Traveling in the Sacred Valley of the Incas

By Padma and Raman Venkataramanan,
Pittsburgh, PA
E-mail Padma

In a previous issue we had discussed our trip to Peru. After visiting Lima the capital of Peru we went to Cusco, the original capital of the Incan empire and the gateway to many Inca ruins. After enjoying the city of Cusco and the nearby ruins, we visited a few small towns near Cusco before our trip to Machu Picchu.

Sacred valley of the Incas: The “Sacred valley of the Incas” (The Urubamba valley), has beautiful stretches of small villages (Pisac, Urubamba, Ollantaytambo and Chinchero, to name a few), and ancient ruins spread across the mountain slopes. The Urubamba river had made this valley a fertile agricultural center for the Incas, who grew white corn, coca, potatoes, peaches and avocados. The agricultural sector extended well into the spectacular terraced mountain slopes. In Pisac, we saw a large fortress complex built by Incas high up on a cliff . See the picture below. Here you also see one of the largest burial sites of the Incas. The artisan and antique market in the central square in Pisac is famous for sweaters, ponchos, tapestries, rugs, musical instruments, and carved gourds.

Sacred Valley of the Incas

Looking down the Sacred Valley of the Incas.

Ollantaytambo is a beautiful village with streets dating from the Incan times. The streets are lined with brick walls and in the middle one can see the canals carrying water from the mountains. One can also see terraced ruins of a massive temple fortress built by the Incas and the agricultural terraces. On the mountain side there are granaries built by the Incas and the carved faces of the Incas can be seen on the cliff. In Ollantaytambo, we were fortunate to see a residential canchas or blocks built and inhabited in the 15th century. Each block contained a set of three houses that open into a court yard and in the center was the common storage area. Each of the houses essentially consisted of a huge room with a prayer table set at one end (the skulls from the ancestors were kept here to protect the inhabitants); the beds lining up the wall on the other end; and the kitchen area in one corner. Guinea pigs were running around in one side (but they seem to know their limit), and the local Peruvian ladies were busy with their handicraft work on the other side. See the picture below. There is also a second level storage area inside this room right above the beds. It was interesting to see how efficiently they had used the small room for so many activities for the entire family. Leaving Ollantaytambo, we get a gorgeous view of the snow capped mountain ranges of Urumba, Salcantay, and Vilcabamba, near the town of Chinchero.

Machu Picchu (the lost city of Incas): Now it was time to visit Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu is the lost city of Incas. The Incas built it so high up in the mountain that it escaped destruction by the Spaniards who occupied Peru. Machu Picchu was rediscovered in 1911 by the Yale archeologist and historian, Hiram Bingham. Hiram, who was actually looking for Villacabamba, the last refuge of the Inca, Monga and his army, came to know about the ruins in Machu Pichu from a local farmer, Melchor Arteaga. Melchor and two local Indians Richarte and Alvarez directed him to the ruins in Machu Pichu. It was Hiram and his companion Sergeant Carrasco who first set eyes on these extraordinary ruins in July 1911.

One can hike for four days, about 33 kilometers, on a rugged path to Machu Picchu from near the village of Ollantaytambo, or take a train from Cusco to the town of Aguas Calientes, at the base of Machu Pichu. We took the vista dome train from Cusco early one morning and reached Aguas Calientes around 10 am. The scenery on the way was just impressive. Aguas Calientes is a small tourist trade town, known for its thermal baths. After lunch and some rest at the Inca Inn, we walked along the Urumba river and visited a museum on Machu Picchu (a good place to get some orientation to the place), and then a botanical garden (to see the local plants and shrubs). We walked through the local shops, checking out the colorful local goods. See below.

The next morning we took a bus to Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu means “old peak.” The city of Machu Picchu sits atop a mountain well above the Urumba river, and is surrounded by breath-takingly beautiful peaks, all covered with the mist from the Urubamba river down below. It was like magic; it was a spectacular archeological site.Hayana Picchu (young peak) sets up a dramatic backdrop to Machu Picchu. We decided to climb up Huayana Picchu. We hadn’t planned on it, but couldn’t resist the once-in-a-life-time opportunity. The climb was quite steep at some places. As we climbed this mountain, the cloud cover slowly lifted up and as we reached near the top, we could see the stunning piece of Incan architecture down below. (See the picture on the front cover). The ruins of Machu Picchu were nestled in the mountain top surrounded by several mountains and the Urubamba river in the valley in between. It was just spectacular. It is a place of mystery and magic. Nobody knows exactly what it was built for – was it a citadel, an agricultural site or an astronomical observatory? A ceremonial city or a scared retreat for the Incas? Or a combination of all these? No matter what it was originally meant for, it is just awesome. No photograph can do justice to the beauty of this place. You have got to be there to enjoy/feel it. We were glad we claimed Huayana Picchu and take in this spectacular view.

We then walked down to the city of Machu Picchu. By now the place was filled with tourists; we were glad that we got there early in the morning to enjoy the place from Huayana Picchu in peace and quiet. The city landscape was broadly divided into lower and upper industrial section and lower and upper agricultural section. We first walked into the agricultural sector; then went past the dry moat into the city itself. Then walked right into the fountains (small waterfalls, actually), then went through the Temple of the Sun; Temple of the Moon; Temple of three windows; Temple of the Condor; the Quarry; and the Royal tomb. Steep terraces, gardens and lime stone temples and aqua ducts that have all been carved out of the hill side. One cannot escape asking the question ‘How did they do it? How did they find such a place to build this?” It was a treat. No where have we seen such a combination of natural beauty and the pioneering spirit of human being merge in one place as it does here in Machu Pichu. After taking it all in, we took the bus down to Aguas Calends, and then the train back to Cusco. Got to Cusco around 7 pm, fully contented and thankful for this unique and wonderful opportunity.

No wonder UNESCO has classified Machu Picchu as a heritage site. It is the eighth wonder of the world.

Suggestions if you plant to visit:

Flight: Fly from Pittsburgh to Atlanta or Ft. Lauderdale to Lima to Cusco to Machu Picchu. Duration of trip: Plan for a week’s trip.

Need three days in Cusco – get acclimatized to the altitude and do local sites (Cusco, the sacred valley of the Incas)

Need two days in Aqua Calientis and Machu Picchu – spend a whole day in Machu Picchu; start early in the morning from Aqua Calientis.

Need two days in Lima – local sites

Food: Vegetarians, pack some food with you.

Time to go: May through October

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