Cusco was the Incans’ capital city and the valleys leading to and from it, especially the Sacred Valley, following the Urubamba river towards Machu Picchu, are full of Incan delights. We spent more than three weeks in the area (see this accompanying blog to read about what else we got up to), giving us plenty of time to sample many of them. Machu Picchu gets all the attention, but there is so much more to it than that! In this blog, we pull out our 10 favourite Incan things from our time in the area, plus a little bit about Machu Picchu at the end.
Rebecca here, with Bruce as chief stonework model!…
Our first encounters with the Incans had been in Northern Argentina at Shincal (where we had stayed to watch the winter solstice ceremony) and the evocative ruined city of Quilmes (see this blog post). More recently, there had been the tiny Templo de Fertilitad on the shores of Lake Titicaca to whet our appetites as we approached the Incan capital. Around Cusco and the Sacred Valley, our top 10 Incan things were:
1 The hill fort of Pisac
We visited Pisac on New Year’s day, as we drove into the Sacred Valley. It’s a defensive structure, built dramatically on a promontory, with positions giving clear sight further up the Sacred Valley and towards two other valley approaches to the east. It’s a magnificent site and was the first one that really made us feel “Now we get it…” – the magnificence, the power, the organization. You could sense that this structure was strategic to a great empire.
Pisac has some wonderful terracing. Some of the terracing up the steep hillsides is thought to have been defensive in nature, rather than purely agricultural. Any why not? If you do it so well, why not make maximum use of it! Both here and at Ollantaytambo (see no. 9 below) you could really see its defensive nature.
2 The Moray laboratory
Moray was another structure in the Sacred Valley that gave us real reason to pause in wonder. This beautiful circular system of terraces has it’s own microclimate – it’s several degrees warmer at the bottom than at the top. The latest theories are that it may have been some sort of laboratory for experimentation and development of agricultural techniques. It was the provision of food security, despite the challenges of the unpredictable climate of the Andes, which was the key to Inca power, so it seems quite plausible that they would invest in research and development.
3 The Salinas salt pans
The steep hillsides and the better weather down in the Sacred Valley were calling out to the cyclist in Bruce and, with me persuaded along by wanting to see the salt pans, we visited them on a mountain bike trip.
After 400 years of use, the pans are still being worked today, with families each owning and working sections.
4 Q’eswa chacas – Incan bridges
Given the geography of the Andes, with its steep hillsides and deep valleys, bridges would have played an important role in the enormous Incan road network that connected the empire. On our way south to Arequipa from Cusco, we took a little detour to see a bridge that we had seen on a recent documentary about the Incans (BBC’s “The Inca Masters of the Clouds”) It was worth the detour…
The Q’eswa Chaca is a rope bridge that crosses a gorge on the Ipurimac river and is rebuilt every year. There’s a nice little video about it here. The four local communities in the area come together for a week or so to weave the rope and build the fresh bridge. They have been doing it for centuries, since the Incans started it.
Such bridges were key parts of their extensive road network, which allowed communication (via runners) across their empire, quick enough to keep the empire together and functional. It’s estimated that a message could be carried from Cusco to Quito, 1500km, in just 5 days.
This is the last one of what would have been many across the Incan road network and the tradition continues despite a road and modern bridge just next to it. Magnificent!
Also getting a mention here is a perhaps little visited part of the Machu Picchu site, with a different but also dramatic bridge structure.
There are two Incan roads providing entry to Machu Picchu, skirting along the steep hills on either side of Wiñay Wayna, the peak on the south end of the complex. The modern road up which most people arrive at Machu Picchu snakes up the side of the hill side from the valley below, but the Incans would never have entered that way. The road to the south east leads to the main entrance, through Intipunku, the Sun Gate, which, in defense, could be blocked.
On the other side of the mountain, the other road crosses a removable bridge. The road follows a steep cliff along walkway built of stone along the edge of ravine and the Incans built it with a gap, across which they could lay logs – or remove the logs to make the route impassable.
As the campsite we were staying at in Cusco is right next to this site, Sacsayhuaman was the first major Incan site we visited after arriving in Cusco. It sits at the top of a hill overlooking the city and was a major religious and strategic site. It took the Incans over a century (and an estimated 20,000 workers) to build the huge complex, which includes a fort, temple, a sacred spring, numerous “huacas” (religious rocks used as ceremonial locations) and the Incans’ largest and most impressive defensive walls.
The walls are formed of 3 massive stone ramparts that zig-zag in parallel along the back of the temple complex for 600m. They include the largest stones to have been used in ancient Peru – one block weighs more than 300 tonnes.
6 Incan stonework
Which leads on to the next item in our listings: Incan stonework in general was something that repeatedly impressed us. Stonework was been a feature of a number of cultures before the Incans. In fact, it is believed that the Incans compelled / coerced / kidnapped the best of the stonemasons around Lake Titicaca, descendants of the master builders, the Tiwanaku (see this blog), and brought them to Cusco to work on Incan developments. But, as ever, the Incans took what they inherited and made it bigger and better. All the stonework was mortarless, made strong by the engineering of each block to fit tightly with those surrounding.
Most of the major visited sites today were built with stone, but the Incans also used adobe (mud) structures. The temple of Raqchi, which we stopped at on route to Cusco, is an impressive example of what they achieved in adobe. The temple is believed to have been built to appease Viracocha, the creator god, after a nearby volcano erupted. The 12m high adobe walls are built on a stone foundation and, although not complete today, it is impressive how much does remain of what must have been an enormous hall, the focus of a large religious complex.
7 The city of Cusco
The city of Cusco itself is on our list because, although it is now a modern city, it is built on the foundations of the original Incan city, with the same street layout and old Incan stonework used as the basis for modern buildings. The Spanish took over the city and refashioned it, taking down Incan structures and reusing the stone in churches and new buildings, but in many places they did this quickly and superficially. This is most evident at the Templo de la Compañia de Jesus, a Spanish catholic monastery that was built on top of Amara Cancha, an Incan palace. The imposing Incan walls are at the base and incorporated into some of the structures inside.
Today, the old centre at least is a rather charming city, oozing history and romance. Thanks to the vast numbers of tourists passing through on route to Machu Picchu, there is an ample supply of nice restaurants, cafes and bars, catering to the full spectrum of tourists.
We approached Cusco from the south east, on a modern road that follows the old Incan route and passing the massive defensive passage of Rumicolca. The Incans inherited this gate from the earlier Huari people, for whom it marked the frontier of their empire. They improved the stonework and used it as a checkpoint on the approach to Cusco.
8 Incan steps and trails
Climbing up and down steep steps is something that will now forever be associated with visiting Incan sites for us – and I am sure, many who have gone before. Most of the major constructions were built up the side of steep hills, with beautifully constructed stairways up, usually very steep and with deep steps. Not for those with a poor head for heights. Being of a somewhat shorter stature, I was left with the distinct impression that the Incans must have had long legs – although I am sure there is no evidence to support this!
Given the steep mountainous nature of much of the territory of their empire, stairways also crop up at points along the huge road / trail network. We did a delightful walk down a valley from Chincero, a village that, once again, has a Spanish settlement built on top of the Incan foundations. The trail was an old Incan one and included sections of well-constructed “road” and staircases.
Lost or hidden sections of the enormous Incan road network are still regularly being discovered today.
9 Ollantaytambo and its grain stores
Ollantaytambo village is at the foot of an important Incan fort strategically placed along the Sacred Valley leading between Cusco and Macchu Picchu. This was also a delight to visit and perhaps merits a placing in its own right, but it is actually the grain stores we saw here that we are putting on our list.
The Incans offered people in their empire food security and, to do so, they controlled farming, harvest and storage of grain in ample supply from good years in order to maintain supply during bad years. This was the key to the power and success of the Incan empire. The grain stores above Ollantaytambo are good examples of how they achieved this. They are built up on the dry hillsides in well-ventilated positions. They are designed for functionality and the ones here are particularly prominent and well preserved. It was here that we got to thinking a little more about how Incan society operated.
10 The less visited “Iglesias” & huacas
A huaca is a revered object, typically a monument of some sort. For the Incans, the huaca was often an interesting shaped rock or rock formation, which was then further carved and shaped. The countryside around Cusco and the Sacred Valley is simply filled with them. There was pretty much a different place, with a ceremony to go with it, for every day of the year.
The Incans worshipped interesting stones, carving them into altars and temple sites. There’s a great example of this in the heart of Machu Picchu, where a rock formation that could be seen to resemble a Condor, a highly venerated bird, was turned into a temple.
Some of the less visited sites that we either heard about and went looking for or happened to stumble across were delightful and quite magical with no-one else around.
Up a valley up the side of the Sacred Valley is this little known huaca, the Ñuapa Iglesia – a cave with terracing around it. Inside are a carved altar, walls and niches that are still in use today. On the way up to it, we passed a young girl keeping warm wrapped up in a blanket who had been up and laid a little offering of flowers.
And finally… Machu Picchu
Despite there being so much more to the Incans than just Machu Picchu, of course, we wanted to see it as well. The biggest challenge in a visit to Machu Picchu is the sheer numbers of people – around 2,500 travel to the remote spot and walk around the remains of the citadel each day. Crowds are not our favourite accompaniment to taking in a stunning place, but we braced ourselves, booked our tickets online and off we went.
There are no roads into the valley below Machu Picchu, only a train line runs along the steep valley bottom. Many people walk – the over popular so-called “Inca trail” has to be booked many months in advance as the numbers have to be controlled and, as trekking with crowds isn’t really our idea of trekking fun, we were never planning to do that. There are lots of other Incan trails after all! Outside of the wet season, overlanders can drive around a remote road to a small settlement within a day’s comfortable walk along the railway line, but we were there in the wet season and the road was not recommended.
But we always intended to take the train anyway, despite the journey now carrying a hefty tourist price tag. It is one of the great railway journeys in the world, with the train following the winding steep valley downwards into the verdant eastern Andean hills. The vegetation and surroundings changes dramatically as you descend into cloud forest.
When my father visited around 50 years ago, he went to do the train journey and hopped off at the Aguas Calientes stop to pop up the hill to see Machu Picchu on route, getting a man with a horse and cart to give him a lift up the hill to the citadel. The hot spring baths up the road was pretty much all there was there then. Now, Aguas Calientes, or “Machu Picchu pueblo” as it is being renamed, is a small busy town consisting entirely of hostels, hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops.
The prevailing wisdom is that you must get up before dawn and get up to the citadel on the crest of a hill as it opens. The reasoning is that you can watch the sunrise, which doesn’t make much sense seeing as it is cloudy there most of the year, and beat the crowds, which is just not the case anymore, as everyone else is getting up early too! We are not morning people and couldn’t quite believe the length of the queue we joined to get the bus up to the site from the town at 5am!
We had bought tickets that included walking up Wayna Picchu, the hill at the far end of the site, which we very much enjoyed, but by the time we got back down again, we were in the thick of the crowds at the very busiest time in the morning. We took our time, went out to the café for a long lunchtime rest, and when we returned in the early afternoon it was like a different place – it had really emptied of crowds. We overheard a guide telling his clients that everyone thinks you should come in the morning, but really, the afternoon is much quieter. So, our advice to anyone planning a visit anytime soon – afternoon is the new morning at Machu Picchu!
That all being said, they really do manage the crowds extremely well – we didn’t have to wait long for the buses, even in the thick of the 5am madness, and there are set routes to follow around the site that keep people moving surprisingly well, given the old narrow routes and steep stairways. But it all relaxes in the afternoon and, as we sat and looked down on it and had a little snooze in the early afternoon heat, it felt as though the whole place breathed a sigh of relief at having surviving another morning’s onslaught…
Did Machu Picchu live up to expections? Yes, in that it is a magnificent site in a stunning location. But for us, it was all about the location rather than the details of the site itself – there is better stonework elsewhere, more interesting temples in other places, but the positioning along the ridge of steep hills deep in remote, wild cloud forest is magical and described perfectly by John Hemming in his epic history of Amazonia (“Tree of Rivers – The Story of the Amazon”):
“None of the world’s other great ruins can compare with Machu Picchu’s location. It is on a knife-edge ridge, amid tropical rain forests often cloaked in Wagnerian clouds, with the Urubamba roaring through a hairpin-bend canyon far below, the sugar-loaf of Wayna Picchu like a rhinoceros horn at the end of the spur, and snow-capped mountains shining in the distance.”
It’s this and the romance of the story of the (re)discovery of a “lost” city in the clouds that sustains the huge interest and brings the vast crowds. But we did wonder whether it really justified all the attention and the 2,500 visitors per day, many of whom see nothing else that the Incans did other than this one site. Machu Picchu is rather stealing the show, which seems a pity.