Macchu Pichu is the most famous Incan site in the world, deservedly so given its location and mysterious history, but the prelude to Macchu Pichu is the Sacred Valley of the Incas. A deep valley carved by the Urubamba river on it’s descent to the Amazon, the Sacred Valley was the breadbasket for the Incan Empire and the site of many of its most impressive fortresses, and one of its greatest last stands.
As we left the center of Cusco we were reminded of the odd first-world bubble that is formed around the old town. We left the high-end boutiques selling fashionable alpaca ponchos and crossed a series of rail-road tracks that dove straight through a local market. Stray dogs rummaged through trash while children tumbled nearby in the mud. Vendors lined the tracks, shoulder to shoulder hawking everything imaginable. In the center of the rails, I watched as a man brought an axe down on the carcass of a cow, its decapitated head taking note from several feet away.
We rose out of Cusco and drove across a spectacular plateau, the last vestiges of the Altiplano. Broken icy peaks poked up beyond golden brown hills, each with its own horizontal pattern of ancient terracing. We passed sleepy villages and sprawling fields. After an hour we began the descent into the Sacred Valley on a curving series of switchbacks and blind curves.
We followed the muscular Urubamba River at the foot of sheer rock-faces. Adobe brick towns were tucked into river bends. Forgotten fortifications or terraced villages, each empty and forlorn watched from above. We reached the town of Ollyantaytambo after the road ran straight into an ancient wall and took a sharp right. It climbed a little hill, past a pair of intact Incan gates and bent down a cobblestone alley that was the town’s main road. Ahead, the ruins of the fortress of Ollyantaytambo climbed the mountainside with stacks of stone terraces topped by rows of roofless buildings and temples. Behind us, climbing the hill on the other side of the valley, another set of ruins, crawling ever upwards with hollow-eyed windows and devastated walls.
Sitting in the valley between the ruins is the town of Ollyantaytambo, heralded as a “living Incan town” Before our arrival I was skeptical. Like Cusco the houses are built on the foundations of Incan buildings, but in many cases they remained intact, the stones in the walls last touched by Incan stonemasons. Polygonal doorways faced a rigid grid of stone streets, lively canals of water burbling at their edges. Walking through the narrow labrynth we past people dressed in their traditional textiles, shoes and hats. Many of the women still had the ubiquitous fedoras and bowlers, but here too were actual red and black patterned dish shaped hats of the original Incan style. The sun at its late morning angle cut beams through the dusty air and made the little canals sparkle. It cast long shadows down the narrow side-streets and lit up the ruins watching over the town on the surrounding mountains. In this light, on these little streets, Ollyantaytambo indeed seemed alive with an extinct culture. A living Incan town.
After we dropped our bags at our hostel, we followed an alley to the edge of town. A rocky staircase shot upwards towards Pinkuylluna, the remains of a series of storehouses and army barracks that overlook the city and the famous citadel on the opposite side of the valley. Like many Incan ruins, Pinkuylluna looks impossibly adhered to the edge of the rocks, making the climb up steep and potentially dangerous. Being buildings created for lesser purposes, these structures were of small rocks and stucco but were still holding fast to the edge of the hill. Each time we reached a building with its own fantastic view of the valley, we looked up and saw another. We climbed the steps to the top of the complex, or what we thought was the top, and saw still more above. Following a narrow path that skirted the edge of a cliff, we rounded a turn and took in the old barracks.
Pinkuylluna means, “place where the flutes play” in Quechua. Its usage seems to be a mystery. Wikipedia calls it a series of storehouses, the tourist office in Ollyantaytambo says it was an army barracks that was then used as an artists residence – hence the flutes. Whatever its useage, the ruins are incredible. The sight of the stepped barracks marching up the face of a perilously steep hill was an acrophobic thrill. The sun had reached its peak and was bathing the buildings and their surrounding field stone terraces in warm afternoon light.
Already winded from the climb to the lower settlement, we hiked slowly up to the barracks. Breathless and giddy from the long drop below, we explored the remains, careful not to slip on the loose gravel. Aside from a couple of other visitors we were on our own. Little had been done to preserve these buildings, making us feel like explorers stumbling across a lost city. The view was getting more impressive as we climbed, but looking up we saw we were far from the top. Other sets of ruins clung to even less substantial outcroppings above us. We hiked up further, sometimes scrambling on all fours. More storehouses above. We gave in, the entire mountain was speckled with the remnants of buildings, each with a more unbelievable position than the last.
The next day we went to see the star of the show, the ruins of the temple fortress of Ollyantaytambo. It was to here that Manco Inca Capac retreated after the loss of Saksaywaman, and it was here he was finally able to repel a Spanish attack. Like all the royal Incan structures, Ollyantaytambo leaves you speechless in its audacity. The landscape has been bullied by walls of giant stones. Fields appear on cliff faces that were once sheer. At the top, the Temple of the Sun predicts the solar year, and harnesses the first light of day. We arrived soon after the ruins were open and clambered up the hundreds of stairs before the hoards of tourists could be unleashed. Unlike Pinkuylluna on the other side of the valley, Ollyantaytambo is a major tourist attraction, and deservedly so. After an hour of relative calm, our fortress of solitude slipped away with a dozen bobbing heads making their way up the stairs behind us. We fled to lesser pathways, behind houses and across sheer drops. Making our back down and through the partially reconstructed Incan baths, we left the spectacular citadel behind.
From Ollyantaytambo we took a succession of two combi-buses and a taxi to the Salineras salt flats and Moray, an impressive amphitheater of circular terraces, three concave funnels in earth. For Magda’s “name’s day” (a Polish tradition) we ate a surprisingly delicious dinner at friends of our friend Carmen’s restaurant in Urubamba.
On our last day in Ollyantaytambo, and a few hours before our train was scheduled to leave for Aguas Calientes we hiked up to Kachiqhata, the quarry the Incans used to build Ollyantaytambo. It was a long hot climb up a shadeless trail and half-way to the quarry, we stopped for a snack in a field. The view of the village was perfect, in the town square a band was blowing on metal instruments, filling the valley with a windy caucophony. Outside of town farmers were burning piles of weeds, sending up curling streams of smoke.
On our way back we spotted the corner of a rectangular pool of water. We’d heard there was something called an Incan Bath on the way to the quarry, but we hadn’t found it on the way up the hill. The pool was shaded by a little grove of eucalyptus trees and fed by a rare trickle of water in the arid valley. It was constructed of cut stones in the royal Incan style, but had obviously been reconstructed recently using concrete. We took our shoes off and relaxed in the shade, our legs cooling off in the bath where Incan kings once found refuge from the heat of the day. That afternoon we’d cross the river again and catch a train to the tourist Mecca of Macchu Pichu, but here was our own little ruin, empty, peaceful and silent, save for the burbling sounds of the spring.