And the Sacred Valley of the Incas
The magnificence of Machu Picchu.
“YOU MAY THINK OF ME AS A SNARKY BASTARD, but here I don’t have a lot to say. The word beautiful really does not describe, does it? IT’S INADEQUATE.” Anthony Bourdain on Machu Picchu
Tuckedin the lush jungle near the Urubamba Valley, surrounded by the sacred heights of the Andes Mountains is the archaeological treasure-trove of Cusco. There are numerous romantic tales of the cities beginnings. Wondrous stories of magic, love, Children of the Sun and godly humans. While they make the city a little more whimsical the only known fact about Cusco’s great legacy is that the founding Inca’s (royals) and their great empire was one of the most highly advanced civilizations in human history. Many of the Inca’s structures are still in use and tremendous condition after thousands of years, making Cusco not only a World Heritage Site, but also a land of endless inspiration for historians, archaeologists, architects and dreamers.
Cusco was merely the capital city of the massive Inca Empire, which at its height had eight million people under its control and stretched along the Andes from southern Colombia all the way to northern Argentina. Cusco was the sacred and ceremonial capital city where the direct blood descendants of the royal Incas resided along with all of the great treasure and wealth of the area at the time. Spanning approximately a mile long and a quarter of a mile wide the ancient city lines were built to resemble the sacred animal representation of earth, the puma, from an aerial perspective. The city was an ancient day nirvana, where all of nature’s finest glories intertwined in a beautiful harmony under a land ruled by a brilliant and respected royal family - until the 16th century when they were overthrown by the Spanish who carried foreign disease and unfamiliar weapons.
Flying into Cusco will be an experience within itself. As you look down over the valley with the city and its beautiful burnt orange roofs you will understand why it was named Cusco (deriving from the word Quosqo) meaning The Naval of the World. It really is the center of its own realm at 11,000 feet above sea level making it one of the highest in the world. You will need to plan a few hours good rest upon arrival at your hotel; you can guarantee that your body will feel the severe elevation. The locals will often encourage you to sip on an ancient remedy called Mate de Coca to ward off the altitude sickness. Mate de Coca is a strong and very bitter tea made from the same lofty green leaves that cocaine is produced from.
When you finally venture out into the cobble stone streets you will be struck by the beauty of its people with their long black hair, beaten feet padding in sandals, and colorful woven clothes. The sense of their community and the simplicity of their lives and their happiness is remarkable. The city is a unique combination of old and new. The Inca walls hold up ornate colonial buildings in which you’ll find shops, cafes and fine restaurants offering cuy (guinea pig) and alpaca steaks. The combination of the Inca’s imperial tastes and Spanish colonial pieces are very apparent and quite a striking and unique combination in the city.
There is no shortage of impressive sights and historical wonders to admire. The Plaza de Armas (‘Square of the Warrior’) is the heart of the city, also the best place to start your visit and get familiar with your surroundings. Enjoy a picnic on the lawn with splendid views of the grand Catedral and Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús and watch the bustle of the area. The Plaza was at the precise center of the Inca Empire, which was called Tawantinsuyo, meaning The Four Corners of the Earth. It has been the most lively part of the city since it was built thousands of years ago.
Downhill from the plaza is the more modern part of the city, including the business district at Avenida El Sol, here you will also find the striking Qorikancha temple (considered THE attraction of Cusco). Tales say that the barren stone walls of Qorikancha, meaning ‘Court of Gold’, were once plated with gold and in the center was an enormous golden disc to reflect the sun and bask the temple in its holy rays. The gardens were filled with beautiful waterfalls and flowers all made from the rarest jewels.
Uphill from the Plaza de Armas are the older neighborhoods and their intricate pedestrian only walkways in the notable San Blas district. The streets are steep but an afternoon in San Blas is a must. It’s the artisan, trendy neighborhood of the city with some of the best restaurants and finest galleries. To the left of the plaza towering above the city in the distance is Sacsayhuaman. While the ruins of Sacsayhuaman (locals pronounce this as “sexy human”) are visible from the streets of Cusco you will need a half day trip to get there and properly enjoy. The ruins make up the head of the great puma of Cusco. Sacsayhuaman is the most obvious Inca structure standing, it was
constructed with some 20,000 men in the 1400’s as a protective fortress for the city.
Spend at least two days in Cusco before venturing to the surrounding areas. The moment you depart the city you will feel the change from a cultural experience to a more spiritual and relaxing journey of self.
There are numerous small villages with spectacular historical sites throughout the Sacred Valley of the Incas on your way to Machu Picchu. Remember: the Sacred Valley was where the Inca emperors went to unwind, this should be a time of complete relaxation and total awe for you. Your first stop, about 33km out of Cusco, is the colorful town of Pisac with a market that can’t be missed. Pisac is one of Peru’s most charming towns. From Pisac catch a bus to Ollantaytambo (fondly called Olly by locals and lovers of the town) and explore the ancient ruins. Ollantaytambo is where those brave souls will head off on the Inca Trail, a four day trek to the base of Machu Picchu. For those more interested in enjoying the sights in a comfortable seat over a beverage, the train may be the best bet. But – those are your only two options, there are no roads. Either way you will end up in the boisterous cloud forest town of, Aguas Calientes at the base of the great Machu Picchu. Bus or walk to the top (takes about an hour). You have never seen a view until you have gazed off of Macchu Piccu.
Machu Picchu, The Lost City of the Incas, was discovered by explorers in 1911 – although the Peruvian residents kept its existence a very well hidden secret for several hundred years. Never found by the Spanish, it was untouched for thousands of years. What exactly the ruins on Macchu Picchu are is still debatable. The most common belief is that the city in the sky was an Inca emperor’s country estate. Regardless, sitting atop Macchu Picchu with its godly views will be a deeply profound and spiritual experience.
Open yourself to the sights, tastes and sounds of Cusco and invite the growth and change into your life that winding through the Sacred Valley of Urubamba exploring its many wonders will offer. Cusco changes everyone, in one way or another, its color, vitality, simplicity, people and history will leave a wonderful mark on you forever and inspire your days to come with a new perspective.