Cusco and the Sacred Valley of the Incas

Cusco, our last stop in Peru, sometimes gets pigeonholed as merely the gateway to Machu Picchu and the Incas’ Sacred Valley, but it’s also a vibrant and enchanting city in its own right. We had some great food, and enjoyed exploring the city’s narrow, cobblestonedstreets. The city was the Incas’ historical capital and there are many reminders of their architectural mastery to be seen. The late style of architecture, known as the Imperial Inca style and used mostly for religious and regal buildings features a technique consisting of stones cut in irregular shapes to microscopically-precise specifications and assembled into a distinctive jigsaw pattern. Owing to the precise engineering and solid materials, many striking examples of this style are still observable in Cusco and throughout the valley, and being as Cusco is still a living city, the Inca relics have been incorporated into more modern construction, with more modern (and generally less interesting) stonework, or adobe additions above the ancient foundations.

Our first two days in Cusco were spent running the typical errands we somehow always have to run when we’re staying in big cities, exploring Cusco’s neighborhoods and restaurants, and, as a celebration of nearing the end of our time in Peru, enjoying our first and only taste of cuy (guinea pig), that we had been planning on tasting since our time in Ecuador. We then embarked on a one-day tour of some of the highlights of the Sacred Valley with a guide suggested by our friends who had taken a tour with him two years ago.

He Seems a Little Too Happy to be on that Plate, No?

We weaved our way through the valley carved by the Incas’ sacred Urubamba river, stopping at the ruins of Pisaq, the salt pans at Maras, and finally Ollantaytambo, where we would take a train the rest of the way to Machu Picchu. These stops, among the many Inca relics, provided an excellent lesson in Inca history, especially because the three sites (excluding Maras, which has little surviving Inca influence) had different uses, and different classes and types of inhabitants was apparent (even if their uses are no longer definitively known).

At Pisaq, the focal point was clearly the expansive agricultural terracing, with only small groupings of buildings for living quarters. There was also one small section of the city, built in the more advanced Imperial architectural style, and centered around a stone that’s thought to have been used as some sort of sundial.


Terraces and Housing at Pisaq Maras Salt Pans Maras Salt Pans

We then took a quick break from the Inca ruins to see a truly unique thing: In the valley near Maras, there is a spring rich in salts which flows out of a mountain. Since Inca times, people have built salt pans to capture this water and extract the valuable minerals used for cooking, curing, and trade. We’ve never seen anything like the landscape created by the 3000+ small pools, and watching the salt-covered workers tend to them was a pleasant glimpse into this ancient industry.

Back on the Inca archaeology circuit, at Ollantaytambo we saw many examples of the Imperial style in another impressively situated setting. Our guide theorized that this site represented the pinnacle of Inca architecture and engineering, as several of the massive stone blocks rested in positions of staging, or otherwise incomplete construction.


Imperial Inca Stonework Stonework in Progress at Ollantaytambo


With this crash course complete, we took the train to Aguas Calientes, the true gateway to Machu Picchu, arriving after 11pm. We slept for a few hours, then woke up at 4:30 to try to catch one of the first buses into the site. We arrived around 6:30, and immediately headed for the 1-hour hike up Wayna Picchu for a birds-eye view of the ancient city. Then we descended and wandered around Machu Picchu until about 2pm, before catching the train back to Cusco.

It’s hard to say anything about Machu Picchu that hasn’t been said before, and it’s also hard to say anything about it to impress the awesomeness of it on someone who hasn’t been there, so rather than try to describe it, I’ll just confine myself to how I felt observing and experiencing it. There are many civilizations that have left remnants for us to discover, but most just look like ruins that with the help of experts and an ample dose of imagination we might be able to project back onto the people that created them, and what they looked like at their peak. On the other hand, Machu Picchu, due to the incredible engineering that went into constructing it, as well as to the fact that it was not found, and therefore not destroyed by the invading Spanish, remains so fully formed–mostly all the walls seem completely in tact, even the tallest and those coming to the sharpest points–that it’s easy to imagine oneself living in the time that it was built.

Seeing how naturally well preserved Machu Picchu is, and seeing the poor states of the other sites in the Sacred Valley made me mad at the Spanish for destroying such beautiful and impressive constructions, and made me wonder what other wonders have been lost to history. Learning about the Incas’ impressive organizational abilities throughout the entire trip, and seeing firsthand the artifacts of art, science, and architecture that they left behind, I also found myself wondering how different the world would be if they had been able to stand up to the Spanish, or if some compromise could have been found. I suppose the same could be said about many of the world’s lost civilizations, and instead of lamenting what’s missing we should be glad for the amazing artifacts that still remain.

Machu Picchu from Wayna Picchu
Inca Stonework at Machu Picchu
Tiny Machu Picchu

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One response to “Cusco and the Sacred Valley of the Incas”

  1. So glad you guys got to spend the day with Edwin. I hope you enjoyed it as much as we did when we were there!

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