The Incas were freaking amazing. It needs to be said and repeated often. The Incas were freaking amazing. Five hundred years since they were overthrown and their buildings are still standing.
We saw the first example of their handiwork barely ten minutes after navigating through what seemed to be every school child in Cuzco walking through the streets in their uniforms. Once just outside the city, up one of the mountains surrounding it, you find the ruins of Sacsayhuamán, an ancient ritual site destroyed by the Spanish. But even they couldn’t move the biggest rocks at the base. How the Incas moved them boggles the mind.
The people still perform the traditional Inti Raymi festival at the end of June every year, though now you need a ticket to attend and most of the people in the audience are tourists. But it’s an expensive festival to put on, so the tourist money is part of what makes it possible. Our guide assured us that they don’t sacrifice llamas at the festival anymore, which may be why these guys didn’t feel too threatened.
Driving through the mountains, evidence of terracing is everywhere. It’s very obvious that even though the hillsides are steep, people still farm this land, and in much the same way that the Incas did hundeds of years ago. The fields either climb the mountain in terraces or simply sit at a slant on the (relatively) less steep inclines. Irrigation channels crisscross the mountains sides between the fields, and farmers can open the slats to let the water into their fields. At this time of year, this leaves lots of the fields with patches of frost early in the morning. Looking at the way the fields seem part of the mountains, it’s easy to imagine they’ve been the same for hundreds of years. Whether that’s true or not, the two just look right as a unit.
We made a brief stop at Caccacollo, a town sponsored by our tour agency, G Adventures. Only G Adventures groups are allowed to visit, and the company seems to do a lot for the community such as funding the construction of a new community center after the old one was destroyed by heavy rains in 2010. The women there raise llamas and alpacas – which I still cannot tell apart no matter how many times it is explained – and card, spin, dye, and weave the wool all by hands without any modern methods. We got to watch them working and bought a few of the finished products before heading down into the Sacred Valley of the Incas.
The Sacred Valley is beautiful. It follows the path of the Urubamba River through the Andes and is dotted with small towns and farms. In the days of the Incas it was part of the heartland of the empire, being close to the capital city of Cuzco. From the colonial town of Pisac, we climbed up the mountain a little ways to the ruins at the Incan Pisac.
The ruins consist of a few dozen farming terraces, which have all been restored recently, and the remains of a few dozen houses for high-class members of society situated above. But though the town itself is important, the site is most valuable for the many tombs set into the adjoining mountain. The Incans would mummify their dead and bury them with various possessions, which has given archeologists and historians a lot of insight into Incan culture.
Climbing the stairs to the top was a challenge; even though it wasn’t too much of a climb, it was steep and the lack of oxygen is very noticeable. I don’t know how the people who live in the village adjacent to the ruins manage to walk all the way down into the main part of Pisac for supplies. I suppose they’re more acclimated than we are, but it still boggles the mind a bit.
After Pisac, we descended back down into the valley and had lunch with our guide, Marcelino, and our driver, Enrique at a fantastic restaurant called La Alhambra and snapped a few photos of the llamas, alpacas, and vicunas kept on the property. Vicunas, a related species to the llamas and alpacas, are so severely endangered that it’s almost impossible to get a license to own one. But their wool is soooo soft, and just look how cute they are.
Our final stop of the day, though, was the most impressive of all. Towards the very end of the sacred valley is the site of Ollantaytambo. It is named after the legend of a low-born man who fell in love with and eventually won the right to marry the daughter of an Incan lord. The Inca were in the process of building a temple on the site when the Spanish arrived, and there are still half carved rocks on the mountain, rocks which weighed multiple tons and had been transported from a quarry on the slopes of a different mountain, transported by a civilization which did not have domesticated beast of burden or the wheel. No horses. No oxen. No wagons. The rocks were dragged or rolled in short bursts on small, round river rocks. Or, as local legend holds, The Incans were so powerful that they ordered the rocks to move and they did.
Even more impressive, if that is even remotely possible, is that in a society without modern machinery, they were able to chisel and shape the rocks for their walls in such a way that they fit together so perfectly virtually no mortar is necessary. Nor are the rocks all perfect squares and rectangles. Their edges come in every angle, and yet they all line up perfectly. And how did they do this? Hematite chisels. It boggles the mind.
And if that isn’t enough, the irrigation system they put in place is still functional, too.
For a while, during the time of Spanish conquests, Ollantaytambo served as a stronghold for an Incan rebel lord and his supporters, but the rebellion failed and the site was mostly destroyed.
It’s still beautiful, though. It sits on a hillside in the shadow of what our guide referred to only as “The Sacred Mountain,” a solemn Andean peak where a face is visible in the rock formations; and while I’m someone who believes that you can see just about anything you want in rock faces, this one is different. It is clearly, unambiguously, a face. The Incans even built a crown for him, though the local insistence is that they did not carve him there. Indeed, investigations of the mountain side have left people wondering how anyone even could have carved him there.
Man made or not, he continues to watch over Ollantyatambo and the Sacred Valley of the Inca, as he has done for centuries and will for centuries to come.