5. Cuzco

Day 2: Sacred Valley Tour

For our second day, we embarked on a Sacred Valley day tour with the agency Llama Path. Sculpted by the winding Urubamba River, the Sacred Valley is so named due to its incredible importance in food production to sustain the Incan Empire. The Urubamba brings dissolved minerals and nutrients from the surrounding Andean mountains, making the soil in the region particularly fertile. Historically, the valley attracted indigenous people from around South Africa as it is lower in elevation and so is warmer and milder in climate compared to surrounding areas. Sacred mountains such as Salkantay and Veronica tower over the valley, looking down on the pleasantly ploughed fields, where agriculture persists even until today.

Incan rooms often have window-like openings for the storage of dried goods and decorations.

The Incans were truly remarkable agriculturalists. Maize and countless varieties of potatoes were developed as the Incan Empire expanded and assimilated tribes along the river valley. Instead of warfare and eradication, the Incan Empire opted for “soft power”, convincing tribes to join the empire and contribute their knowledge and expertise in exchange for vast amounts of centralised resources. As such, agricultural, cultural, religious, and technological practices mixed and evolved as tribes were integrated. It wasn’t long before Cuzco and the Sacred Valley became the de facto capital of the Incan Empire due to its accessibility.

Agricultural fields still line much of the Sacred Valley.

Where there is fertile soil, there are settlers, and so too the demand for complex settlements and religious sites increased. Aside from its central importance in the Incan Empire, the Sacred Valley is well known for its archaeological sites. Many of these were stop-off settlements or shrines along the way to Cuzco, akin to modern-day service areas. These were mostly designed in line with the Incans’ astrological and religious beliefs. For instance, buildings were constructed such that the sun would align with features during the summer solstice. Sheer cliff faces were also carved to resemble characters or sacred animals in Incan lore.

A view of the Sacred Valley from Pisaq.

Before our tour of the archaeological ruins, we first visited the Ccochahuasi Animal Sanctuary. This sanctuary is a family-run private organisation which rescues indigenous animals from poachers and former owners. The sanctuary houses not only the more common alpacas and llamas but also Peruvian hairless dogs, Andean condors, and even an Andean bear cub. The hairless dogs have persisted since pre-Incan times and have characteristic tufts of golden hair on their heads and tails; they are also known for their extraordinarily high metabolic rate. The preening Andean condors, easily the prize animals of the sanctuary, were worshipped by Incans and were thought of as messengers from the heavens. They are extensively hunted by farmers who believe (wrongly) that they kill livestock; nonetheless, breeding and release programmes have partially recovered their populations in the wild. Our visit of the macaw and monkey section of the sanctuary was abruptly interrupted by the adorable Andean bear cub running loose. Wreaking havoc on the various fenced areas, it was eventually lured back to the keepers by watermelon.

Inhabitants of the Ccochahuasi Animal Sanctuary. From top left, clockwise: two llamas, an Andean condor, the Peruvian hairless dog, and an Andean bear cub.

Following a brief stop at a mirador overlooking Sacred Valley, our tour continued on to Pisaq, a small town at the foot of mountains housing the Incan ruins of the same name. Like many other Incan ruins, the archaeological complex is divided into regions of various levels of significance: Pisaqa, the commoners’ and farmers’ region; Inti Watana, the religious hub of the settlement; and Q’alla Q’asa, the citadel and lookout. The level of significance of a particular area can be determined by the quality of stonecutting; the most outstanding masonry, consisting of rounded stones and perfectly fitting blocks, was reserved for the areas of greatest importance.

Remnants of Incan rooms viewed from Q’alla Q’asa. The lack of sophisticated architecture meant that roofs were constructed from straw. As such, all Incan ruins appear roofless today.

Pisaqa included the lodging for commoners and massive terraces for growing crops. Agricultural terraces, the most striking features of Incan sites, were of great significance for Incan agriculture. Not only did they expand the cultivatable area in the valley, but a height difference of two metres between each successive terrace led to temperature variations of half a degree Celsius, effectively creating microclimates to allow Incans to grow a wide variety of imported crops. The massive scale of engineering and development of irrigation systems is incredibly impressive considering they were developed without heavy machinery.

Agricultural terraces at Pisaq, looking towards the Sacred Valley.

Inti Watana, the religious site, included the Temple of the Sun, altars, and fountains. The significance of this area is evident from the masterful masonry. Of particular importance is the sun-gate, which aligns with the setting sun on the summer solstice and leads to a winding path down the mountainside towards Machu Picchu. The sun gate is the portal of Pisaq to the outside world, and its positioning purportedly blesses onward travellers.

The sun gate at Inti Watana.

Finally, we briefly trekked up to Q’alla Q’asa, a citadel constructed on the peak of a small mound, which offers a view of the entire Pisaq ruins and the Sacred Valley. The excellent location of the citadel suggests that the site may have been garrisoned. With rougher stonework, it is clear that Q’alla Q’asa was not a site of great religious significance but instead may have served as a combination of military and residential areas.

The citadel of Q’alla Q’asa as viewed from Pisaqa.

Descending the winding road down the hillside, we then visited Pisaq Market, a famous Sunday market selling various silver and alpaca wool items. Natural mines around the Sacred Valley make Peru a prolific producer of silver ornaments, but the high demand has also led to a boom in counterfeits. Sadly, the market no longer caters for locals but is now filled with stalls selling hackneyed souvenirs. We learnt that some stalls used to sell magnetic meteorites collected by local farmers, but this has since been banned by the Peruvian government, thwarting my attempts to secure a piece of celestial rock.

Pisaq Market.

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