Street scene in Pisac, Peru

Street scene in Pisac, Peru

It’s only a few blocks drive along Pisac’s narrow streets before the central plaza appears.  Only one side of the plaza is visible on this Thursday morning, and scattered among its handicraft shops are a café with wi-fi, a pizzeria, and an ATM.

Artisans' market lane, Pisac, Peru

Artisans’ market lane, Pisac, Peru

The other sides are hidden by the sea of market stalls which covers the plaza, sheltered by a canopy of plastic tarps connected overhead one to the other and billowing in the occasional breeze. Pisac has the looks of a place able to house no more than a couple of thousand souls, but today is a market day and the stalls spill into narrow side-streets.

Jewelry vendor at the artisan market, Pisac, Peru

Jewelry vendor at the artisan market, Pisac, Peru

The quality and originality of the work offered here blurs the distinction between artisanship and art. The unquestioned centerpiece of this market is an awe-inspiring array of hand-woven textiles in brilliant natural dyes that employ both traditional and original designs. Here these fabrics can be found fashioned into everything from alpaca sweaters and scarves to sturdy backpacks.

Native artisan weaving on a simple belt loom

Native artisan weaving on a simple belt loom

There’s also plenty of visually arresting work in wood, leather, and stone – including acres of jewelry – and artisans can sometimes be seen working on a new piece while tending shop. A knowledgeable collector with deep enough pockets can find great values here, but no small number of the more moderately priced items turn out to be available at artisan markets across Perú.

Artisan bakery at the market, Pisac, Peru

Artisan bakery at the market, Pisac, Peru

The smell of freshly baked bread drifts from a brick oven, and there’s no way to resist sampling a still-warm loaf before departing.  A dozen guinea pigs –  soon to be  bound for the dinner table – graze in a nearby pen.

The Spanish built the present-day town of Pisac along the Urubamba River half a century after the Conquest, but the surviving terraces of its predecessor, Inca Pisac, are still draped across the mountains above less than three miles drive away.

View from terrace of the Pisac ruins

View from terrace of the Pisac ruins

The signature terraces – stacked 40 high –  are visible throughout much of the switch-backed drive from the market.  Their design takes advantage of mountain runoff by channeling it through the fields on its way to the river below.

The terraces also served to prevent erosion and landslides, and contained rich soil hauled from the valley below that enabled Inca farmers to produce crops otherwise unsustainable at these altitudes.

Farmers' homes top the terraces

Farmers’ homes top the terraces

Stonework first visible as no more than a thin line along the terrace crown resolves itself at closer range into the buildings of a village which once housed several hundred inhabitants.

Inca ruins at Pisac, Peru

Inca ruins at Pisac, Peru

The buildings are scattered across nearly two square miles of the slope, and include fortifications, aqueducts, granaries, homes, and ceremonial spaces.

Ramparts above homes and terraces, Pisac, Peru

Ramparts above homes and terraces, Pisac, Peru

The ramparts of the Q’allaqasa – the citadel – contain 20 towers that overlook the site from a perch on the ridge above the terraces.

Ramparts seen from above, ruins at Pisac, Peru

Ramparts seen from above, ruins at Pisac, Peru

At the temple to the sun god,  shadows cast by a rock outcropping known to the Incas as “the hitching post of the sun” are believed to mark the change of seasons.

Inca burial caves, Pisac, Peru

Inca burial caves, Pisac, Peru

What appear to be the mouths of small caves in a nearly inaccessible hillside across a ravine from the settlement are actually the face of an Inca cemetery not yet fully excavated by archeologists.

Incredibly enough, skeletons are still visible in some of the open-air crypts.

Close-up of Inca burial caves, Pisac, Peru

Close-up of Inca burial caves, Pisac, Peru

Two thoughts stay with me on the ride back down the mountain.

The first thought is that while lowlanders’ perspective of mountains is bottom-up, the Inca hung their fields from mountain ridges and villages which anchored them, connected by mountain trails known only to them.

Perhaps this is unsurprising, since the Inca migrated to the Sacred Valley from higher altitudes to the south, but it reflects a valuation of geography that’s fundamentally different from that of the Spanish conquerors.

The second thought is sheer amazement that the Inca society – without benefit of the wheel, the arch, or the horse – managed to produce such monumental architecture in the space of about only 100 years.   It begs the question of what contribution the Inca might have made to human development if not for the Conquest.

Tomorrow is reserved for even more spectacular ruins and charming village of Ollantaytambo, where urban Inca construction can be seen in homes still in use today.

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