Machu Picchu? Not the best spot in its neighborhood

Nearby Peruvians towns offer a living culture. Machu Picchu was impressive, even worthy of its billing, but there are also larger collections of Incan ruins elsewhere.

Nearby Peruvians towns offer a living culture. Machu Picchu was impressive, even worthy of its billing, but there are also larger collections of Incan ruins elsewhere.

As we scrambled down from some ruins high above the Peruvian village of Ollantaytambo, a 13-year-old boy approached. With his obsidian-black bangs, ruddy face and green stone necklace, he could have been a time traveler, except for his zippered jacket and jeans. His purpose was to sell us a woven bracelet or two, but his mind took a quick turn into the past.

“The Incas,” he said abruptly, “were very big people.”

That is a widely held opinion in Peru’s Sacred Valley. Understandably. Whether those who once ruled much of South America were physically big is a matter of conjecture, but even now, almost 500 years later, their presence in this valley is enormous and their descendents are proud of it.

Nearly all tourists who enter the valley are headed for Machu Picchu, the best-preserved Inca city and deservedly touted as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. It is getting even more attention this summer; July 24 is the 100th anniversary of its “discovery” by Yale professor Hiram Bingham III. But visitors would be short-changing themselves if they don’t linger in one or more of the villages leading to the great site.

Towns such as Ollantaytambo and Pisac were built by the Incas in the 1400s. They are surrounded by ruins, some in complexes bigger than Machu Picchu, and built on mountain slopes steep enough to cause vertigo. Looking down from them is like viewing an aerial photograph. Looking up at them, remembering that the Incas had no iron tools or the wheel, instills a sense of awe.

These towns also have something Machu Picchu lacks: People. The women wear traditional clothes — vibrant, multicolored shawls and full skirts, and high straw hats, bowlers or fedoras. Long braids hang down their backs. Families chow down on benches at portable cooking carts, their plates heaped with choclo (corn with kernels the size of Milk Duds), beans, peppers, and potatoes while stray dogs watch for scraps.

The people speak Quechua, the language of their ancestors. They are living Incas.

My wife and I intended to hurry directly to Machu Picchu from Cuzco, the high-altitude city of about 300,000 that once served as the Inca capital. Friends from our hometown of Seattle who have put down roots in Peru set us straight. They told us that the best way to see the Inca heartland is to fly from Lima to Cuzco, then go directly by taxi to Ollantaytambo (pronounced O-yan-tie-TAM-bo), population 2,000, and save Cuzco for later. It was great advice. Besides introducing us to small-town life, their approach gave us time to adjust to the altitude. Cuzco, at 11,203 feet, is more than 3,000 feet higher than Machu Picchu. The towns in the Sacred Valley are between the extremes, making for a comfortable transition.

Still, it was tough to leave Cuzco with barely a glance. Although only a one-hour flight from the major coastal metropolis of Lima, it seemed a world apart. From the air it was a blanket of red-tiled roofs punctured by stunning colonial churches and surrounded by mountains. It begged for an extended visit. Instead, we were quickly in a taxi, sipping coca tea — a comforting, non-intoxicating brew used by the Incas to help deal with fatigue and the thin air — and heading for parts unknown. Within minutes we were looking down into steep valleys and not looking back. This was terrain both rugged and velvety at the same time, impossibly steep and lush with wild flowers.

Ollantaytambo was a revelation. Besides having a range of good hotels, restaurants and cafes, it had narrow streets made of stones placed by the Incas. The Urubamba River crashed through town, louder than any traffic. On weekends the small square drew hundreds of brightly dressed farm and village folk lining up for a haircut, dental work, or medical advice. All around, mountains soared at dizzying angles and big ruins beckoned from above.

We could see the remains of a 15th century fortress and ceremonial center, plus clumps of smaller structures. As with most Inca sites, the complex included terraced land for growing food, and the buildings were made of large stones, cut to fit together. The more important the building, the more precise the fit.

A tour bus crowd was combing the main fortress, so we opted to climb among unmarked ruins on the opposite mountain. We asked a woman if we could walk through her backyard, navigated past her territorially protective rooster and headed upward. Thick vegetation initially made it hard to see our feet, but soon we were walking on a stone path and gaining altitude rapidly.

We picked our way through clusters of small roofless walls — they would have been topped with thatching in Inca times — then traversed a few hundred yards to reach an imposing row of storage buildings cantilevered into the slope, looking like prehistoric townhouses. An Inca watchtower was higher still, adding to our sense of discovery. Remarkably, we were alone on that mountain.

Despite its charms, Ollantaytambo is best known merely as the place to catch the train for Machu Picchu. The rails end at an even smaller town, Agua Calientes, where you buy your tickets to the world-renowned site and catch a bus for the final, twisting ascent.

Machu Picchu lives up to its billing, even with busloads of visitors altering the illusion of a place time forgot. It has 140 stone buildings dating to the 14th century. The invading Spanish, who conquered the Incas in the 1530s, never found it. So why was it abandoned? The question hangs in the thin air, batted about by constantly moving weather. While we were there, a serious downpour thinned the crowd, but those who remained soon were rewarded. Shafts of sunlight pierced contrails of mist, dramatically illuminating a true world treasure.

We left feeling fulfilled. Little did we know that just one day later we would roam through an even bigger Inca complex. That surprise came near Pisac, a working class community of about 4,000 close to Cuzco and known for its market.

Tour buses from the city swamp Pisac at midday, when the market fills the main plaza with row upon row of stalls selling similar things — textiles, clay dishes and jewelry. It’s a colorful scene, but not nearly as attractive as before the crowds arrive and after they leave. Then the town shows its true colors, with vendors joking as they tear down their stalls, only to set them up again the next morning, kids running home from school and residents buying from and selling to each other from small shops without signs.

A taxi driver offered to show us ruins high above the town for a modest price. They turned out to be a sprawling collection of houses, fortifications, temples, and other buildings, in clusters linked by winding paths. A temple to the Incas’ sun god had stones fitted together so tightly that a piece of paper couldn’t penetrate the cracks. We explored for hours and saw only a handful of other visitors.

The same driver treated us to an unforgettable experience the next day. He took us to an area he called Tres Lagunas (Three Lagoons). Getting there was a four-wheel drive adventure that went way beyond pavement, crossed multiple rushing streams, and finally reached the end of the dirt road and the lowest lagoon, a natural reservoir serving a highland farming community.

This was life beyond roads, mostly without running water or electricity. The people there farmed as their ancestors had for centuries, without machines and using animals and their own strong backs to break up the soil.

A second lagoon was above the scattered farms, a third even higher, past a ridge lost in clouds. When some children saw us hiking past, they ran from their houses to meet us. They wanted to sell us handmade necklaces, bracelets and hatbands. But they also wanted to show us their puppies and talk. We asked where they went to school. They didn’t, they said cheerfully. School was too far away.

Finally it was time to go to Cuzco where the cathedral and neighboring Iglesia de la Compañio compete to see which has the grander facade. Their colonial splendor ranks with the great churches of Europe and covers two sides of the main plaza. Two-story buildings with ornately carved balconies flank the other sides.

As former center of the Inca empire, Cuzco celebrates its builders in ways both large and small. Its biggest statue is a towering image of Pachacutec, the leader who founded the city and transformed the Incas from a relatively small tribe to rulers of an area stretching nearly 2,500 miles from Ecuador to central Chile. A giant face of the Inca sun god tops the biggest fountain. Across from the post office, another sun god emblem crowns a block-long mural telling the history of the Incas, complete with their downfall.

The villain in that story is Francisco Pizarro, who landed in Peru in 1532 with 110 soldiers, some horses, and a cannon. He captured the Inca ruler, Atahualpa, held him for ransom, and then, after the loot was delivered, killed him and burned his body. Pizarro seized all the gold and silver he could find, melted it down, and sent it back to Spain. He dismantled the Inca temples and used the stones to build churches.

The natives, who gradually mixed with the Spanish, found ways to keep Inca symbols alive, even in the most Christian of places. The condor, the puma and the snake — symbols of the Inca empire — show up on church doors and statues. Inside the cathedral are magnificent paintings by local artists with their own version of the crucifixion. Instead of showing Jesus on the cross looking toward heaven and wearing a loin cloth, as European painters did, the Cusqueños showed him looking down, toward the Incas’ Mother Earth, and wearing an Inca skirt. In one particularly famous painting, Jesus and his disciples are eating guinea pig and other traditional Inca foods at the Last Supper, and Judas, the betrayer, has the face of Pizarro. (In a more flippant version of this theme, a contemporary T-shirt shows a llama and Pizarro facing off under the title of “Two Worlds Meet.” The llama is spitting into the Spaniard’s face.)

Inca walls, instantly recognizable for their precision, are visible throughout the old part of the city, especially in alleyways and the foundations of churches. And even more Inca reminders are outside the city limits.

A local man drove us to the nearby mountain fortress of Sachsayhuaman, another collection of ruins covering an area bigger than Machu Picchu. We walked between giant boulders to an unmarked place that would have been among the Incas’ most sacred sites. Inside a cave-like opening, benches and an altar had been carved into the stone. High above the altar was an opening in the rock, positioned so that a full moon’s light would fall exactly on the altar. When that happened a priest would make a human sacrifice, ceremonially killing a girl raised from birth for that purpose.

Alone in that small space, we stood hushed, thinking about the distant past and humbled by where we were.

We had experienced similar thoughts at the beginning of our trip. It was a cold, clear night in Ollantaytambo. The constellation Orion was out, upside down to us, with the Southern Cross nearby. We were walking down a narrow Inca street, one so old it could have been from Europe’s Middle Ages. A grooved channel built by the Incas sent rushing water past us, chilling the air. Gradually we became aware of voices and music. We approached a small window and looked inside.

In dim light, some local people were having a party. Quechua, the ancient language of the Incas, was flowing. So was chicha, the corn beer used by the Incas in ceremonies. The women were dressed in their fanciest headgear and rainbow-colored clothes. Everyone was dancing and smiling. It was a celebration that could have been happening hundreds of years earlier, one we would have missed if we had focused only on Machu Picchu. By showing us another culture and another world, the Sacred Valley made us feel blessed.


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