Peru – Cusco and Sacred Valley, Prelude to Inca Trail (Part 1)


I’m always amazed at the opportunities we have through modern transportation. Not too many generations ago, people risked everything to cross oceans and/or large land masses, and, it was very time-consuming. Now we can hop on an airplane and fast track from our community of choice to a destination of choice in a day/night, fly over impassable mountain ranges and oceans in a pressurized cabin and bypass hostile cultures while we sleep, with the occasional disruption of turbulence. It’s like we jump onto a different plane of magnitude to leap to another destination, and then switch back to the scale and pace of our own neighborhood. This is the best way to experience archeological sites that were old long before we harnessed petroleum, and touch the remaining shell of another civilization, unstuck from time.

Machu Picchu has always been on my bucket list, but until my friend Robin said she wanted to go, it was always on the back burner. We all need friends like Robin to get us past the thinking stage, and off the proverbial pot! When we had the trip locked in, several more friends and strangers (new friends!) joined us.

Day 0 was just getting to Lima, arriving shortly before midnight, landing in a dense fog. As we crossed the sky bridge to the only hotel at the airport, stepping carefully to avoid people curled up with their luggage, we looked forward to a good night’s rest in the adjacent hotel, without stress of transportation logistics, oversleeping, and/or theft. This is one reason (of probably a thousand) to go through a travel agent that knows the area … for a once in a lifetime trip, it’s nice to make informed choices off lessons other people learned! Instead of sleeping on dirty tiles to the clunky cyclical din of roller bags passing by, we sipped free Pisco Sours, and slept soundly in comfortable beds, knowing we’d get a wake up call and a full breakfast before our flight to Cusco in the morning.

First we had to deal with the passport routine. Every hotel (and plane, train, bus, trail-entry point, etc.) needed to see a passport. When our travel agent told us to bring a paperclip to secure the little form we’d retain passing through customs, that we would need to leave the country (and is apparently a colossal headache if you lose), I thought, whatever, I’ll just sequester it in a safe pocket until I pass back through customs as I leave the country, since that’s the form’s sole raison d’être. I still brought a couple paperclips. They proved very useful, because every single place that needed to see a passport also asked for the stupid little piece of paper…

Our first real day started with an early morning flight on a plane old enough to have an ashtray in the back row of seats. The flight passed quickly, probably due in part to the beautiful views of the Andes from the air. In no time, we were on the ground in Cusco, the “navel of the world” for the Incan Civilization, in a van traversing roads through narrow streets that probably haven’t changed much since the origins of the city.

Our guide, a very charming gentle soul named Juan, introduced us to the city, and really to each other (some of our little group had never actually met), all while helping our driver, Aurelio assess whether the three dimensions of the van (primarily the vertical) would clear modern obstacles (like low overhead power lines).

This is a 2-way street!

This is a 2-way street!

The distance to the hotel didn’t look far on paper, but the ancient streets were not designed with modern two-way traffic in mind. Sometimes I wonder if occasional catastrophes like the Chicago Fire or the San Francisco Earthquake enable a city’s growth and modernization … but Cusco’s foundations, laid by the Inca, have weathered not just earthquakes and fire, but also the destruction of Spanish Colonization. And, passing through these alleys of stone, fit perfectly together centuries ago and still standing, is awe inspiring. It’s a good part of Cusco’s charm. But I was very glad I wasn’t driving.

I’m convinced Aurelio was “using the force” to navigate these streets, passing vehicles with fractions of an inch to spare, backing down streets and into alleys to let others pass, in a “right of way” assessment that our driver’s education manuals could never codify. I’m also convinced both drivers and pedestrians actually respect and cooperate with each other, instead of assuming their bubbles of oblivion will protect them. It was refreshing to see people pay attention and expedite out of each other’s way.

We arrived at the cozy Hotel Encantada, enjoyed a hot cup of coca tea, and took a modest amount of time to stash our luggage and check out the amazing views of Cusco from the top floor.


We briefly stopped to exchange some money, then hopped back in the van towards Cusco’s outskirts to a nice little restaurant with a beautiful hillside view.

This was our first exposure to the live music that materialized in most tourist restaurants. It’s usually
very pleasant and relaxing until they come around with the tip jar and you realize they’re playing for tips and you don’t have any real change yet. And you haven’t exactly chosen the music, but you feel an obligation to fulfill the expectation.

It was also our first introduction to the no-seat toilet. I imagine this averts the “seat up/down” dispute entirely by making it irrelevant. Paper would be nice too, but I guess not having it gives us tourists a little time to adjust to putting it in the trash instead of flushing it (if we haven’t figured it out yet from the signs next to every toilet). Regardless, it was the first of many adjusted expectations regarding toilets … we would eventually learn to bring change (many of the toilets charge a small fee), our own paper (most didn’t have any), strong quads (for whatever the distance of hover), and use the bin.

Meanwhile, the first few people to pay their restaurant bill with their newly exchanged currency depleted the restaurant’s reserve of small bills. The challenge of breaking large bills into small became a big juggling act for the duration of the trip.

From here, we rode to the Sacsayhuaman (or Sacsahuaman) Ruins, just outside Cusco, up a really steep hill. As with any location that’s documented in a different language than it was originally named, there are different spellings and interpretations. Some say it translates to and represents the head and teeth of a jaguar or puma, guarding Cusco the body, bounded by a couple of rivers … others say the Qechua spelling translates to “replete falcon”. I’m a bit unimaginative when it comes to these things, but I have an easier time seeing the jagged rows of stone as dangerous teeth. If this interpretation is correct, kudos to the Incas for so brilliantly mixing function and art.

"Teeth of the Puma" or a "Full Falcon" ... ???

“Teeth of the Puma” or a “Full Falcon” … ???

Before we entered the ruins, we were entranced by an ancient old woman in traditional clothing cradling a tiny black lamb. I’d read about the expected payment for pictures, and wasn’t sure I had the right change yet, so initially approached pictures a bit surreptitiously. Juan talked to her briefly, then translated that she was over 90 years old, and explained to us that it was customary to pay 1-2 soles, and that we should be cognizant of when/where it was responsible to support these photo ops (here was okay).

Mary, Mary, quite contrary ...

Mary, Mary, quite contrary …

We walked up the back of Rodadero hill, and passed through a (very) dark cave to an area Von Daniken might identify as an ancient alien landing pad. In actuality, the large circular stone wall may have held water, possibly acting as a large mirror, with terraces rising above.


An odd natural formation of rock that looked like (and was being used as) a giant slide beckoned us up the hill.

Inner Child for the Win!!

Inner Child for the Win!!

Just past the slide was an overlook of the main part of the ruins, the zig-zagged ramparts of gigantic rocks. It’s dramatic as a landscape feature from a distance. Up close, the individual stones become all the more impressive for their size, precision, and the beauty of their fit.


Sadly, a lot of what this site “used to be” is no more. Documents from conquest and the very early colonial period describe impressive towers, beautiful water features, and networks of connecting underground tunnels. Less than a generation later, much of it was “quarried” and repurposed for Spanish dwellings in town. Now only the foundations remain.

I’m not sure I really understand Peru, or, humanity for that matter. As far as I know, my lineage is fairly boring and uncomplicated. But I haven’t tried to trace it beyond the American dream, and I’m probably a little afraid to. Or maybe I think it would be counterproductive and irrelevant. Everywhere I go or look I can see historical reasons one culture hates another for the damage it did to its identity and prosperity … what if I find mine blends both “good” and “bad” into who I am? I want to think I am who I am, now, and not hate the unpleasant aspects of my identity. Maybe Peru thinks this way too. It still astounds me that I can walk through the remains of an ancient civilization that was on top of the world before it was decimated by disease and conquest at the hands of another, and how it can now be blended together as one. I suppose it mixes identities in combinations us outsiders will never really understand, like Andean Catholicism.

The ancient temple of Koricancha, for example. In its glory, this “temple to the sun” was plated in gold, with life-sized gold and silver sculptures of corn and animals adorning the courtyard. The Spaniards completely stripped it of this façade and decorations, and melted them down in an unglorified lump, and built a Catholic church and convent over its beautiful walls and foundation. What’s there now is also very beautiful, a blend of the two religions/cultures. But what a loss to humanity that we’ll never see how it looked at the height of the Inca Empire.


With just enough time before dusk, we took a short tour of a local market. Of course we were most interested in the oddities you don’t find in our markets, like mummified llama fetuses and natural freeze-dried potatoes. Thinking these might pose a challenge going through customs, I stuck with buying coffee beans and some very rich chocolate.


From here, the hotel was a not-to-long walk up an extended hill, with shops, churches, old stonework, and a lot more history along the way. We settled in for another free pisco sour, a great meal, and, a wonderful hot water bottle turndown service that made a chilly bed into the most comfortable thing on the planet. (Spouses/partners be warned!!!!)

Finding it hard to believe just our travel day had passed, we started our true “adjustment” day with a trip into the Sacred Valley to the Chinchero weaver’s village and Sunday market. Not having inherited the “haggling” gene from my Dad, I enjoyed the weaver demo much more than the market. A young girl with very good English explained as the family demonstrated, cleaning the wool, spinning, dying, fixing, and weaving the end product (which, of course, they had for sale). Whether all this hands-on work goes into each of their products, or they use a few industrial shortcuts, it was nice to feel like I was buying products directly from the people who made them. I wish I’d brought more money and an extra suitcase. It would have been a great place to start and finish my Christmas shopping.


We spent a few minutes shopping around the Sunday market. Rows of thatched roofs shaded scores of people, each set up with a spread of products that were probably carried in in the large blanket they were now displayed on. Several more people set up in the sun, partially shaded by a hill. Many were selling the same things. I suppose my ambling had less to do with being an introvert and a cheapskate than just not having many small bills, but I finally came across something different that caught my interest–a guy carving intricate picture stories and designs into various sized gourds. Regardless, I couldn’t help but ponder how industrialization has changed our job market, and how in the US even small farms and businesses have a hard time competing with increasingly larger conglomerates and mega-marts that leverage economies of scale.


Whether chance and fortune or powerful people set the conditions for the rise of an empire, what seems certain is at some point enough resources are amassed behind a leader that his/her momentum seems unstoppable. Imagine you’re a small self-sustaining village, and an army several times your size arrives and tells you you’re now a part of the empire. Not exactly a choice, but maybe not such a bad deal. Now you’re taxed in the form of labor and/or goods, but you gain roads, and access to a great variety and reserve of goods, and the sum becomes much greater than its parts. The Inca Empire harnessed this manpower into an efficient and powerful machine that linked its vast expanse, terraced mountains for more productive agricultural output, warehoused all kinds of foods, and built phenomenal temples and cities. What’s left in stone is still extraordinary, but we may never know its less permanent features that are probably lost to history.

The site of Moray, for example, was likely used to experiment with agricultural crops and optimize growing conditions. The terraces of varying shape and depth made for different temperatures and exposure to sunlight, enabling a wide range of growing conditions. It also had a very complex irrigation system, which I imagine expanded this spectrum much further. Traces of a large variety of crops have been found on the site, probably somewhat muddled by its continuous agricultural use (until being preserved as an archeological site). But having recently visited Monticello, I’m picturing Thomas Jefferson traveling abroad, then building a greenhouse to grow lemons, and experimenting with varieties of grapes to reconstruct French wines. The Incan Empire encompassed so large an area and so many ecosystems, I don’t think it’s a huge stretch to think they would have been experimenting in the same way, on a bigger scale. Why wouldn’t they? Maybe the “aclla cuna” (chosen women) were breeding new forms of quinoa between making batches of chicha beer, long before Mendel was breeding red-eyed fruit flies.


From Moray, we detoured to Salinas de Maras. I suppose the road may be very seasonal for tourist vehicles, but accolades to our driver, we arrived alive.

“Back when the oceans drank Atlantis” and the Altiplano rose, it trapped a lot of salt water in mountains, and created a salt water spring. Naturally, people formed terraces to collect it, and let the sun do its work. Today it’s still an active site for harvesting salt, and it’s very beautiful in an odd way.


Fast forward to the ruins at Ollantaytambo. A magnificent set of terraces and stonework, placed in a beautiful natural setting, blended seamlessly with mountains and rivers, with several unique features carved in rock to highlight the sun. There’s probably a lot more to feng shui and geomancy than meets my eye as a photographer … I sense there’s a spirituality, but have never tried to understand or connect to it. But it always makes me feel at peace.


The site was very crowded, so instead of immediately joining the queue to climb the stairs to the sun temple, we explored some features at the base. Intricate hydraulics routed cold mountain water through fountains and into meditative baths. Rock faces were smoothed and shaped with mysterious features that were said to cast shadows and come to life as something else with the right alignment of the sun. I’m pretty sure I missed a lot of what Juan was trying to explain, as my mind was on a walk about, lost somewhere between imagining the connection between the rock and the sun and the people who designed these things, and contemplating how that ice cold water might clear the mind.

Wondering if the constant flow of people obstructs the site’s chi, we joined the flow of interference climbing up the terraces. Finally clearing the bottleneck, we arrived at a row of niches. Juan started knocking on each of the alcoves, demonstrating that several sounded hollow. This didn’t come with a scientific explanation or a theory, just an observation. Not too far beyond this were some beautifully quarried granite stones with such perfect edges they seemed machined, possibly made even smoother by the passage of millions of hands leaving natural oils. And a wall of stone monoliths, the eastern wall of a temple to the sun, with subtle iconography left in relief on their surfaces, barely noticeable in this light. I didn’t get good pictures here … I think the noise of milling people interrupted my chi probably more than it did the site’s. It certainly interrupted my picture-taking.


We settled in to the hotel, and resumed our nightly routine of repacking what we wanted to distribute between porter packs, personal day packs, and what we’d leave behind at the hotel. Tomorrow we would start the Inca Trail!!

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