraces here, which used soil from the Amazon region. Yes, they hauled dirt from the Amazon. Additionally, there was an incomplete temple of the sun and the moon. They were never finished because of the Spanish invasion, but from what we can see, the rocks used to make the wall of the temple of the sun actually came from a completely different mountain. Again, these Incas (taxes were paid in labor, so they had a lot of free, somewhat disposable labor), hauled the enormous rocks to build the temple from valleys located kilometers away. It really is remarkable what went into these constructions. As if this construction could be more impressive, in the mountain close to the ruins, there is an Incan face carved into the side. On the summer equinox, from the temple of the sun, the light streams right through the face. If this were just a slight degree off, the effect wouldn’t work. How amazing!

Our final stop was at Chincero, a church that was converted from the Incas into a Jesuit church. There was a mass going on at the time, so we were only able to take a quick peak. But, again, the influences of both Spanish and Incas were prominent– The foundation was clearly from the Incas, but the church was Spanish. Our guide also told us that in one of the main churches in Cusco this dual influence could be seen in a painting of the last supper, which featured a guinea pig instead of lamb as the main entree.

Cusco and the surrounding area is remarkable, both for the landscape and for the rich history. When we were not exploring the pristine streets of the city, we dined on alapaca burgers or steaks, lomo saltado (a beef stir fry dish), and sipped on Pisco sours. After being somewhat exhausted with Quito, this trip was exactly what I needed to remember everything good about South America. Cusco was charming, and I wish that I could have stayed to enjoy its beauty a little bit longer. But, new adventures called, and after an enjoyable time in Cusco, we were off to hike the Salkantay trail to Machu Picchu.


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