5. Cuzco

Continuing down the Sacred Valley alongside the roaring Urubamba River, we passed by several villages. These villages were historically threatened by mountain pumas, which subsisted on local livestock. However, the puma population has since dwindled due to excessive hunting. One of the villages we passed is Lamay. It wasn’t long before we found that the village was famous for its herb-stuffed honey-roasted cuy, or guinea pig. For the squeamish, look away now:

Herb-stuffed cuy, roasted on a skewer by the side of the road.

In Peru, these furry critters are not kept as pets; instead, they are fattened and roasted as a local delicacy. Roasted cuy tasted much like suckling pig but with much less meat and fat. It seems odd that Peruvians would treat cuy as a reasonable food source. Perhaps its limited utility as a domesticated animal and short breeding cycle makes it a reasonable source of food.

After a quick lunch accompanied by some chicha morada, a non-alcoholic fermented corn beverage, we continued on to Ollantaytambo. The town, again at the foot of a hill housing the famous Incan site, contains buildings which have been preserved from Incan times and are used until today. Ollantaytambo has huge steep terraces guarding the fortress, located on top of the hill overlooking the surrounding valley. Legend has it that Ollanta, a soldier in the Incan Empire, had fallen in love with the Incan Emperor’s daughter. Attempting to kidnap her but failing, Ollanta retreated to Ollantaytambo where he built his community to rebel against the Incans. Eventually captured, he was spared his life due to the Emperor’s sympathy.

The afternoon sun casts a slanting shadow on the terraces of Ollantaytambo.

Curiously, Ollantaytambo was also the fortress site to which the Incans retreated after the Spanish had captured and sacked Cuzco. In an attempt to capture Manco Inca, the last Incan Emperor, the Spanish sieged the Incan ruins, but Manco Inca flooded the valley below with irrigation channels, causing Spanish horses to be bogged down and forcing their retreat. Eventually, however, a larger army returned and forced Manco Inca to flee deeper inland towards the jungle stronghold of Vilcabamba.

Another view of the terraces at Ollantaytambo. The fortress and the religious centre are situated at the top of the steep terrace steps.

Besides acting as a fortress, Ollantaytambo was a temple and, as the terraces indicated, an agricultural site. A ceremonial centre is situated at the apex of the fortress. The altar was placed at the highest point, so that it was closest to the sun, which, according to Incan beliefs, provided the spiritual energy for religious ceremonies on the summer solstice. On the religious altar, a faint outline of a zigzag pattern with three protrusions can be seen. This pattern, termed the Inca Cross or chakana, represented the three levels of the world. The upper worlds were inhabited by superior gods, the middle world represented everyday life, and the lower worlds were inhabited by spirits and ancestors.

The faint outline of an Inca Cross or a chakana.

The propensity of Incans to carve significant figures into stone was also evident from the cliff face opposite Ollantaytambo, which was reminiscent of an old man carrying a large sack on his shoulders. This ostensibly represented Viracocha, a deity who would disguise as a beggar and travel around villages in the Sacred Valley, teaching villagers of the basics of civilisation. Venturing down the steep hillside and looking back up, we saw another stone carving, this time of an Andean condor, descending from the realm above. Whether these carvings were intentional (they would certainly require a large scale engineering effort) or simply a case of pareidolia, we will never know. We ended our tour in the ceremonial area near the base of the fortress, full of baths and fountains which served as both irrigation and religious centres.

The mountain opposite Ollantaytambo apparently resembles Viracocha carrying a basket on his back.

Finally, heading back towards Cuzco, we stopped by the final site of Chinchero as the sun set over the distant Salkantay MountainChinchero is a small village located high up on the Andean plains, renowned for its Sunday market. We arrived in Chinchero just in time for the final shouts of hawking textile vendors. Much like other Incan sites, while there are terraces and remnants of Incan stonework, there is also a plain colonial church built directly on top of Incan ruins.

The colonial church in Chinchero.

The Incan ruins were thought to be the resort of the Incan Emperor Tupac Yupanqui, with various chambers housing the many wives and concubines of the Emperor. Surrounding the resort are aqueducts and terraces, which take advantage of the fertile soil in the region for the cultivation of potatoes, quinoa, and fava beans. These areas are used for agricultural purposes to this day; indeed, the plains were covered with drying potatoes.

The plains at Chinchero, looking out towards Salkantay.

The colonial church was built in 1607 by the Spanish and is one of the most beautiful in the Sacred Valley. While relatively plain from the outside, the church has ornate painted ceilings and remarkable Catholic artwork. Colonialist art features religious figures wielding real-life tools and weapons; a particularly striking painting had an angel dressed as sword-wielding conquistadors. To assimilate the local populace, these paintings would often reimagine scenes such as the final supper and the figure of Jesus to incorporate local imagery, creating bizarre scenes where apostles would be surrounded by giant corn and roasted guinea pigs.

After a long and quite tiring day, we returned to Cuzco, just in time to pick up our rented hiking gear and an early dinner, in anticipation of an early start and the beginning of our much-anticipated trek of the Inca Trail.

Colourful alpaca yarn sold at the Ccochahuasi Animal Sanctuary.

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