Category: Perú’s Sacred Valley

Contemplating Cusco

For the Incas, all roads led to Cusco.  The city’s name is a corruption of the Inca word for “center,” and it was for them the “navel of the world”, the place from which roads to the four compass points linked the capital with the four regions through which it administered the empire. The Incas’ mark on the city was largely erased by the Spaniards’ campaign of cultural genocide, but in the old city – as in Ollantaytambo – the conqueror’s architecture sits atop original Inca walls.

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Cusco’s Plaza de Armas as seen from Saksaywaman

Those walls rise, man-high, around narrow, tourist-packed streets that feel at times like walking through Florence. The old city comes alive at night, and there are easily enough good restaurants in Cusco to suit every taste and budget. Plan to stay no less than a couple of days and at least as many nights here to take in the essentials.

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Cusco’s historic center street view

The Spaniards were intent not just upon conquering the Inca, but upon obliterating the symbols and practices through which Inca society had been bound together.

Their obsession with building Catholic churches upon the ruins of Inca palaces and temples created two of the city’s most prominent attractions – the Qorikancha and the Cathedral de Santo Domingo.

The vast Plaza de Armas is Cusco’s center and a great place to people-watch, but it’s also the address of the Cathedral of Santo Domingo and older, adjacent Iglesia del Triunfo.

The cathedral is constructed of stone scavenged from Saksaywaman, the great archeological site in the hills above the city.

This UNESCO world heritage site was once occupied by the Inca’s palace and armory.  Work on the cathedral was finished more than a century after the church was completed.

It’s now a major repository of Cusco’s colonial art, archeological artifacts, and religious relics.  They’re all so fragile that photos are no long permitted… so this attraction has to be seen firsthand to be experienced, and it’s not to be missed.

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Convent & Church of Santo Domingo; site of the Qorikancha


The sprawling Convent of Santo Domingo is built upon the site of the Inca Qorikancha, a religious complex of five temples that was the spiritual heart of the empire.

Cloistered courtyard at the Convent of Santo Domingo

Cloistered courtyard at the Convent of Santo Domingo


Above ground, the only hint of its origins is the curved wall of perfectly fitted stones upon which the convent church now sits.





The cloistered courtyard within gives no further clues as to what lies beneath.

Inca chamber beneath the convent

Inca chamber beneath the convent









In two places, though, precise construction of the original Inca chambers is laid bare.








Earthquake-proof, trapezoidal windows align perfectly

Into the perfectly formed chambers are set windows and doors that narrow from bottom to top in earthquake-resistant design.

The Inca technique for mortarless walls used stone pins and catches to bind the blocks together.

It has survived dozens of earthquakes, including the massive quake of 1650 that leveled most of the Spanish construction above it.

Inca mortarless block


On a gold plaque is transcribed a copy of an earlier map showing the location of all structures in the original complex.


Inca map of the Qorinkancha before the conquest.

Inca map of the Qorinkancha before the conquest.

The short walk to the Qorikancha from the city center is already halfway to Cusco’s artisan market, located at the intersection of the Avenidas del Sol and Tullumayo.

Welcoming statue at the Cusco artisans' market.

Welcoming statue at the Cusco artisans’ market.

Mosaic mural at the Cusco artisans' market.

Mosaic mural at the Cusco artisans’ market.

While there’s been no lack of opportunity to shop the work of local artisans elsewhere, this market houses stalls of more than 100 artisans under one roof.

It showcases work in media including textiles, leather, wood, and stone.  Many can be seeing creating new works while minding their stalls.

The vendors are very engaging and the prices quite competitive.  An afternoon visit is recommended, as some stalls are closed mornings.

Statue of Christ overlooking Cusco at Saksaywaman.

Statue of Christ overlooking Cusco at Saksaywaman.



A giant statue of Christ with arms extended looks out over Cusco from the hills above.



Behind it are the ruins of Saksaywaman, sitting astride the compass-point entrance to the Cusco which it once controlled.

Ruins at Saksawywaman

Ruins at Saksawywaman








About half an hour’s drive from the city center, this site is draped across the hills.



Significant portions remain unexcavated, so it’s not as comprehensive as archeological sites  seen earlier.



This Inca cave used the elements to cure corpses into mummies.

This Inca cave used the elements to cure corpses into mummies.

It does, however, boast one particularly unusual feature:  An open-ended cave through which mountain breezes create a natural freeze-drying effect which the Inca found well-suited to the task of mummification.

Days in Cusco  may be filled with museums and monuments, but evenings are for walking the, narrow, warmly lit  streets of the old town, and for checking out the great dining scene.

(There’s still plenty of time this evening to try an alpaca steak and a quinoa beer.)

Time spent in Cusco flies by, but in Peru all good things seem to lead only to more good things.

Tomorrow morning, Peru Rail’s Andean Explorer heads south on a day-long trip that follows the Urubamba River valley to its headwaters before it emerges onto the high plains.  On its way to Lake Titicaca, it passes through the highest point of the trip – 14,170 feet.  (The scenery will take your breath away, too!)  Click here to come along for the ride.


The air is cool and a weak dawn filters through the clouds as I rub sleep from my eyes and hope that there’s someplace to buy coffee at this early hour. The heavy clouds seem to bode ill for a Machu Picchu sunrise, but visitors are undeterred as they queue up on a street corner waiting to board one of the busses that ferry everyone but Inca Trail hikers up the mountain and back.

The dirt road on which it ascends is full of switchback curves and narrow enough that the bus often has to back up a few yards to allow returning vehicles to pass.

Machu Picchu’s altitude is nearly a quarter of a mile higher than Aguascalientes’, and for the better part of a half hour the bus passes through the changing vegetation of several microclimates.

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The entrance gate sits above most of the archeological site, but the famous panoramic view can only be seen from the hillside above.


The lookout seems like a good place to gain bearings before diving into the ruins below.


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Wisps of clouds hang over the site and hover around the backdrop mountains, lending an otherworldly quality to the scene.

It would take an Ansel Adams to do justice to this stunning landscape.

Even at this hour, the overlook is crowded with earlier arrivals, including backpackers who’ve just hiked in on the Inca Trail.  Everyone seems to want a selfie with the ruins in the background.

The complex below doesn’t at first seem so big until I begin to measure heights and distances against the antlike streams of people passing through it.Machu Picchu 04


Machu Picchu 01I’m surprised to see the Urubamba River passing within hundreds of yards more than a thousand feet below, for it rarely appears in  photos.

In hindsight, though, it comes as no surprise that this inaccessible place was nevertheless built close to the Sacred Valley’s heartbeat.





At Machu Picchu, everything seen earlier in bits and pieces at Pisac and Ollantaytambo – the rounded temple walls with immaculately fitted stones, the terraces and homes, and the granaries and cemetery – are all pulled together in one incredible design.Machu Picchu 05

Machu Picchu 06

Machu Picchu 07


Machu Picchu 08Less than half of the ruins have been restored, but even in its unfinished state it is just as unquestionably original as it is a masterpiece.

The sun at last stabs through the clouds in a single beam that cuts all the way to the valley floor.

In less than twenty minutes the veil of clouds completely lifts and the ruins are bathed in sunlight.

Machu Picchu 09On the mountainside above, the Inca Trail winds its way down nearly 6,000 feet from its peak to pass through what was once the city’s main gate.







Machu Picchu 10A family of alpaca grazes on a meadow amidst the ruins, eyeing the photographers that surround them, but otherwise as indifferent as sacred cows.

Machu Picchu 11The Inca are so often presented as shapers of land that it’s interesting to see how they also integrated natural formations into their architecture.  Only the Roman ruins at Ephesus compare with the scope and sophistication of Machu Picchu, but there’s a different feel to this place.

Machu Picchu 12Clustered around temples set within a natural cathedral, it’s a place that impresses the visitor even more with its spirituality than with its construction.  It’s a feeling that recurs often in the Sacred Valley.

This site was abandoned less than 100 years after its completion as a consequence of the Conquest, which lends a particular sadness to its majesty.

Like Pompeii, it cannot help but evoke the sorrow of leaving home unwillingly and in haste, and it leaves forever open the question of what might have been.

The train departs  tomorrow afternoon, retracing the tracks to Ollantaytambo and then turning into the mountains before arriving at Cusco.  Come  along for a walk about the Inca capital.

PeruRail station at Ollantaytambo

PeruRail station at Ollantaytambo

River, road, and rails often run together through this part of the Valle Sagrada – the Sacred Valley – but the river road turns east into the mountains beyond Ollantaytambo , and anyone not trekking the Inca Trail into Machu Picchu must arrive by train.

The good news is that Peru Rail cars are clean and up to date, the seats are spacious and comfortable, and the ride takes little more than an hour.

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Inca platform on a cliff

The Urubamba River descends steadily from its headwaters on the far side of Cusco.  By the time it reaches Ollantaytambo, it has already dropped by nearly 2,000 feet on its way to the Amazon.  It drops by nearly 3,000 feet more as the train follows it to Aguascalientes through twenty miles of changing microclimates.


Inca terraces overlooking a footbridge

Inca terraces overlooking a footbridge

After three days in the Valley, the visitor’s eyes become attuned to  flyspecks of Inca terraces and buildings anchored in the vast landscape, or half-hidden by foliage.



They appear with amazing frequency along this route, which drives home the point that there was far acreage under cultivation in Inca times than there is today.



The views are spectacular, and peaks of nearby mountains are sometimes only visible through the train’s vista dome.



From time to time there’s a wait on a siding for a returning train to pass through a one-lane mountain tunnel.




Riverside homes connected only by footbridge

Riverside homes connected only by footbridge



The road has long ago veered away from river and rails, and the scattered hamlets along the river are now connected to the opposite bank only by footbridges.






Boulders worn smooth by rainy season current.

Boulders worn smooth by rainy season current.




The river grows increasingly turbulent as it plunges ever downward.

The rainy season is still months away and boulders above the low water mark have been worn smooth its raging currents.







Aguascalientes has the look of a Colorado ski village crossed with a Colorado mining town.  It’s nestled in a gorge at the foot of Machu Picchu and anyone can walk along every street of its twenty-five square blocks in little more than an hour.

The railroad runs down Aguascaliente's riverfront street

The railroad runs down Aguascaliente’s riverfront street



The riverfront street is split down the middle by the Peru Rail tracks, and although there’s little rail traffic beyond the village, it’s possible to dine at an outdoor table within its reach.

Pedestrian bridges knit the two halves of Aguascalientes together.

Pedestrian bridges knit the two halves of Aguascalientes together.








The village is divided by a tributary of the Urubamba, and the halves are connected by several bridges from which much of the town is readily visible.

Walking in Aguascalientes almost always involves climbing.

Walking in Aguascalientes almost always involves climbing.

Aguascalientes is a pedestrian delight.

Connected to the rest of the world only by rail, the streets of Aguascalientes are free of any automobiles.

Trash collection without the garbage truck.

Trash collection without the garbage truck.


Construction materials, restaurant deliveries, and even trash collection rely on porters and hand trucks.

There is no lack of good restaurants here, but there are far more pizzerias, wi-fi coffee houses, and Peruvian restaurants with menus barely distinguishable from each other.

The "Inca Cross"

The “Inca Cross”

A walk through the village turns up dozens of images of the Chacana, popularly known as the “Inca cross”.

It’s a square superimposed upon a cross with arms marking the four compass points.  It symbolizes the Incas’ view of a three-level world:

Hana Pacha, the upper world in which the gods reside.

Kay Pacha, the world of living people.

Urin Pacha, the underworld inhabited by spirits of the dead.

Aguascalientes takes its name from the therapeutic hot spring at its upper end which can be a welcome stop for anyone who’s overdone a day of hiking.

There are also massage therapists on almost every street corner, and in combination bath and massage makes for a great wind-down after a day on the mountain

A dark-skinned Christ wears an Inca robe.

A dark-skinned Christ wears an Inca robe.

A peek into a church on the main plaza turns up the recurrent image of a crucified Christ robed in an Inca tunic.

Unlike most of the Christ images in Peruvian churches, this one is dark-skinned.

Young women in traditional garb are gathered in anticipation of the Mother’s Day celebration which is just beginning to crank up.


Girls in traditional garb in advance of the Mother's Day celebration.

Girls in traditional garb in advance of the Mother’s Day celebration.

Tonight’s a night to turn in early, though, because the plan for tomorrow is to beat the crowds and catch the sunrise over Machu Picchu.  Come along.


Some  tips:

  • Only a limited number of Machu Picchu tickets are issued for each day, which will require you to also have round trip reservations for the train and bus shuttle tickets to and from the site.
  • You may encounter baggage restrictions if boarding the train at Ollantaytambo, so consider taking with you only enough baggage for a couple of days and leaving excess baggage at the station checkroom.
  • You’ll also want to have room reservations in Aguascalientes for at least the night before or after your Machu Picchu visit… or maybe both. 

While some Machu Picchu aficionados spend every minute of a full day on the site, even a casual tourist accompanied by a knowledgeable guide should plan on spending no less that 2-3 hours there. 

The crowds are at their lightest at opening, and on Sundays.

  • I used the services of GoToPeru for all of my in-country travel, for reservations and ticketing to cultural sites.  Their guides are excellent and I highly recommend their service.

Uniquely Yucay

Early morning on a Yucay street.

Early morning on a Yucay street.

Yucay is a village located along the river road about halfway between Pisac and Ollantaytambo, and one that many tourists pass through without a second look.

With plenty of time until Peru Rail departs for the Machu Picchu station, a stroll through its streets promises a richer glimpse into daily life in the Sacred Valley.

There’s a slight chill in the air on this early Saturday morning.

The village sits in the shadows of the ever-present mountains, and the sun has not yet broken through the clouds that hover and swirl hypnotically about their peaks.

The first person to appear on the waking streets is a  woman in colorful native dress, an improbably large load wrapped in the brightly colored blanket slung across her back.

It’s a sight that will repeat itself countless times on this trip.

Man and mule... both with backpacks.

Man and mule… both with backpacks.

In the next block, the sound of mule shoes on pavement pace out the route of a man leading his beast off to a day of labor.

There's hardly a car to be seen in the village.

There’s hardly a car to be seen in the village.

Another man passes on a bicycle, a small sack of groceries dangling from his handlebars.  There is hardly a car parked on these streets, and I wonder how far these people have ever traveled from home.

It can't be a grocery without an Inca Kola sign!

It can’t be a grocery without an Inca Kola sign!

The ubiquitous Inka Kola signs hangs from a signpost in front of a neighborhood grocery store, a reminder that – incredibly – I’ve seen no Coca-Cola signs since entering the Sacred Valley.

Home on Yucay's main street.

Home on Yucay’s main street.

The colors of the homes are warm and inviting.

Sun-baked stucco in ochres and beiges.  Old adobe brick with bits of straw poking through the surface.

Home along Yucay's main street.

Home along Yucay’s main street.

The oldest homes have been here for more than a century.

The oldest homes have been here for more than a century.


Everywhere richly stained wood is fashioned into windows, doors and balconies that imitate the Spanish Colonial style.  They recall for me the villages of New Mexico around Santa Fe.

There’s a tranquility in this valley which surpasses the inspiration of its awe-inspiring natural setting.   Things move at a measured pace, and time is meted not in hours and days, but in plantings and harvests.  All of the villagers I encounter are gentle in spirit and steeped a quiet dignity.   Among them there’s a palpable sense of mutual respect and community that brings to mind the words written in 1542 by Fray Bartolomeo de las Casas, who described them as…

Breakfast is on and the neighborhood begins to stir.

Breakfast is on and the neighborhood begins to stir.

…”the most guileless, the most devoid of wickedness and duplicity… the most humble, patient, and peaceable, holding no grudges, neither excitable nor quarrelsome… devoid of rancors, hatreds, or desire for vengeance.”

The aroma of a simmering guizado begins to drift from curbside kitchen, and waking villagers begin to gather around them for breakfast.

As they talk, I can hear bits of conversation conducted not in Spanish, but in the Quechua which once served as the lingua franca of the Incas’ empire.

It’s the day before Mother’s Day, and village mothers have already begun to fill the seats beneath a soccer field canopy in anticipation of a public holiday observance.

Yucay mothers take their place of honor before a Mother's Day celebration.

Yucay mothers take their place of honor before a Mother’s Day celebration.

As I walk past the Templo Santiago Apostol de Yucay, an attendant opens the doors of the church… an irresistible invitation to a visit.

Elaborate tableau behind the altar at Templo Santiago Apostol de Yucay.

Elaborate tableau behind the altar at Templo Santiago Apostol de Yucay.



The attendant proudly informs that although this church dates from 1650 – more than 100 years after the Conquest –  the destruction of  earlier churches by earthquakes have left this the oldest surviving Catholic church in the Sacred Valley.


The building itself is simple and unassuming, but the altarpiece and other devotional works are carved in wood and gilded in gold and silver foil.



They’re well worth the visit, even though they beg the question of  wealth the  church accumulated under the Conquest.

Detail from the Templo Santiago Apostol de Yucay

Detail from the Templo Santiago Apostol de Yucay

As the morning walk nears its end, I hear the chatter and laughter of women’s voices behind me and turn to see a trio of nuns, making their way along the sidewalk.  It seems a fitting epilogue to the morning walk.

Sisters walking Yucay's main street.

Sisters walking Yucay’s main street.

In only a few hours until the train departs Ollantaytambo station, which means that I’ll be overlooking Machu Picchu in less than 24 hours.  Come along for the ride!

Town, terraces, and ruins of Ollentaytambo

Town, terraces, and ruins of Ollentaytambo

Ollantaytambo is where the Inca ruins come most alive.

Here the terraces creep down the mountainside to the very edge of a town in which many Inca structures survive and have been continuously inhabited by their descendants.

It was also once a stronghold of the last independent Inca ruler, Manco II, during his eight year rebellion against the Spanish that ended deep in the mountains at Vilcabamba.

Ollentaytambo is a popular stay-over for backpackers on their way to Machu Picchu

Ollentaytambo is a popular stay-over for backpackers on their way to Machu Picchu


Ollantaytambo is the last stop on the Perú Rail line before the Machu Picchu station in Aguascalientes

It’s also a popular stopover for the many backpackers who pick up a connection to the last leg of the  Inca Trail just a few miles down the track.

Those hikers not staying in any of the town’s hostels or lodges cluster around the wi-fi cafes, lounging on their packs and checking email on their iPhones.


Man in native dress sits next to a Cusqueña beer truck.

Man in native dress sits next to a Cusqueña beer truck.

On the central plaza, a man in native garb sits, chameleon-like, next to a Cusqueña beer truck of the same color.  The brew, a lager style, is Perú’s most popular beer, although at least two microbreweries now operate out of Lima.

Two women in native dress wait for tourists to arrive

Two women in native dress wait for tourists to arrive

Across the plaza, women in native dress offer to pose for pictures.  Even after only a couple of days in country, the differences in dress among the native peoples is already beginning to sort itself out.

Original Inca walls, streets, and aqueduct

Original Inca walls, streets, and aqueduct

Ollantaytambo’s narrow streets appear unchanged since they were built by the Inca.

They pass between signature walls of stone rising a full story and fitted seamlessly together without benefit of mortar.

Aqueduct gutters along each lane still carry fresh water from the mountains as they did when first built.

Only the telltale design of Spanish Colonial structures erected on these foundations testify to the Conquest.

Ollentaytambo street scene

Ollentaytambo street scene


Ollantaytambo seems to absorb the visitor into a time warp.

It’s often possible to stand at a corner and see nothing in any direction that gives a hint of the five centuries that have passed since people first walked these streets.


Entrance to traditional Inca home.

Entrance to traditional Inca home.

One home is occupied as a living museum in which the caretakers live just as their Inca ancestors once did.

Corn is only one of the foods air-cured by the Incas.

Corn is only one of the foods air-cured by the Incas.

It’s cool and dim inside.  Ears of corn and lines of fish are suspended from the ceiling, curing in the dry, cool air.  (The word ‘jerky’ comes from the Quechua term “ch’arki”, which means “dried meat”)

Stones used to hand-grind corn.

Stones used to hand-grind corn.


Worn stones bear witness to centuries of corn tediously hand-milled.

Corn has been a staple in the Peruvian diet for over 3,000 years, and many varieties are unique to the area.

It’s used to make everything from bread to chicha morada, a refreshing, non-alcoholic beverage made from boiled purple corn.

Guinea pigs - cuy - on the hoof.

Guinea pigs – cuy – on the hoof.

Guinea pigs graze on the dirt floor, fattening up for their unforeseen slaughter.

These animals are native to the region, and have served as a source of protein among the indigenous peoples for thousands of years.

Guinea pig – cuy  – is still to be found on Sacred Valley restaurant menus .

Main ruins in foreground, Inca granary in background on mountain.

Main ruins in foreground, Inca granary in background on mountain.

Most of the archeological site lies on the west end of the town, but a trail up the mountain opposite it leads to several isolated structures above.  A climb to explore them offers a tempting opportunity for a panoramic view of the entire area that’s too much to resist.

These granaries stand about 50 tall, placed to take advantage of cool, dry breezes.

These granaries stand about 50 tall, placed to take advantage of cool, dry breezes.

The climb along a narrow trail with steep drop-offs ascends several hundred feet and the hike takes around half an hour.  The buildings that were barely visible from the town below are now revealed to be granaries, each silo standing nearly 50 feet tall.

View of the main ruin from the slope opposite.

View of the main ruin from the slope opposite.

The hike is worth it, though, because the main part of the site is spectacularly visible in its entirety from this vantage point.

Town in foreground, ruins to right, quarry on the cloud-covered mountain.

Town in foreground, ruins to right, quarry on the cloud-covered mountain.

Towering in the distance across the river is the cloud-wrapped  peak from which the stone for this monumental construction was quarried.

As I survey the panorama from my perch at more than 9,000  it crosses my mind that the Egyptians had to contend with no mountains when they hauled the massive stones with which they built the pyramids.

I can be only more impressed by the Incas’ ingenuity and perseverance.

My train to Aguascalientes and Machu Picchu leaves at mid-day tomorrow, and I’ve got an idea about what to do with a free morning.  Come along and see.

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.

01 Leaving Cusco

Leaving Cusco

The drive from Lima to Cusco takes 13 hours, but the flight takes little more than an hour, and the view of the Andes from the air is nothing short of breathtaking.

02 Sacred Valley mapCusco sits at an ear-popping altitude of 11,152 feet, so it’s not a complete surprise that dried coca leaves – the age-old Andean cure for altitude sickness – sit in a bushel basket at the airport gift shop, free for the taking.  The leaf – chewed like tobacco – has a bitter taste, and many prefer the widely available coca tea instead.  Try using it in combination with muña oil, another native botanical remedy, for even better effect.

04 Steet scene near Poroy

Street scene near Poroy

Many visitors to the Sacred Valley first spend a few days seeing the Cusco sites before moving on, but there are a couple of good reasons to save Cusco for last.

One is that that the Valley is 2,000 feet lower than Cusco, so the traveler can breathe a bit easier.

Another is that observing daily life in the Valley’s farms and villages provides valuable context for the monumental, ceremonial sites in Cusco and at Machu Picchu.

03 Mountains near Chinchero IMG_6949

Mountains near Chinchero

Homes and businesses thin out quickly beyond Poroy as the road climbs another 1,000 feet to Chinchero before beginning its descent into the Valley.

05 Andes seen from near Chinchero IMG_6948

Andes seen from near Chichero

Scenic lookouts along the route offer stunning panoramic views, and from this vantage point snow-capped Andes are clearly visible in the distance.

06 Farms and mountains near Chinchero IMG_6950

Farms and mountains near Chinchero

As the road drops down into the valley it passes through small villages surrounded by checker-boarded farmlands.

Alpaca, goats, and cattle graze in meadows, and the first of the Inca agriculture terraces begin to appear.

07 Drying the corn harvest for winter

Women drying the corn harvest for winter storage

Cusco sits 13 degrees of latitude below the equator, and on this trip in May it’s just weeks away from the winter solstice.

The harvest season is nearly ended, and farmers have laid their corn and potatoes out to cure under the sun in cool, dry mountain air, just as their Inca ancestors did.


People here live a life of back-breaking labor, and although they live simply, everyone appears well-fed and sheltered.

There’s an air of hope, and improvements to roads and bridges, along with additions to homes and small businesses, are common sights in even the smallest villages.


08 Quinoa drying in the sun

Stalks of quinoa drying in the sun

Potatoes and quinoa are both native to the Andes, and both are dietary staples.  The quinoa crop has also just been harvested and stalks dry in the sun.

09 Stand of eucalyptus trees

Stand of eucalytus trees

Timber is scarce at high altitudes, and eucalyptus trees were imported from Australia to Peru in the mid-1800’s in an effort to develop a ready and renewable source.  The tree is now today so ubiquitous in the Valley that concerns have been raised there and elsewhere about its invasiveness.

10 Motorcyle taxi near Urubamba

Motorcyle taxi near Urubamba

Even though many families own no car, there is schedule train service and bus service between many of the villages, but the most common form of public transportation is a sort of three-wheeled rickshaw, powered sometimes by a bicycle and at others powered by a motorcycle.

The ride from Cusco to Urubamba, including photo ops, has taken well under two hours, and from there it’s a short and scenic drive along the river to Pisac’s artisan market and Inca ruins.

Street in Ollentaytambo, Peru

Street in Ollentaytambo, Peru

Machu Picchu is the first image which comes to mind at the mention of the word Perú, but any visitor who limits a tour of this incredibly diverse country to the iconic ruin will only scratch its surface.

Motorcycle taxi in Urubamba, Peru

Motorcycle taxi in Urubamba, Peru

In fact, the real dilemma in planning a tour of Perú is not what to leave in, but what to leave out.

The Andes Explorer stops at La Raya, Peru

The Andes Explorer stops at La Raya, Peru

Archeological sites in the Incas’ Sacred Valley which tell which the story of the Incas’ rise and fall are a tour essential, but a visitor could easily spend a month elsewhere without retracing any steps.

Floating islands near las Islas Uros, Peru

Floating islands near las Islas Uros, Peru

Peru is large enough to stretch from the U.S.\Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico.

Terrain ranging from Pacific beaches to mountain peaks and rain forests has spawned dozens of micro-climates that produce a staggering and often unique array of plant and animal life.

Lake Titicaca as seen from Isla Taquile, Peru

Lake Titicaca as seen from Isla Taquile, Peru

Pre-Incan ruins sit side by side with west coast beaches on the northern Pacific coast. the NAZCA lines score the surface of the arid south, and dugouts ply the jungle headwaters of the Amazon

Street in historic center of Cusco, Peru

Street in historic center of Cusco, Peru

The Quechua language spoken by the descendants of the Inca is only one of a dozen languages spoken by nearly 100 indigenous tribes and clans, each with their own distinctive dress and customs.




This trip is planned for two weeks, so the itinerary narrows down to these destinations:

  • The Incas’ Sacred Valley, from Cusco to Machu Picchu.
  • Lake Titicaca, arriving via stunning views from the Andean Explorer train, with service that hearkens back to the golden days of rail travel.
  • Perú’s oceanfront capital Lima, brimming both with Spanish colonial charm and glittering high rises towering above gardens, promenades, and world-class restaurants.

The trip begins here!


Some tips on travel to Perú:

  • Security is outstanding.  The streets feel safe and police are rarely out of eyesight wherever tourists most often gather.
  • Wireless is widely available in cafes, restaurants, and hotels in areas most frequented by tourists.
  • Electricity is 220 volts, so an adapter for 110 volt appliances is a must unless you intend to turn them into a toasters.  Consider whether you’ll also need a 3-to-2 prong outlet adapter; most electrical outlets are ungrounded (2-prong).
  • Take altitude very seriously unless you want to spend a day of your vacation in a clinic.  Thin, dry mountain air means less oxygen, faster dehydration, and less protection from the sun.  Make the going easier with a hat, long-sleeved shirts, sun block and sunglasses, lip balm and skin moisturizer and water, water, water.  Consider also taking along an altitude medication such as Diamox.  The coca leaves and tea which are widely available in hotels reflect the centuries-old practice and learning of Andean peoples, and they know what they’re talking about.
  • Not every site is ADA compliant. Visitors with mobility issues can have a fulfilling experience, but many of the archeological and many cultural sites require a good walk or climb to be fully appreciated.
  • Use of shared transportation or a taxi for ground travel anywhere in Peru is highly recommended;  traffic both in the city and in the countryside is an organized chaos, the rules of which defy comprehension by the uninitiated.
  • And, of course, take your camera; the stunning landscape and picturesque people make it practically impossible to take a bad photo.