Peru Part VI: The conquest of Urubamba

Cusco and the Sacred Valley

Growing up as a kid, I used to watch Disney’s The Emperor’s New Groove about once every week. I loved the movie for the goofy humour and the catchy music. The fact that it was set in Peru during the reign of the Inca’s only occurred to me a few months ago. Now I step out of the airplane into the city that lends the film’s animated narcissist its name: Cusco. But my first days out of the jungle are tough.  I can’t seem to get used to the cars, the hordes of people and the lack of plants and animals. I’ll have to do with pigeons and planted palms. Slowly, the new environment grows on me. Cusco’s marketplace especially amazes me. Wasted meat does not exist here, everything is sold and used. If you want the freshest and most delicious fruit juice in the world, there’s about a hundred spots on the market alone.
After a day and a half in this urban jungle, we meet our next guide. His name is David Condori, named after the holy messenger bird of the Incas. He takes us on a day-long tour through Urubamba, the Sacred Valley. While we make our way to Ollantaytambo (viewers of A Series of Unfortunate Events might recognize this name; do geckos with an extra leg ring a bell?) we get our first sights of spectacular Inca ruins. From Pisac we drive to Moray, for a view into the genius of Inca agriculture. By using gigantic terraced pits they were able to grow coca plants, but also fruits from the forest at an altitude of over 3000 meters. We continue to the salt mines near Maras, where work has stopped in the wet season. Thousands of large puddles are continuously filled with warm salty water from an unknown location. An ancient irrigation system makes sure all the holes are filled equally. In the dry season, the salts that build up after evaporation are harvested and sold for their medicinal properties. Right now, the inhabitants earn their living from tourism.
In the late afternoon we arrive in Ollantaytambo. Before allowing us to rest, David takes us to a viewing point on one of the mountains surrounding the town. He points out the historical center of what was once a military stronghold. To my surprise, I can easily distinguish the shape of a llama in the old buildings. This is no coincidence: Cusco looks like a puma, Macchu Picchu is a condor and another town resembles a snake. We walk to our hotel near the train station of Ollantaytambo and wave goodbye to David, whom we’ll meet again in two days. The next day we take it slow, acclimatizing to the height. For 2800 meters, it is surprisingly warm. We pay a visit to the llama-shaped fortress, which also served as a religious center. I see the Inca Imperial style of building for the first time, and I’m blown away. Somehow, this mysterious culture managed to perfectly fit together irregularly shaped granite blocks, weighing maybe ten tonnes, without a crack between them. The exact angle at which the walls stand makes them indestructible and able to withstand the regular earthquakes of this area. The temple of the sun looks out at the actual face of Apu, the mountain spirit, a clearly visible rock formation on the side of the hill. To think that this was the site of the last stronghold of Manco Inca, the last king who battled the invading Spaniards to the death, gives even more historical importance to the place. The Inca temples, with simple symmetric fountains and windows that align perfectly with the sun, are stunning on their own.
In the afternoon we hike up the mountain once more and then enjoy the many hummingbirds in our hotel garden. Our Christmas eve is spent eating pizza, after which we call it an early night in preparation of the coming adventure: hiking the Inca Trail.

A cactus flower on the site of Pisac.
Agricultural terraces built in concentric circles at Moray.
Each of the five thousand salt puddles is owned and exploited by the people of Maras. A great portion of the salt goes to Japan, a country with strong trade connections to Peru.
Children in Ollantaytambo celebrate Christmas in a play. Yes, that is an actual dead alpaca on the kid’s waist.
A hummingbird rests just outside my window in Ollantaytambo.
It’s impossible for me to identify this guy; there’s dozens of different hummingbird species in Peru.
A view of the religious square of ancient Ollantaytambo.
Can you see the llama?

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