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Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley

Since returning from Peru, I’ve seen several online news stories about a controversial new international airport being built in Chinchero.  I don’t know if this is a coincidence or if the internet privacy gods know that I was in Peru recently and think that it might be a subject of interest.   I suspect the latter.  We did, in fact, visit Chinchero, a small town on the Peruvian altiplano (the high plain).  It’s not the size city you would normally associate with an international airport, but it has the advantage of having plenty of room around it.  Cusco, a city of about half a million people, is nearby, but it’s limited in space and only has a small regional airport. 

The new airport is quite controversial due to worries about the number of tourists it will bring into a pretty fragile environment.  Peru already limits access to some attractions (for example, the Inca Trail), but many people feel that historical sites have already suffered damage and that more restrictions should be put into place.  A large airport, they claim, will allow already overcrowded sites to be overrun.  On the other hand, Peru and a large segment of its population benefit greatly from tourist money.  Some of the people of Chinchero, for instance, are looking forward to high paying jobs in an airport, as opposed to farming potatoes as they do now.  Like so many things in life, both sides have pros and cons and there are no easy answers.

We saw an extraordinary weaving demonstration there, with a presentation by the leader of the local co-op on the entire process, from a description of shearing the different animals through spinning, dying and so on to the end product.  They use all-natural dyes, primarily plant-based, but scarlet red comes from a bug called the cochineal which clings to cacti so presumably they’re easy to find.  How easy they are to harvest is another matter.  Nellie, who led the demo, enthusiastically smacked one for us and sure enough it was bright red on the inside and seemed quite juicy for its size, which, I would think, can only be a plus. The weaving is absolutely exquisite and I couldn’t resist buying a table runner.

Many people travel to Peru specifically to hike the Inca Trail, which is an adventure in itself.  The Inca Trail is a 4-day hike leading to Machu Picchu, and most people tack on a few days ahead of time to acclimate and hike a bit before they start.  It’s only about 26 miles, which isn’t bad over four days, but is pretty challenging because of the altitude, and changes in altitude with a lot of uphill hiking.  If this sounds like your cup of tea, you’ll need to do your research and book way ahead.  You have to go with a guide and the number of hikers is limited in order to preserve the trail.

Instead of the Inca Trail, we took a nice, comfortable train and got there in an hour and a half.  Machu Picchu was a priority and the Inca Trail simply wasn’t.  From the train window, we could see hikers across the Urubamba River starting the trail and they appeared to be doing fine—the first day is mostly flat and easy, we were told.  They lull you into a sense of security before Day 2, when you hike to almost 14,000 feet.  The trail starts near the village where we boarded the train, Ollantaytambo (a tambo is an inn or resting place), having first visited an Incan fortress there.  There are Incan ruins scattered throughout the area known as the Sacred Valley, and when I say “ruins” I use the term loosely because the Inca people built with stone and they built to last.  Much of what survived destruction by the Spanish has lasted hundreds of years in almost perfect condition, withstanding earthquakes as well as the elements.  The fortress above Ollantaytambo is particularly well preserved.  The Incas tended to build their fortresses on mountainsides because their only weapon was the slingshot, and being above their enemy let them use it to great advantage. 

Machu Picchu also survived destruction by the Spanish, probably because they didn’t know about it, so it’s much better preserved than a lot of other sites.  It’s believed that the city was built by Inca Pachacuti in the 15th century, and it seems to have been built and abandoned within a hundred-year span.  (“Inca” can be either the emperor or a member of the royal family, and it’s also used to include more extensively the peoples ruled by the Inca although I’m not sure if that’s technically correct.)  The predominant theory is that Machu Picchu was built as a sort of sacred ceremonial center.  Other scholars think it may have simply been a royal retreat although the distance from Cusco, the capital, would have made a quick getaway pretty darn difficult if you ask me.  (“Why don’t we go to Machu Picchu this weekend?”  “Good idea.  We’ll leave on Tuesday and have part of the weekend left.”)  Among the buildings, there is a royal residence—just a few rooms, not exactly Buckingham Palace.  Another that particularly interested me was the Temple of the Sun, where the sun shines on a stone in the exact center of the building at sunrise on the day of the summer solstice.  There’s also a building where young women lived who had been chosen as possible human sacrifices.

OK, so this last one maybe isn’t quite as repugnant as it sounds, judged by our modern standards.  Human sacrifice was relatively rare among the Incas and it was carried out for what they saw as practical purposes, although we may have trouble wrapping our heads around that.  If Machiavelli had been Incan, he would have approved wholeheartedly, I’m sure.  As a matter of fact, there’s no evidence that it ever actually took place at Machu Picchu.  It was seen as necessary when a shaman predicted that something terrible, like an earthquake, was going to happen.  In that case, humans needed a messenger to go directly to the gods to plead their case and essentially ask that this terrible event not be so bad, if that could possibly be arranged.  Somebody dies and…well, you’ve got your messenger.  Potential messengers were chosen from both sexes as young children; they had to be perfect and they came from high born families.  It was considered a great honor and if any of the chosen ones ever wished that they had a blemish or two and thus be allowed to go about their business, history never recorded that fact.   Assuming they ever carried out the mission for which they had been selected, they became demigods, which would, I suppose, be some consolation.  The sacrifice itself was as humane as possible.  We heard about two that they know of for sure, where a couple of kids were taken to a very high altitude on the side of a volcano (and thus very cold) and given large quantities of chicha (corn beer, if you’ll remember) to drink.  They simply fell asleep and never woke up.

The morning after our guided tour, PJ and I went back to Machu Picchu in time for sunrise, more or less.  This time, we were on our own and we did one of several hikes that you can take in the area.  The most popular is to climb up the trail overlooking the ruins to the top of the mountain, which is actually the end of the Inca Trail for those hiking in.  We had intended to do this but almost by accident we chose the Inca Bridge trail instead.  It’s an easier trail that takes you part of the way around the mountain, and a lot of it is in the shade, in the morning at least.  Since it was a warm day and Machu Picchu is pretty high altitude and oxygen is thus a premium commodity, I wasn’t sorry we took the easier trail.  The trail ends at a narrow Incan drawbridge which they aren’t crazy enough to let anybody actually walk on.

We went back to Cusco after Machu Picchu and spent a couple of days there.  This was one place I really wish we’d had more time.  As the capital of the Incan Empire, there’s a lot to see there, and it’s a busy and interesting city to walk around in any case.  We especially enjoyed the Convent of Santo Domingo, which was built by the Spanish on the site of the Incan Temple of the Sun, the holiest place in the empire.  You could only enter the temple if you were Incan (that is, part of the royal family), were barefoot and had fasted for three days.  The walls and floors were covered with gold during Incan times.  The official name was Coricancha, which means “golden enclosure” in the Quechua language.

Although the Spanish conquistadors looted all the gold in short order, they fortunately didn’t completely destroy the temple when they built over it and not surprisingly, the Incan stonework has lasted unscathed through the centuries and several earthquakes.  (The same can’t be said of the convent, by the way, which had to be rebuilt after the earthquake of 1650.  Score one for the Incas.)  The Incan floors and some of the original walls remain as well as some artifacts.  The Cusco Cathedral is also magnificent—almost over the top–and like the Convent of San Francisco in Lima, it has a painting of the Last Supper with Jesus and the apostles feasting on guinea pig.  It also was built on a sacred Incan site by the Spanish, who were determined to replace any remnants of the Incan religion with symbols of Catholicism.  They used some of the boulders from Sacsayhuaman for construction of the cathedral.  Sacsayhuaman (if you say “sexy woman” in sort of a leering voice, you’re pretty close to the pronunciation) is on a plain overlooking Cusco.  It’s built of huge (and I mean BIG) stones and is believed to have been a kind of amphitheater for ceremonies and celebrations.

As you may be able to tell, I developed quite an admiration for the Incan people and culture during my short time in Peru.  I’ll leave you with one last point to ponder.  While they didn’t have a written language as we understand it, they invented binary code and they used knotted strings called quipu for recording information.  Leave it to the textile experts to come up with something like that.

8 comments on “Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley

  1. 73parkavenue says:

    We’ve always wanted to visit here and are even more inspired to do so now! Thanks for sharing this with us and keep up the great content.

    1. Thanks for the kind words! Peru was unlike any place I’ve ever been. It was our first trip to South America and now I want to go back myself.

  2. Good pictures and story! Thanks for sharing! Definitely on our short list of places to go!

    1. Thanks! We’ve taken some great trips but this one was really special.

  3. Fergy. says:

    What a well-written and interesting piece with excellent accompanying images. Like others I have long wanted to visit but I am not so sure if I could manage that altitude and climbing at my age!

    1. Thanks so much! Do you know, it never occurred to me to wonder if I could make it. It probably should have because I’d never been at altitude and I’m not getting any younger myself. I didn’t have any problems at Machu Picchu although I was rather glad we didn’t have a lot of hiking at higher altitudes.

      1. Fergy. says:

        Good on you for making it although I suspect you don’t smoke 30 a day like I do!

      2. That’s true, I don’t. Another interesting fact about Peru–while they grow both coffee and tobacco, few Peruvians use either product.

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