Finally getting around to Peruvian adventures. Since the last blog we have been doing a lot of moving about in Central America searching for a place to plant our feet at sea level for a few months after our epic trekking trip. I am happy to say we are now coming to you from sunny Sayulita in Mexico. We are surprised to find ourselves back here but that story is for another time, for now it’s snippets of Peru…
Living in the charming city of Cusco for 2 months gave us a wonderful opportunity to absorb and learn about the Incan Empire as well as allowing time to explore the oft overlooked or rushed through Sacred Valley.
Cusco was the historic capital of the Incan Empire. Sitting 3,400m above sea level (more breathlessness for us, even after Cuenca!), its unique layout was designed by the Incas in the shape of a Puma. This relates to the Incan cosmology where they divide the cosmos into three levels. The Puma represents the power and strength of the earth’s surface – the middle world of humans.
It is a beautiful city whose rich and complex layers of history is evident as one merely walks the streets. After destroying many Incan buildings, temples and palaces, the Spanish erected their colonial buildings directly on top of the famous and incredibly precise stonework of the Incan foundations. The difference in masonry isn’t difficult to see and a phrase that amused us was, ‘the work of the Incans as opposed to the work of the Incapables.’
Now I’m not going to get into the politics of Peru here, lets just say the Spanish don’t come off particularly well.
Cusco’s considerable number of churches and cathedrals, surrounding ruins, and chocolate museum kept us pretty occupied over the 2 months. Then there was shopping at the market a few times a week.
Grocery shopping in Cusco was most definitely a cultural experience. Admittedly this was a choice I consciously made, as safe and homogenised supermarkets were to be found but where’s the fun in that?! I wanted to shop where the Peruvians did, so it was off to San Pedro market, which is Cusco’s main market, to keep up my Spanish practice.
The market is vast and vibrant and a true eye opener! There one can find everything from regular ‘western friendly’ produce, to snakes blood and donkey snouts. It’s impossible to be confused about the meat various vendors are selling – pork for example will have a couple of pigs heads, dripping with blood and hung up at such a height that I almost felt compelled to engage in polite conversation with Porky whilst waiting for the bacon he so kindly provided for me.
The most impressive ruins surrounding Cusco sit high above the city and represent the Puma’s head. They are called Sacsayhuaman (pretty much pronounced ‘sexy woman’) and were once an important ritual centre and fortress. The megalithic walls are almost incomprehensible in size especially to think that these are merely the ruins! One of the key stones there is 8.5 metres high and weighs 140,000 kg. Most of the other stones aren’t far behind. It is beyond imagination that these walls were built and carved by the Incas without equipment or machines and that the stones fit so perfectly so as not even a blade of grass could fit between them.
Peru’s famed Sacred Valley of the Incas spreads from just outside of Cusco, to Machu Picchu. Fed by the Urubamba River, the majestic and lush valley was valuable to the Incas due to its specific geographical and climatic properties.
Ollantaytambo is a town in the Sacred Valley whose gridded, cobblestone streets look much the way they did in Incan times. The small canals running through the town continue to be used for their water supply and there are still several houses which date back to the period, complete with a fair old number of guinea pigs scurrying around the lounge room.
You may or may not be aware that in this area of South America guinea pig or ‘cuy’ is a reliable, sustainable and intelligent source of protein. This tradition dates back to the Inca days and I’d love to say that we were adventurous enough to go there, but we simply couldn’t. Can’t say I’m currently feeling any regret.
The Maras area in the valley is home to Salineras – salt mines that have been in use since Pre-Incan times and are still being worked today in the traditional method. We were able to freely wander around the terraces, getting up close to observe the intricate system of salt water channels that are so carefully moderated by the workers. Both the intricacies and the overall facade of Salineras are so impressive that we ended up staying far longer than anticipated.
A few kilometres away from the salt mines, one finds Moray. Though it may look like an alien artefact or a spiritually significant construct, it is actually an innovative Incan agricultural creation. The amazing concentric terraces which strike one as an amphitheatre, were created for agricultural experimentation where each level allowed the Incas to determine which climate suited various crops. Clever hey?!
The final highlight of the Valley was Pisac. Known for its Sunday Markets and ruins which date back to the same time as Machu Picchu, the town is well worth the visit.
The large and incredible Pisac ruins sit high on the hill above the town. The agricultural terracing which graceful curves around the sides of the mountain are without a doubt impressive. Above the terraces the ruins of the city are intriguing, complete with cliff-hugging footpaths and a short tunnel carved out of the rock.
Boy that’s a lot of activity and I haven’t even touched on the treks! So with that I’ll wish you a fantastic, healthy and happy new year!