We are taking some easy days to see many of the Inca sites in the Sacred Valley. Though upon arrival here we quickly dropped off our gear in our room and got back on our bikes to climb 500m in 10 km to the ruins overlooking this town. We stayed to watch the sun set and the full moon rise, then coasted back down by moonlight ( plus headlights & taillights). This is Halloween and we do see kids in costumes trick-or-treating.
Archive for October, 2009
We spent a total of 7 days biking in the Sacred Valley, with a one day visit by train to Machu Picchu. I am not sure why it is called the Sacred Valley, except that it was a very important farming center for the Incas and there are many different Inca ruins here. People, also, must travel through the valley to get to Machu Picchu and perhaps its ¨sacred¨name is due to the mystical nature of this site. While it is now a tourism center in Peru, many, many people continue to make their living farming the fertile soil in the mild climate of the valley, irrigating as needed from the Urubamba River. The major crop grown here is maize (corn). Each of the ruins we visited impressed me in their own way.
The town of Moras just above the valley was our first destination where the ruins of Moray lay 7 km away along a beautiful gravel road with views of the high snow capped mountains. Here are several large bowl-like hollows in the land where terraces built in characteristic Inca style spiral down, the largest hollow being about 100 feet deep. I thought this looked more like an amphitheater. David gave short orations of the Gettysburg address and Hamlet´s ¨To be or not to be¨ at the bottom and I heard him quite well at the top. Each of the terraces had drains for irrigation indicating the area was used to grow crops. There is about a 25 degree (Fahrenheit) difference in temperature from the top to the bottom and archeologists believe the Incas experimented with different varieties of corn, potatoes, and other crops to determine the best variety for a particular elevation and temperature. Amazing.
The next day we cycled 5 km in the opposite direction from Moras to the Salineras Salt Pans. Looking down into this deep valley that empties to the Sacred Valley we saw thousands of small rectangular pools, formed from dried salt in various stages of a murky evaporation of salty water. It was one of the more incredible sights for me on this journey. Made in pre-Inca times all of the pools were connected to an irrigation system that allowed them to be filled by a natural hot spring coming from farther up the mountain. Biking down into this valley and standing on the walls of the salt pans, we saw several people in the process of extracting the salt from evaporated pools as this ancient area continues to provide salt for the local market.
After a long climb out of this deep valley we cycled down and down and down again into the Sacred Valley. Following the Urubamba River we made our way to Ollantaytambo. This town had been an important Inca town and many original Inca stone foundations and walls remained forming the streets, courtyards and homes of today. The sound of running water was everywhere as Inca irrigation channels funneled water along the streets, around and under structures and fed terraces still used to grow maize and vegetables. The ruins overlooking the town contained a temple area that was likely being built at the time of the conquest. Huge smoothed stones that lined one wall of the temple had been transported from a quarry 5 km away that was high up the ravine of another mountain. People needed to transport them down that mountain, then 5 km along the river, across the river and then up the mountain in Ollantaytambo. We marveled at how these large stones may have traveled from that distance as wheeled carts did not exist in this part of the world before the Spaniards. On a later hike to visit the quarry, we saw a few large stones hewn smooth lying along the path that likely were meant to complete the unfinished temple at Ollantaytambo. These were known as ¨tired¨stones. The word ¨tired¨ and the now lichen covered unplaced stones called to mind for me the lost labor and forgotten technology of the pre-conquest peoples who built these grand structures and with their knowledge of agriculture created surpluses that fed a huge class of artisans and stone masons. This culture was dismantled and discarded (though not destroyed) by conquering westerners. How tired must have people felt as they lived through this period.
The last major ruin we visited besides Machu Picchu was in Pisaq. Arriving just an hour before nightfall we did not have a lot of time to explore. The fine stonework on the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Moon was visible and a broken Intihuatana, called the ¨hitching post of the sun¨ remained in one part of the temple. The Spaniards considered these to be heretical and destroyed each one they found. Archeologists say they were used for astronomical and agricultural purposes as the sun´s shadow when hitting them during the equinoxes and the solstices points in a specific direction. The Incas and other pre-conquest peoples likely used them to tell when it was the best time of the year to begin the planting of crops.
We woke early to catch the 5:09 train to the town of Aguas Calientes where we would catch a bus to take us to the Inca site. The train followed the Urubamba River through the northwest end of the Sacred Valley. Here the valley narrowed and heavily forested hills hugged the river banks. We caught glimpses of high snow covered peaks when other valleys appeared and their rivers emptied into the Urubamba. Aguas Calientes was a not too pretty tourist town with lots of construction, restaurants, hotels, and handicraft markets. We quickly got on the bus which wound its way up and over the mountain to the grandest archeological site in the America’s, Machu Picchu. I have to say, my first impression was that it was small. “Where is the rest of it,” I thought. I had seen pictures of this large, dark green, mystical place many times in the past and all over Peru. What I saw seemed to me to be much like the other ruins we had seen and in the morning light it did not look “mystical”. I grew to appreciate it more as we walked around.
The origins of the town and its significance to the Incas, like most of the ruins we have seen, is debated by archeologists. It was likely a ceremonial place that was abandoned and forgotten after the Spanish conquest. The colonial Spaniards never heard about it and so they never dismantled it. With the help of locals who knew about the ruins, an American amateur explorer, Hiram Bingham “discovered” Machu Picchu in 1912 and it has been a tourist destination ever since.
What I loved in our visit was the fine Inca stonework in the temples, the immense farming terraces, the grazing llamas, the labyrinth of rooms in the homes and the trapezoidal doorways and windows. We also did a hike up the steep Huayna Picchu which is the mountain looming in the background in pictures of Machu Picchu. The views were stunning. Finally, because the Spaniards were never here, the intihuatana, “the hitching post to the sun” remained intact in the Temple of the Sun for us to see. This small rectangular stone post rising from the middle of a large rock was similar to a sundial for pre-conquest Andinos. The shadow of the sun pointed in specific directions during the solstices and equinoxes to indicate prime times to plant crops. The mystical Machu Picchu that had been in my head before our visit became a much more practical place to me, tied to the agriculture of the Andes.
I backed into a cactus while squatting to take a photo, and then cycled a painful couple of kilometers to catch up to Julie, who plucked needles out of my posterior with tweezers while I bent over in a semi-secluded spot. We left our gear in the hospedaje this morning while we cycled down to Salineras, the Inca salt pans, a salty hot spring that is still used to make salt. We wished our bikes were loaded so we wouldn’t have to climb back up out of the Sacred Valley. Ollantaytambo is an old, Inca-walled town with a local fiesta happening in the main square. Music played all night, and the party was still going at 4 am as we walked through streets reeking of urine to catch the early train to Machu Picchu.
Hiro, a Japanese cyclist, joined us for 25k out of Cusco. He cycled 58,000 km in 6 years before settling here a year ago. We tried to leave two days ago, but turned around when Julie’s front hub made grinding noises. That was Sunday when shops were closed so we stayed two more days to get it fixed. The rainy season seems to be starting early. It’s rained almost every afternoon in Cusco. We got hit by rain and hail at 2 pm just as we entered Maras and saw Doogie, who fixed Julie’s bike, leading a downhill mountain bike tour. There is one hospedaje to stay at, though no restaurants in town. We dropped our gear and took a side trip to the Moray ruins, an Inca agricultural research facility.
As we entered the city and rode down the street to the main square we were beckoned to the curb by Ciska and Michael Verhage, who with their two young sons, Jessie and Sammy are cycling through South America. (The Verhage family) We met them in their hotel that next morning to chat with them before they left that day to make their way towards Bolivia. Conversation that was meant to be a few minutes quickly became an hour, and then, seemingly, just as quickly became six hours. Somewhere during that time the Verhages decided to stay another day in Cusco. We all very much enjoyed sharing our experiences and our commonality as we spent most of that day together. As we said goodbye a day later we hoped our paths would cross again soon, perhaps in Bolivia.
Tourists come to Cusco, almost a million a year, to see Machu Pichu, an Inca town abandoned and left pretty much alone soon after the Spanish conquest. Cusco, we discovered, was an even more important Inca city. It was the capital of the Inca Empire which before the Spanish conquest in 1532 stretched from southern Colombia to central Chile. Pizarro was impressed with the city and wrote to the Spanish Crown “that it would even be remarkable in Spain.” When the Spaniards moved in they destroyed or remodeled the city, depending on your political point of view, and built enormous churches and mansions where temples and important homes once stood. Everywhere in the old part of the city are buildings built on the foundations of the technically brilliant and resilient stonework of the Inca meshed with the less fine and less earthquake proof stonework of their conquerors. Many, many of the stones used to build the cathedral and the other numerous churches were taken from dismantled walls, temples, fortresses, and palaces in and near the once grand Inca city. One of the tour guides I heard explained that Cusco is the place where the Spanish and Inca cultures clashed and then meshed over the years to become an integration of the old world and new. The different stonework in the foundations of the buildings in Cusco perhaps represents this mixture. I found Cusco very fun to explore.
One of the most interesting places to me to see the mixture of the cultures is in the churches, in the religious paintings and icons, and in the festivals. I thing some part of the golden grandeur and artistry of the Incas lives on in these expressions. In the fantastically huge and ornate gold leaf altars and side altars of the churches built in the 16th and 17th centuries can be seen the work of the Incan artisans. Paintings that shimmer with gold highlights, seen all through Latin America in religious paintings is a style developed in Cusco after the conquest by Incan artists. We were fortunate to be in Cusco during the festival of El Señor, the Lord of Earthquakes, a festival that honors Christ and one particular crucifix that ended an earthquake in Cusco in the 1600′s as people prayed. Since then, many miracles have been attributed to it. Saturday and Sunday held the largest festivities. In the main square on Saturday night hundreds of people gathered. A large group went to Mass inside the cathedral. A larger group listened and danced to a live Peruvian band perform (they were very good) on the steps outside the cathedral. Then tall straw-like scaffolded structures were brought before the doors of the cathedral and set behind the band. They were lit, one at a time, and a fantastic display of fireworks whirled and circled around the structure and shot into the air above the crowd as the band played on. Did I mention, too, that a brass band was playing to a small crowd off in another corner next to the cathedral? All of this while Mass was held inside.
On Sunday, as we were leaving Cusco, a procession carrying a large picture of El Señor atop an intricately carved silver plated pedestal barred our path as it somberly moved along the street with a brass band playing behind. I wondered if the elaborate pedestal would have been similar to the pedestals that carried Incan nobility or perhaps those that carried representations of their gods. As we made our way out of town we saw many other neighborhoods celebrating. We needed to turn around and head beck into the city because my front tire was making grinding noises. As bike shops were closed on Sunday we opted to stay two more days to fix the tire’s hub. We stayed in a more basic hostel frequented by cyclists and recommended to us by a Japanese cyclist, Hiro, whom we had met before as we cycled around the city. The Peruvian owner had lived and worked a few years in South Carolina before he bought the hostal. He was hosting a huge party that Sunday in honor of El Señor with friends and relatives coming from all over Peru, from France and from the US. Outside our room perhaps 150 people conversed, ate, drank and danced to live music, celebrating all day. It ended by 11:00 that evening so we were able to sleep well.
Throughout our week-long stay in Cusco we visited several museums and different Inca ruins near the city. The museums helped me understand more about how the indigenous culture suvived the conquest. Each of the ruins served some type of purpose which archeologists debate. They all displayed the characteristic Inca stonework, although most of the stones had been pilfered to build the churches in Cusco. It rained while visiting one site and we were able to see the water draining as it would have drained centuries ago. Since entering Peru and visiting various archeological sites we have been amazed by the engineering used in the older cultures to divert water around and under walls and buildings and to channel water for the irrigation of crops. It was great to see the drains in action. After our tour of Cusco I was very much looking forward to our several days journey through the Sacred Valley to see what more we might learn about the Inca’s story, culminating in one of the archeological wonders of the world, Machu Pichu.
We sat out a brief thunderstorm while eating lunch in Ancahuasi, after entering the high pampa before Cusco. We met Argentine cyclist Adrian, who’s on his way to Mexico. He cannot get a visa to enter the US. A young cyclist guided us to the city center where a couple flagged us down. Michael and Ciska Verhage are cycling from LA to Chile on two tandems with their boys Jesse (13) and Sammy (11). They had cycled with the Family on Bikes in Central America shortly before I did. We spent many hours visiting before they headed off to Bolivia.
The Bridge of San Luis Rey is American author Thornton Wilder‘s second novel, first published in 1927 to worldwide acclaim. It tells the story of several interrelated people who die in the collapse of an Inca rope-fiber suspension bridge in Peru, and the events that lead up to their being on the bridge. A friar who has witnessed the tragic accident then goes about inquiring into the lives of the victims, seeking some sort of cosmic answer to the question of why each had to die. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1928.
Flocks of noisy green parrots inhabit the Apurimac river valley, far from the Amazon jungle, and as high as 2800m. We were the sole visitors to the nearby Inca ruin of Tarahuasi. At dinner the power went out as we visited with electrical engineers Edgar and Victor. Victor asked us to be godparents at his daughter’s christening in Cusco, so she could visit us in the US when she’s older. We declined.
My front tire slipped on the slick pavement on the 1500m climb out of Abancay; that is a minor drawback of a front-wheel drive bike. The misty rain cleared, then we entered the clouds and met André, a cycling Berlin lawyer, visiting with women cooking over a campfire. They offered us chicha, a fermented corn drink used in Inca ceremonies. André is on a month-long vacation cycling from Lima to La Paz. The clouds broke so we could see the mountains just as we crested the 4000m pass. We stopped at a hostal while André continued on to look for a campsite.
We expected that cycling down the scenic Chalhaunca river gorge would be easy; but had to push to make headway against headwinds in the afternoon. We met two French cyclists heading the other way. Maxim and Tomás started three months ago from Buenos Aires and are going to Lima. They are on a year-long world tour that will take them to New Zealand and Africa, where we may cross paths again. Our day ended with a 500m climb up to Abancay, the capital of Apurimac, in between Ayacucho and Cusco. We reached the city streetlights at dark, but still had some climbing ahead; and again the first three hotels were full. We will take a rest day to relax, do laundry, and Julie is treating an ingrown toenail.