A Journey into the Sacred Valley of the Incas
Penny’s encounter with the H1N1 strain of swine flu and her struggles with her breathing made me start to reminisce about my own struggles with breathing at the high elevations I encountered during my visit to Peru. In Part I of this series I talked about my time in Cusco and visits to Moray and the Maras salt ponds. I now want to transition into the Sacred Valley of the Incas.
Just a quick aside we are seeing slow but consistent improvements in Penny’s condition. Since my last post she was moved first to a general ward and earlier this week she was discharged from UNC Hospital to be transferred to a rehab facility in New Bern.
After joining up with the Great Escape Publishing (GEP) photography group and spending some time in Cusco we made excursions into the Sacred Valley of the Incas to visit various villages that had something special to offer. Of course our ultimate goal was a visit to Machu Picchu.
At its closest point the Sacred Valley is about 12 miles from the Inca center of Cusco. The valley runs approximately east to west with the Urubamba River running along the base. There is a distance of approximately 62 miles between the villages of Pisac and Aguas Calientes. The latter is the closest village to Machu Picchu.
Recognized for the extensive Inca ruins above the village and the Sunday market Pisac (at 9800 feet) should definitely be on your list of places to visit. If you can time your visit to be there on Sunday morning, other than exploring the market you should try to watch the village men and boys gather at the village church in their traditional regalia. After a ceremony that includes blowing into conch shell horns and making noise with other traditional instruments they parade slowly through the market place.
Be aware that if you wish to take photographs of the ceremony that you are expected to make a contribution to their collection hat. If you don’t make a voluntary contribution they are going to come and shake the hat in your face until you cough up a few Sols. I recommend being generous because it really is a privilege to observe and share the traditional customs of the village.
The market itself is a fascinating mix of traditional craft items and local fruits and vegetables. If you have room in your luggage you will find items like painted pottery, beautiful sections of hand woven cloth and skeins of alpaca yarn available; most at very reasonable prices.
Because of the altitude I suggest that you not try to rush. And why hurry when there are so many beautiful hand crafted items to enjoy.
Headed for Machu Picchu? There are really two main choices for reaching your final destination. For the fittest and most ambitious it is possible to join a group that hikes for about four days to reach this iconic UNESCO World Heritage site. It is a demanding trek (as described by ToTravelToo) especially if you have not become fully acclimatized to altitudes over 8000 feet. For those that are less energetic the jumping off point to visit Machu Picchu is the town of Aguas Calientes in the valley below the archeological site. There is no road transportation but if not hiking there are several trains each day to reach Aguas Calientes.
Train options include leaving from just outside Cusco or from the village of Ollantaytambo. The GEP group that I had joined bussed to Ollantaytambo and then caught the train.
Other than the opportunity to visit the Inca archeological site that is right on the edge of the current village we were fortunate to reach the village just as a parade for El Senor de Choquekillka, the village patron saint, was starting. The four day fiesta which is scheduled annually 50 days after Easter Sunday includes parades, dancing, special church masses as well as both cock fights and bull fights.
More than 100 masked people dressed in a variety of elaborate costumes marched through the streets of Ollantaytambo. I am not sure where they assembled and started but they proceeded along the Main Street with their destination being the village church.
Aside from the parade, Ollantaytambo is a charming Andean village with narrow winding cobbled streets. Stone walls enclosing garden plots and court yards line the streets, many of which are only accessible to foot traffic. And of course the village plays a pivotal role in the transportation of tourists to and from Agua Calientes.
The archeological site of Machu Picchu is becoming more difficult to visit because of the necessity to limit the number of people who visit daily. The popularity of Machu Picchu has necessitated implementing a policy of requiring a guide to visit the site. For independent travellers, guides are available at the site or it is also possible to join a group that has it’s own registered guide. Tickets have to be purchased far in advance and they are valid for a specific day and time (morning or afternoon). The site opens at 06:00 and a special note for photographers is that a morning ticket is a “must”, so if the weather gods are kind, catching the sunrise over the surrounding mountain tops is a fantastic experience.
Buses start the journey from Agua Calientes at 05:30 but don’t expect to just walk up 5 minutes before the buses start running and get on one of the first. My experience was that even being there an hour ahead of time there may still be 100 people, or more, ahead of you. But the locals have a smooth running “machine” loading and dispatching the buses at a fairly rapid pace. Then comes the 25 minute grind up the dirt road to Machu Picchu.
To try and describe the awe one feels on entering the archeological site is impossible. Of course there are plenty of theories on how an ancient civilization was able to achieve the construction of this community on a plateau far above the Sacred Valley. But for me it was the knowledge that the Incas had in discerning where the rays of the sun would fall at certain times of the year and the precision of their construction. It is the same sense that I gained decades ago when visiting Mayan sites through Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras.
One thing that I did notice was that visiting Machu Picchu was much less strenuous than walking around Cusco. But I still found walking more of a struggle than back home in the flat lands of eastern North Carolina. And it all goes back to altitude – Machu Picchu is at about 8000 feet above sea level compared to the approximately 11,000 feet for Cusco. Clearly my altitude intolerance starts somewhere below 8000 feet but is definitely exacerbated at higher elevations – what is your tolerance level? It is probably better to try and determine that by traveling closer to home before embarking on an overseas trip that entails visits to highly elevated locations.