on February 8, 2011
As said in the "Planning Machu Picchu" entry of this journal, the best strategy for a visit to the area is to begin with the Sacred Valley; that’s true for altitude acclimatization considerations, but also for historical reasons. The trip would be more enjoyable and make more sense in such a way.The Sacred Valley offers two main attractions and a comfy base camp between them. Urubamba is a small town doubling as restaurant for most travelers crossing the valley; Ollantaytambo is at its northwest (twenty minutes by road) and Pisac on its southeast (40 minutes). This opens way for another welcome deviation from the marketed tourism packages. Instead of the usual one day tour in the valley, it is highly recommended to stay at least one night in Urubamba. This is especially valuable for those having arrived from sea level (acclimatization relies heavily on nights spent at specific altitudes before climbing furthermore – and Cusco is higher than the Sacred Valley). Before the juicy details, let me state one more thing: plan spending at least Tuesday, Thursday or Sunday in the area as these are the Pisac Market days.UrubambaUrubamba could be almost be summarized by mentioning its Spaniard central plaza and the accompanying cathedral; however the influx of visitors have added a suitable number of acceptable coffee shops, restaurants, souvenir shops and hotels. Probably that’s enough for any stopover town located between major attractions, but Urubamba offers more.A range of snowed mountains – Cordillera Urubamba - is just next to town and beyond spectacular views it offers a perfect environment for easy acclimatization walks. Two other sights add interest to the visit. The Moray Terraces seem to have been imported straight from Asia, though – of course – they never were used for rice: maize and potatoes are the staples here. Then, Salinas is a spectacular salt mine on the mountains range side; it still produces 150kg of salt per month which is sold as "Peruvian Pink Salt." Expectedly, several travel agencies in town offer rafting, horse riding and mountain biking in the area. Due to the over-touristy nature of the area, finding sensible accommodations is a bit difficult. Yet, Hospedaje Los Jardines (at 459, Convencion Street) offers five rooms for up to $15 each. The price differentiation is due to the pleasing fact that each room is different, though all of them offer access to a central garden. A point to keep in mind is that here – as in Death Road – "hot-shower" means an electric contraption fighting with the cold water atop the victim’s head. Make sure it works properly before renting the room (here it was OK). OllantaytamboWith an almost unpronounceable name (strangely non-phonetic, Spanish features several problematic sounds which their pronunciation varies considerably from one place to another, "ll" is the most notorious one, though "y" at the beginning of a syllable is not less weird), Ollantaytambo is home to an impressive Inca temple, second only to nearby Machu Picchu. This is the best preserved Inca village in Peru and is almost void of Spaniard touches, though its main plaza is notoriously Spanish in concept. Near it, terraces are still used for growing corn and potatoes; man still use here foot plows called chaquitaclla in Quechua. The most impressive view from the town is the snowed Mount Veronica.This town is important in the historic context of the visit to Machu Picchu because… it wasn’t Inca until 1440, barely a century before the Spaniards arrived. In fact, this was an area populated by the Quillques people. This is an awesome reminder the Inca Empire was no less a violent oligarchy of military conquerors than the Spaniards. In my Tiwanaku journal, I expanded a bit more on that. Another point of historical interest is that a Spaniard army was defeated by the Inca here in 1536. The last attacked from above, from the temple area, with horses brought by the Spaniards, while in parallel diverting the Urubamba River waters so that the Spaniards could not retreat. Pizarro’s army was almost annihilated. Half a block north of the central plaza is Museo CATCCO, an ethnographic institution which gives a good background on the area. Behind the museum is the trapezoidal Qozqo Ayllu, the original Inca town. As mentioned for Tiwanaku, Ayllu and Marca often appear in Inca names, denoting specific administrative divisions of the kingdom. Areas were Aymara and Quechua are still spoken – like Bolivia and Peru – still use them. However the main attraction is the temple the town was named after. Across Patacancha River is the other half of town, known as Araqama Ayllu. The Temple of Ten Niches is two hundred low terraces above the river and above it is the still unfinished Temple of the Sun, one of the best Inca temples and definitely one of the highlights in the visit to Machu Picchu.PisacPisac display several ruins of military, religious, residential, agricultural, and hydraulic nature. It was a military post separating this part of the empire from the Antisuyo, the easternmost quarter of the Inca Empire. This kingdom was divided in four quarters, the Kollasuyo (around modern La Paz) remaining the most loyal one to its origins. Despite being interesting, the ruins are secondary in this part of the trip. Due to its qualities as a military outpost, a large market was expected to evolve here, and it did.This market is one of the largest handicraft markets in South America. Not far from Cusco, it is probably the touristiest spot in the area; "touristiest" was used here with a strong emphasis on all the negative qualities of this word. It opens on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, between 9 AM and 5 PM. Highly attractive, the design of the site and its architecture is modern while attempting to recreate Inca motifs and ambience.The main knick-knacks available here include felt hats, low quality ceramics, carved gourds (mates burilados), musical instruments – mainly of the wind variety, simple paintings with Inca motifs and landscapes, poor jewelry and weavings. Alpaca products – sweaters, hats and mittens –are probably the best options for souvenirs representative of the area. If looking carefully, higher quality vicuña products may be found. However, these are strongly discouraged; actually they have been forbidden in Bolivia a few years ago since in order to get the wool of the delicate vicuñas, the animals must be killed.
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