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The Sacred Valley "Exploring the Inca Heartland"
September 1, 1999
Popularly, practically everything relating to the Incas is referred to as Sacred this and Holy that, without recourse to historical evidence. Still, every aspect of the Incas was steeped in worship, the system itself was a theocracy, and the elements of the earth ranked high among the objects of their adoration. So the popular description of the Urubamba Valley as the Sacred Valley of the Incas is probably a fair one, even if it was no more or less sacred than anywhere else.--Peter Frost, Exploring Cusco

Traveling by van, we headed over the mountains 30 km (18 miles) north of Cusco and down into the Urubamba River Valley, the Inca capital's breadbasket, rather cornbasket. Its lower elevation and warmer climate made growing of corn safer than in the higher and more exposed lands immediately surrounding Cusco. Corn was required to make chicha, the beer consumed in mass quantities during ceremonies. Along the valley were estates of the ruler Pachacuti--Pisac, Ollantaytambo, and Machu Picchu--and those of his successors. The sites and scenery here are spectacular. While they are certainly on the tourist trail, they see less traffic than Machu Picchu, and for me were equally exciting.



Pisac (Click on image for larger version and detail of settlement.)

The well-preserved ancient settlement is on a mountain spur above the modern village, but it is not only the settlement but also the magnificent terracing, virtuoso road construction, and scale of the site that make Pisac so memorable. We drove past the modern village to a point about one km (1/2 mile) from the ruins but at an elevation near their top. From there we walked through the ruins on an Inca pathway down to the modern town (you can do the reverse, but the hike is steep and going up would be very strenuous). If you do this on a Sunday or Thursday, you arrive in the village square during the market.

Pisac, perhaps named after an Andean partridge, is not mentioned by any of the chroniclers despite its proximity to Cusco and the fact that it is the largest-known Inca fortress-city complex. Hardly a candidate for a "Lost City." The site must have been built in part to defend Cusco from the Antis, the unruly tribes to the east. At the time of the conquest, however, the Inca did not make a stand here--when he rebelled against the Spanish in 1534, Manco holed up first at Calco, 18 km (11 miles) farther downstream, then retreated to Ollantaytambo. Pisac may have been simply too close to Cusco.

[image]The Intihuatana, or Hitching Post of the Sun, may have served for solar or astronomical observations. Another is at Machu Picchu.

From the road, the path curves around the head of a valley and then begins descending along the side of the mountain spur. If you are not hiking the Inca Trail, this path gives you a good sense of what the Inca engineers were capable, including steep stone staircases, narrow sections on artificial butresses, and an enlarged natural fissure tunnel. (Inca enginnering prowess is also apparent in the straightened course of the Urubamba River, preserved here for a bit more than three km.) The vista is vertical, from valley floor up steep terraced slopes and the mountains rising behind the Urubamba to the Andean sky. On a spur in the middle of this view is the settlement, probably the residence of Inca nobles and priests, with its Intihuatana (a hitching post of the sun like that at Machu Picchu), and various structures with as fine a stonework as anywhere.


Near the north end of the Sacred Valley, about 61 km (37 miles) downstream from Pisac, is Ollantaytambo an estate of Pachacuti to which Manco retreated after the Spainish broke the siege of Cusco. Beyond Ollantaytambo, said to be named for a local chieftain, the valley narrows. The site must have been constructed with the defense of Cusco from jungle tribes to north in mind, so it was built in a formidable natural setting. A force under Hernando Pizarro pursued Manco to Ollantaytambo, of which the Spanish were ignorant. Pedro Pizarro recorded their first impression: "we found it so well fortified that it was a horrifying sight." Walking to the site from the village square where our vans had parked, we could see that Pedro's reaction was not without reason.


The site's terraces as the attacking Spanish would have seen them


Giant stones from an unfinished structure can be seen atop the far set of terraces.

The dawn surprise attack had been anticipated and nearly turned to disaster for the Spanish. Repulsed, their cavalry retreated only to find that the Inca had diverted the Patacancha River from its course, flooding the ground behind them and bogging down the horses. They barely managed to fight back across the river. Once Diego de Almagro returned from Chile, the Spanish, now at full strength, were too much and Manco abandoned Ollantaytambo for the jungle city of Vilcabamba. In 1539, after he was unable to coax Manco out of Vilcabamba, Francisco Pizarro chose Ollantayambo as the place to exact revenge. He ordered Cura Oclla, wife-sister of Manco, tortured and killed there, then had her body place on a raft and floated down the Urubamba, knowing that Manco would find it.

The site's steep fortification terraces sweep up from a plaza area, and it is easy to imagine the Spaniards' dismay as they charged toward them. From the top there is a good view of the modern town, preserves its Inca layout. High above the main site are storehouse cut into the rock faces. Speaking of rock faces, there is supposed to be a giant Inca head carved, à la Mount Rushmore, on the cliff opposite the site--squint your eyes and use your imagination.... If it doesn't become clear, squint more and apply more imagination. More believable are the giant stones at the top of the site, left from an unfinished structure, dubbed the Temple of the Sun for no good reason. Architect Jean-Pierre Protzen, an authority on Inca stoneworking, estimates 1,800 people with ropes and levers could move such 100-ton stones from the quarrries, which are about five km (three miles) distant; chroniclers noted that heavy ropes for hauling stones were stored at Sacsayhuaman.

From here we piled back into our vans and headed north on a dirt road running between the train tracks to Machu Picchu and the bank of the Urubamba. At km 77 on the rail line we piled out, got ourselves organized and distributed the gear among the Quechua Indian porters who were doing the heavy lifting, and set out toward the Inca Trail.


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© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America