The Sacred Valley

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
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Andean Adventure

The Sacred Valley
November 11, 1997

The architecture of the ruins was years ahead of its time
To the Incas, the idea that one valley is more sacred than any other may have seemed strange. The natural world formed the basis of their worship: the movements of the cosmos, the bounty of the earth, the elements of water and stone.

Nonetheless, the Urubamba Valley to the north of Cusco certainly deserves its label. Here in the unlikely setting of the Andes runs a lush and fertile valley that, just as in Incan times, supplies the city of Cusco with its riches.

Modern visitors are drawn to the Sacred Valley for more than the verdant landscapes. Their focus is Pisac, a small town at the valley's western extreme. On Sunday afternoons the tour buses roll in to savor the local mercado, a reeling mix of artesania — alpaca blankets, textiles, black ceramics and grotesque wooden carvings — and produce.

Young children wander in traditional clothing trailing a pet goat in hopes someone will snap their photo for 50 cents. Quechua, the Incan tongue, fills the air.

Indigenous women capped in a panoply of hat styles spend the day sipping chicha (a mildly alcoholic maize drink) and catching up on news.

Above the delightful chaos the stony ruins of Pisac, the Incan fortress, watch over the valley.

Leaving town a footpath winds up through steep agricultural terracing ever-higher until finally reaching the ruins, which grow out of the crags like a natural extension of the mountain.

Many structures appear to have been more religious than military
The extensive settlement commands the horizon and from here the Incas could guard the passes to the north from their feared rival the Antis of the Amazon, curiously the source for the name of the Andes.

But no Incan settlement was any more military than religious, and here too there is evidence of astronomical temples from which the priests charted the progress of their most important deities.

Out of view down valley and beyond the hub city of Urubamba stands Ollantaytambo. Hop a ride in the back of a pickup or squeeze your way into a crowded (30 people!) minivan.

The ruins here rise steeply from the main plaza in an almost unscalable wall of terracing. Fittingly, Ollantaytambo was the scene for Manco Inca's rebellion against the Spanish in 1536 — one of the decisive battles of the Conquest.

Above the terraced ramparts stands an uncompleted temple; all about are scattered massive cut stones in various stages of completion. Here, more than anywhere else, one can begin to understand the seemingly incomprehensible system by which the Incas constructed their impeccable stoneworks (for a more detailed explanation see Peter Frost's Exploring Cusco).

Tour buses from Cusco offer convenient access to the market, ruins, and back. But stick to local transport and your own feet and you'll have a better understanding not only of how the Incas lived, but how the Sacred Valley continues to be the focus of indigenous life today.

©2000, Mariah Media Inc.

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