Three days after arriving in Peru, I finally left my hotel room. I’d been in the throes of altitude sickness: headache, nausea and dizziness. I’d done nothing but sleep and take occasional sips of water. Sunday had come and gone. Sunday had been market day and the reason I had stayed in the village of Pisac, which is thirty kilometers outside of Cusco.
I had planned to arrive at the market early Sunday morning for pictures of vendors setting up their stalls and to spend the whole day photographing buyers and sellers. Sunday was something of a blur to me now. I remember hearing a flock of French tourists fluttering around the hotel, sing-songing with their high voices, so cheery and healthy sounding as they got ready to go to the market, while I lay on my bed and whimpered in pain. I knew I was sick when I just turned over and buried my head in the pillow, not caring about all the colorful photos awaiting me just a kilometer away.
On Monday morning, the rpm’s of my spinning head having slowed somewhat, I forced myself to go down to breakfast and to call Rafael, the taxi driver, who had driven me from the airport in Cusco to Pisac. Rafael had endeared himself to me when, on our way through Cusco, he stopped at a sister hotel to tell them to prepare a cup of coca tea for me because I had told him I was tired. Although he had no way of knowing I was interested in photography, he stopped several times during the hour-long trip when he saw something to photograph. I knew then that Rafael was the perfect driver to show me the Sacred Valley.
The next morning Rafael and I drove north through the Sacred Valley to Ollantaytambo, following the path of the rushing mud-colored Urubamba river. We passed through small villages of two-story adobe houses sodden from the almost daily rains. The houses had no chimneys and I imagined they were dark, damp and cold inside. The other effect of all the rain was the intense green of the landscape. Terraces of green, from an intense blackish green to yellow-green, quilted the valley from its floor to the mountaintops. Indian women, using the bright shawls tied around their shoulders as a backpack, wore full knee-length skirts that showed their slim shapely legs as they herded cattle, pigs and llamas to pasture. Felt fedoras covered their shiny black hair that they all braided into fat pigtails.
Ollantaytambo is a major Inca site at the opposite end of the Sacred Valley from Pisac.
The village of Ollantaytambo with its cobblestone plaza lies at the foot of the steep rise of terraces that enabled Manco Inca to defeat Pizarro’s troops in the 1500’s. Near the top, (which I somehow managed to reach) stones larger than refrigerators had been worked with magnificent skill. They needed no mortar to hold the monoliths tightly side by side. Nipple like protuberances called bosses enhance the stones but no one knows if they served a practical purpose or were simply decorative. The Incas saved their best stonework for important sites such as ceremonial baths or sites used to indicate the sun’s solstice. The stones in these important sites are larger, have more angles and sometimes seem to be worked with a desire to show the mason’s skill with stone. Splotches of orange colored lichen, contrasting with the blue of the sky, softened the fortress appearance of the gray stone.
Next we set out for the salt flats. We drove through vast verdant prairies sprinkled with wild flowers and ringed with glacier-capped mountains. The salt flats or salineras date from Inca times and are still in use today as a source of salt. A honeycomb of hundreds of tiny terraces is filled with salt laden water which evaporates in the sun and leaves a salt that is nowadays used for cattle licks.
Next was the Moray. A Moray is a large circular excavation with descending circular terraces, each terrace at a lower depth and having a different microclimate from the one above or below. It is thought that the Incas experimented with finding the optimal conditions for their crops using the Moray.
Chinchero was our last stop, Rafael pointed me toward a narrow steep street and I dutifully began the climb through the narrow village streets to the colonial church built on the Inca ruins. Thank goodness I didn’t know that Chinchero at 3700 meters is 400 meters higher than Cusco. The church may have been closed, but the Indians selling handicrafts didn’t close until they were sure the last tourist had departed. I gazed out over the terraces where Indian boys played a game of soccer in the evening’s waning light. Now and then one of the vendors would approach me holding out an article for me to inspect. They seemed shy and sweet, nothing like the hard-bargaining Moroccans or Turks. Their gentleness made me buy things I had no use for: postcards, drawings, key holders.
Another day Rafael took me high into the mountains. I wanted to see some traditional houses. Rafael understood what I was looking for and he would ask the villagers to dress in their best clothes for me. Though we did not go into any houses, I did peek in the door and the houses seemed more a shelter than a home. The villagers live most of their lives outdoors working their fields or herding their animals. Although their skin is a deep tan color, their faces are often chapped from the sun at that high altitude.
We got stuck in the mud that day and I got out of the car to do what I could. I was feeling rather proud that at 4000 meters (so the sign said) I was strong enough to help Rafael fill the muddy ruts with rocks. That is until a little Indian boy of about 8 years old came along and Rafael told him to pitch in. He started hauling boulders twice his size and flinging them into the car’s path. His little feet were shod only in rubber sandals and he was oblivious to the icy cold stream that poured off the mountain. He may have looked like a little boy, but he could do a man’s job.
It was carnival time and the village of Pisac was celebrating. For more than a week boys and girls hurled buckets of water on passers by— but mainly on each other. It was a form of flirtation and the recipient of the icy cold water was as pleased as the person whose bucket of water found its mark. Faces were coated with green-tinted or plain flour. Perhaps something to do with Ash Wednesday as well as some Inca rites still remembered.
The main focus of Carneval was the dance contest on Sunday. Each village had a dance troop who had practiced since the last carnival. When I left my hotel to walk to the village, the road was filled with dance troops dancing the 1 ½ kilometers to the village square where they would dance while they waited their turn to perform and then continue dancing on stage for 20 minutes or so. All this at more than 3000 meters. The vats of gray, yeasty beer no doubt helped and the dancers, boys and girls, men and women, eyed the huge buckets of beer thirstily.
The dancer’s costumes were beautiful and varied, especially the hats worn by the men. Some wore a knitted ‘baby’s cap’ and some a large sombrero with an upturned brim rather like a Hungarian cowboy’s hat. Others, both men and women, wore a flat-topped hat with a cloth fringe that functioned as an eyeshade. The villagers of Pisac are used to tourists and if they saw someone take their picture, most would ask for money. And although this spoiled any sense of spontaneity, I am pleased with my photos.
The Inca ruins at Pisac are a major site and can be reached by hiking from the village, although we took a taxi. A light rain fell as we followed our guide, a young Indian man called Guido. The cloud darkened sky intensified the green of the mountains. Guido knew his history and rattled off the Quechua names with their accompanying clicks and glottal stops as he pointed out the sophisticated terracing, the stone structures, and the tombs in the nearby cliff (now robbed of everything including bones). To see the ceremonial site at the top of the mountain we would have had to inch our way along a narrow, think toe-hold, ledge. We declined. There were only a few other tourists at the ruins and the mystery of the Incas was palpable.
Guido told us that on the next day the local Indians would be dancing at the ceremonial site as a part of their Carnival celebration. I didn’t ask how they would get there, but the idea of a hundred or so costumed Indians inching along the side of the cliff has stayed in my mind.
I would take the bus to Cusco from Pisac and because the two words seemed similar in my mind, I was always asking if the bus was going to Cusco when we were in Cusco and if it was going to Pisac when we were in Pisac. Finally the locals, who by now recognized me, would tap me on the shoulder to tell me to get on or off. Many of the Indians would bless themselves and say a prayer as they took their seat on the bus. Soon I realized why. The drivers, often young men, would put the pedal to the metal as we tore down the curving mountain roads to Pisac. Once when we were almost at supersonic speed, I thought the bus’s brakes had given out until I heard the whine of the motor as the driver accelerated around the curve on the wrong side of the road. Was it too late to pray, I wondered?
I asked a young shoe shine boy to be my guide to Cusco. Wilfredo was about 14 and shined shoes to earn tuition for school. I was on my way to eat some chocolate cake when we met and I invited him to join me. At first he didn’t understand and as I entered the café, he stationed himself outside the door. When I beckoned him in, he entered eagerly with a beautiful smile and many ‘thank-you’s. I later found out just what a treat this was when he told me that his father was killed in a car accident a year earlier and his older brother was supporting the family.
Wilfredo was intelligent and when he saw the type of subject I liked to photograph, he was helpful in suggesting possibilities to me. We wandered through the market where he pointed out some known ‘pick-pockers’. These turned out to be teen-aged girls. And we visited a few churches. Most were closed except for early morning mass. We wandered through narrow streets where the colonial buildings had Inca stone foundations. At the end of the day, Wilfredo invited me to his home. “Don’t you want to go to my home?” We took a mini-bus into the hills and climbed several steep flights of stairs to his house. His younger sisters were happy to have company and tried their English out on me. His mother, a shy Indian woman, greeted me and invited me to sit while she continued with her work. Despite their poverty, I could see it was a home filled with love. When it was time for me to leave, Wilfredo insisted on accompanying me to the bus station and seeing me to my bus where we said our good-byes.
MP is beautiful– lush green vegetation (It is the beginning of the jungle.) with the clouds hovering over the mountain tops and the river below. My daughter had given me a book about Inca ruins called “The White Rock” so I learned a bit about Inca stone work before I went to any sites. Of course, in MP you can have a guide to lecture you. We did. But I think that detracts from the magic of a place, following a group, taking turns to peer at the designated attractions. After the lecture, we had an hour or so before heading back to the train station and we could walk about by ourselves.
If you are a Machu Picchu aficionado, I think it would be wonderful to stay in the hotel in the park. That way you could take walks in the mornings and evenings before the hordes of tourists arrive.
You can hike to MP either a 5 day, 3 day or 1 day trek (I think is what the guide said) or take the train like we did. As we rode along, we could see orchids tangled in the dense foliage and underneath stone steps made by the Incas which lead into the dark jungle. (Mysterious!)