Peru 1 – Sacred Valley (Cusco, Machu Picchu & Inca Písac)

Brief and Tedious Preface

No, I have not recently returned from Peru, though I wish I had. Instead, I’m using some annotated photos from a 2008 trip and am converting them into an entry here. There are several unspeakable reasons for this.

Arriving Cusco

Cast: three of my four daughters (who spoke much Spanish and a little Quechua), and myself, who joined later (who spoke a little German, less Spanish, and had not heard the name of the native language).

Where we were: Cusco (Cuzco), plus parts of the Sacred Valley, which is north-to-northwest of Cusco. The Sacred Valley contains the Urubamba River, many Inca sites, and several towns, including Písac, which is mentioned later (click most images for enlargement).

First Few Days

Learning to fly . . . : Flying into Cusco means landing at about 11,000 feet, not a feat to be taken lightly. My pilot did not take it lightly, I was convinced, when mid-morning he circled cloudy Cusco about six times and returned straightway to Lima until the next day.

This is Cusco, 11,000 feet. Prior to the 1530s (when Francisco Pizarro invaded and changed everyone’s life)–prior to that period, it was already the center for the Inca civilization, more a center of religion and culture than of commerce.
Most of the outlying Inca sites, including Machu Picchu, are lower in altitude than Cusco itself.

So, that cloudy day my two guides, Sarah and Laura, waited wonderingly, if not also patiently.

Sarah, while waiting for my flight that never landed (till the next day): drinking matte.
Laura, who blends in so well with the locals that she might make it through greater S. America unscathed. On several occasions, she would be a few feet from Sarah and myself on the streets of Cusco and we would not see her.

Soon we took a bus to the Sacred Valley and hiked above the Tambomachy ruins.

In the lower-right area are a few ruins, a controversial term among some guides, because the word overlooks the robustness and durability of the Inca architecture. However, Peter Frost (author of “Exploring Cusco”) disagrees, stating that he wants to see only ruins, and not the reconstructions that are common among the, well, ruins.

New day. New ride on a bus to the Sacred Valley to a highway junction, where a taxi driver took us the rest of the way on a dirt road toward Maras, Peru. Unforgettable are the salt mines that are older than the Incas and blend into the mountainside so well.

The salt mine (Maras), seen from above. Mineral-laden spring water slowly descends from one rectangular pool to the next with the result that the salts are deposited where they are harvested. Traditionally anyone living in Maras can have a mine, the newcomers receiving mines farthest from town.

In the town of Maras, children find a way for fun on, I think, a sheet of cardboard, or their mother hopes so (click image for animation):

Toward Machu Picchu

Two of my daughters, Sarah and Laura, had been traveling and camping in South America for months before I arrived. Their sister Amy was soon to arrive in order to attend a Spanish school in Cusco (living with a host family).

When I arrived in Cusco, Laura and Sarah thoughtfully upgraded from a hostel that was 10 soles a night to one that was 15 soles (about US$5). They found a way to do everything at practically no cost with the result that they saw genuine, unvarnished people and places in those countries. Some were so unvarnished that their lives were in danger at times, but that would be a matter for a different travel log.

In keeping with frugality, our trip to Machu Picchu bypassed the train ($ the obvious route $) and took the route less traveled. Only later did I read several web pages that advised against our route for matters of safety and convenience—and yet it was one of the most memorable parts of the entire trip. It took us high into the Andes in a bus and then down to the jungle to a town called Santa Maria. (We had been joined by Amy by this time.) If the trip away from Cusco was exciting, the return trip was more so, when the bus tire was burst by a large rock on a sharp corner. The entire extended family (for I think the bus was a family business) got out in the rain and pitched in to replace the tire.

From Santa Maria, we boarded a Toyota van called a “colectiva” that held about 3x times the recommended capacity. The capacity was increased both by removing some seats and by including people on the roof (not necessarily with the permission of the driver).

The colectiva whisked us along a narrow dirt road that edged its way up the side of a mountain.

At one point the colectiva stopped in front of a house, and the woman at the house began to throw buckets of water at us. This happened at a few stops, sometimes with water balloons, sometimes with hoses. Good entertainment.
Once the driver got out and wrestled with the woman. She dumped a whole bucket on his head. We heard that they are married.

The colectiva dropped us off just past Santa Teresa at the hydroelectric plant on the Urubamba River. From there we walked the ~7 miles to Aguas Calientes, the town just below Machu Picchu.[1]

We took a bus from Cusco (lower right corner) to Santa Maria (upper left), followed by a colectiva from Santa Maria to a hydroelectric plant just beyond Santa Teresa (middle left).
From the hydroelectric plant, we walked on a railroad track, starting in the daylight but ending up in Aquas Calientes in the dark. Little did I know we had walked a rather large loop around Machu Picchu, that loomed above us in the dark.

We will soon catch up with and pass the Argentinians ahead of us. January is a month many Argentinians travel.

Machu Picchu Itself

We were told we needed our passports, but don’t think that was true … however, we felt as though we paid for that stamp.

Many people believe that certain places have sacred or unique spiritual value (with, say, cemeteries at one end of the spectrum and temples, ancient or new, at the other end). At times, I wish I believed that too. If nothing else, the belief enhances the sightseeing enterprise, howsoever self-contradictory that sentiment might be, since sightseeing has undertones of consumerism when done mechanically or for what is popularly called (with a mechanical metaphor) “the bucket list.”

For me, my mind is in the gutter when it comes to spiritual value, but not perhaps in the way you think. A spiritual moment, being a moment when the finite being reaches out by faith to the too-big-to-be-seen creator, involves humility and trust, a trust that wherever I am, I am in the creator’s heart, whether it be a gutter or the mossy rock looming above the Inca ruins. In other words, spiritual places involve attitudes, not altitudes.

That said, it’s time to see the sacred place (briefly, since it’s so well documented by others).

Instead of taking the bus from Aques Calientes to Machu Picchu, we hiked up the beautiful path, with numerous stone steps. This is midway.

If the Inca ruins did not exist, Machu Picchu would retain much of its attraction, because of the steep, deep green, misty if not mystical peaks that surround it.

We spent little time at the ruins–not only because there were hundreds of visitors (not surprisingly now that this place has been declared one of the 7 new Wonders of the World), but because we wanted to climb Wayna Pikchu (a peak) which towers over Machu Picchu (a saddle, not a peak).

Traveling to the Peruvian Andes in January entails affordable airfare and the possibility of rain. It rained for hours while we slept in Aguas Calientes, and only occasionally as we hiked that day.

Here we are at the summit of Wayna Pikchu, also known as Haunya Picchu, two transcriptions of the native language of Quechua.

On the descent from Wayna Pikchu, Sarah and Laura talked us into going to the Temple of the Moon, named by an early manager of the Machu Picchu hotel. It is a place probably unrelated to the (persisting) Inca interest in the moon. The ruins are impressive if one can breathe at that point in the hike.

A woman on the trail told us it was “20 minutes” to the Temple of the Moon, but Peter Frost more accurately writes, “It takes about two hours round-trip to reach the temple.”

Sarah and Laura wandered off and caught an impressive view of Machu Picchu. This place—this hidden civilization—was likely an estate for the Inca emperor Pachacuti, abandoned, and kept secret until Hiram Bingham discovered it in 1911.


Views such as this were afforded by the point to which Laura and Sarah climbed.


While Amy overlooked the Temple of the Moon.


Looking northward across Machu Picchu, one sees Wayna Pikchu towering in the background, the mountain around which the Urubamba River winds in the valley below.

A lightly annotated version.

Looking northward.

Moving toward the southern end of the saddle, one can view the Inca drawbridge, whose protective function is self-evident.

The Inca drawbridge, a strategic defence. According to Peter Frost, “The path has been fenced off shortly before the bridge, ever since a hiker tried to cross it and fell to his death.”

A parting shot of Machu Picchu. Perhaps we cared more about the periphery than the center, or more about the natural beauty than the highly trafficked spots, not that I wouldn’t be glad to return and spend a few days learning the place.

Back to the main ruins. Laura.

We spent a 2nd night in our Aguas Calientes hostel, and in the morning, hiked to the hydroelectric plant. There we got in a colectiva that ultimately held about 22 people and 2 on the roof. It was a long, beautiful trip, and when we arrived in Santa Maria (pictured below), I said, “I just need to urinate before we get in the bus,” but as soon as we got out of the colectiva, we were ushered onto a bus that we were told had a toilet (whose door that hadn’t been opened for about 5 years).

After about a half hour, the driver stopped the bus to let Sarah and me get off and relieve ourselves. Being in the back of the bus, I was slow to get off and to get back on. While I was trying to nonchalantly make water with my back turned to an overloaded bus full of people, the driver decided to start driving. Sarah had made it back on. As I’m told, the whole bus load of people began to plead with the driver, “do not leave the father.” I ran up the road about 100 feet and got back on.

Santa Maria, an agricultural nexus. Photo borrowed from (no longer available)

Later, when it was getting dark, our bus went through a place where the rain had caused a landslide, and a (very) large rock blew out one of the tires on the bus. This photo is very close to what you would have seen if you looked down upon us after the blowout.

For about 45 minutes, many were milling around (but in the rain and darkening sky). Meanwhile, the team (every bus and every colectiva seems to have a crew working on it, not to mention the people who play guitar, do music tricks, or try to persuade people to read books—all of whom I admire)… meanwhile the team fixed the tire. (Photo is borrowed but is no longer available at its source,

We finally got going again and made it home around 11PM.

Pisac / Písac

It is Písac, a medieval town adjacent to Inca ruins (Inca Písac), that I loved most. This area is as beautiful as Machu Picchu, yet different, and not nearly as highly trafficked.

Perhaps my love is the love one holds for the runner-up or the ones who also ran. I don’t know that Inca buildings were ever a competition, but if they were, I can imagine the stone worker boasting, “My pieces fit so well… they fit so well that when an earthquake comes in two hundred years, the Spanish buildings will fall but mine shall remain” (which was the case in 1650 in Cusco).

In my next travel log I explain more about the approach to—and charm of— Písac. For this initial visit our attention was on the ruins, so we quickly made it through Písac to the far end of the ruins in order to be able to walk through them, arriving back in Písac at the end.

New day. New area. We are now at the ruins above Písac, a town in the Sacred Valley, about 45 minutes from Cusco. Amy is not here, since her language school in Cusco has begun.

Whereas Machu Picchu sits at about 8,000 feet, Písac is higher. The town stands at almost 10,000 feet. The ruins, rising nearly 11,000 feet, are frequented by wispy clouds.

A room with a view.

All very high, steep, and vegetated. The ancient people built terraces where few moderns would want to hike.
Sarah, Laura, and a couple of other hikers climbed an unmarked trail, gaining a nice look down on the ruins.
Laura and Sarah’s “condor’s eye” view of the ruins of Pisac.
Inca architecture. A respect for trapezoids with their arch-like stability.
Laura emerging from one of the two tunnels in the Pisaq ruins.
Sarah, not emerging from the tunnel.

A fellow named Miguel offered to be our guide, we declined, and then he hiked with us, guiding us anyway.

This, the Temple of the Sun, is the center of the ruins above Pisac, where the ritual celebrations occurred.
I asked Miguel, our guide-buddy, if the Incas used to sacrifice people. “No, he said. Usually llamas. Sometimes women.” (For a guy obviously happy to be with two North American women, that was quite a statement—not sure he knew how close he had just come to being a human sacrifice himself.) Slaves also entered into that number of victims, and as with many ancient civilizations, it was an honor to be chosen for the gods.

Within the Temple of the Sun lies the Intiwatana, an alter with the small column (harness), from which the sun could metaphorically be harnessed. (The harness is visible in the foreground of the opening created by the stone doorway.)
Temple of the Sun, continued.
Temple of the Sun, one of the many structures where astronomy and theology met, providing a sense of stability.

As I close this section, I am a little sheepish, talking of love for the place at the beginning and ending with only occasional sketches. Ah, well. Perhaps I’m due for another (circumspect) visit!

Leaving Cusco

Back in Cusco, we drank matte on the roof of our hostel, with its beautiful nighttime view, slept, walked down the very steep and narrow roads leading toward the plaza, ate a breakfast at a non-profit place that knew how to appeal to northern appetites, and put me in a taxi.

Back at our hostel, in Cusco we view the Plaze de Armas. Typical of most urban centers coming under Spanish colonial rule, Cusco’s center is its plaza. Many of the churches on the plaza were intentionally erected on top of Inca buildings.

Our last day. We found this place that gave some of its proceeds to needy people, so we bought a lot of food. We had been eating a plenty of bread, white rice, and some fried plantains–in addition to meals that Sarah and Laura graciously cooked in the hostel.
It was a sweet place (and obviously geared for children, the salt & pepper shakers being just an example).


[1]Aguas Calientes has since been named “Machu Picchu Pueblo,” with mixed reception, one problem being the false assumption by first-time visitors that the train will take them directly to Machu Picchu, while it actually will drop them off a couple of miles away in Aguas Calientes.