Our journey from Lima came via an hour and half of flying. At 3400m in altitude and approximately 360 miles from Lima, it is a location where some can fall ill to altitude sickness.
The thinner air here has less oxygen that we folks living at sea level will be accustomed to.
As a result, for some this will result in terrible headaches and possibly even nausea and vomiting. Some said it takes a few days to acclimatize. Rightly so, but we did not have the luxury of time…
In preparation for this and based on our last experience at Shangri-la China, we had bought medication with us. Taking the precaution prescribed, we had commenced taking the tablets 2 days ahead of our flight to Cusco. Where we are headed for the next few days, it will be at a lower altitude and hopefully we will not be affected. Indeed not, but there is a learning at the end of the journey about that.
Cuzco is the name of a city and an entire region. It is also the heart of the Inca and the city is the capital city of the empire.
Upon arrival, we did not spare a moment to rest and had been driven straight out of the city onward to the sacred valley. Now Villanota and Urubamba will be used interchangeably in this post as this is the name of the river that runs through the valley. Why is this valley sacred?
It probably had something to do with the favorable location of this valley in a combination of river (water resources), mountainous ranges (natural defense obstacles) and a good amount of valley land (farm resources).
We drove to the mountaintop village of Taray as a first stop, to take in the view of the valley in full bloom of corn fields. Still green, the crops are well watered by the Urubamba river via irrigation which the Inca and their successors continue to practice today. Now it was not only the valley that the Inca cultivated. In the distant, we could see terraced fields carved into the sides of the mountains. Looks familiar? It should be! These are the same as the ones in the Philippines, Indonesia and the Asian main continents!
Our guide told us that the Inca empire came into being because they were able to mount expeditions to fight and mostly by diplomacy to subdue neighboring peoples. This was the way the hegemony of the Inca empire was established according to our guide. Geographically it is also located at the cusp of the Amazonian forests, thus well able to access lowland resources.
So it was explained to us that the sacred valley supported the production of surplus of food that enabled the Inca Kings to lord over the other kingdoms especially when they had experienced drought conditions.
Who said human ingenuity is limited? We could be simultaneously inventing the same thing at the same time! Indeed, land resources for farming is so valuable that you will see that the ancient remnants of Inca towns and villages are mostly found in the mountains and not in the valley.
Today, things have really changed. Former Spanish colonial towns now dot the valley and are colorful places to visit. We drove down to the local town of Pisac just in time to watch a local town procession commemorating the anniversary of the town! See the colorful Quechua hats both ancient and newer.
Final stop for the day, the strong fortress at Ollantaytambo.
Looking at the strong walls and terraces cut into the mountain reminds us of the same in Europe or China. This was one of the fortresses that the Spanish besieged in their war against the Inca. It never really fell to the Spanish and their allies. Rather the Inca defenders abandoned it escaping over the mountains.
Now it was not all sightseeing historical sites. We had a great lunch at a the hacienda Tunupa, right in the midst of the corn fields and by the river. And we had close up opportunities to view the highland equivalent of the camel – the Llama.
Our hotel at the Sol y Luna is also well located and beautifully set. As an eco lodge, it is lush with greenery that happens to be blooming as it is springtime here.
Eight wonder time
To get to Machu Picchu, we are getting on a train. The Inca rail runs parallel along the Villanota river.
The train departs, we are trudging along the Villcanota river. There are the beautiful mountain views could be had for the duration of the 1½ hour journey.
Coffee and tea are served aboard are complimentary. As we pulled up to the town at the base of Machu Picchu, continue reading here.
An air of being Capital city
The drive back to Cusco took about 2 hours and the taxi was speeding like a F1 driver. But we did not mind. We are looking excitedly to be back in Cusco. The scene changes from the green of the mountains eventually to the brown and grey as the city comes into view.
Now that we are back from Machu Picchu, we continued on our exploration of the city of Cusco itself. You will know that there are more than 200 colonial styled homes built here.
We are staying in the Novotel, a mansion with 16 rooms retaining its 16th century flavor. It does have a modern wing but our room is one of the traditional ones, with loft ceiling. Though it is vintage, the rooms are comfortable and modern with air conditioning (heating really…).
Cusco is home to a famous local chocolate brand and we walked a short distance on the cobbled stone streets to have hot chocolate and cakes.
If you were to walk around in the daytime, you might think that you are in a village or town in Spain. The architecture and streets are all modeled around the same style and had been built over the original Inca capital, mostly using the original stone bricks as building material. That’s why you will not see much in the way of Inca structure here.
Except in Santo Domingo convent where the remains of the Inca temple it had been built over was discovered and preserved in a section of the convent. See the bricks that look like lego? The would fit together when assembled.
As we explained, the Spanish built churches over existing religious sites to institutionalize the arrival of the Catholic religion. The basilica cathedral is a massive church and contains many ornamental works made of silver. The music organ is said to be made from such and so is the main altar (said to contain 1.2 tons of silver)!
If you are interested to explore Inca sites, then Sacsayhuaman fortress is located just outside the city overlooking it. Actually this is not a fortress according to our guide.
It is a large temple complex dedicated to the lightning god. It is one of the best vantage points for a full view of the city (aside from the view from the plane).
Now if it weren’t for the altitude sickness that hit us, we’d probably be out and about a whole lot more.
But stripped down to our base, we could only muster sufficient energy to see some of the sights in town. We promised ourselves never to repeat this mistake a third time! Back to Lima