Ruins, ruins and more ruins: Sacsayhuaman, Pisac and Ollantaytambo
02.06.2012 - 10.06.2012
We thought Cusco would be one of our favourite places but you know what, it somehow failed to live up to expectations. And we’re still trying to figure out why? It definitely has charm: the main square is lovely, there’s cobbled streets, colourful markets and people constantly in party mood. Every Sunday (and we saw two of them) the locals dress up in costumes to parade around town having a ‘dance off’. It will also be remembered fondly for a display by the canine police – all the dogs walking on hind legs in unison in time with the police band. And local girls wearing gorgeous outfits with baby lambs tucked under their arms ready to pose for photographs. We liked the choice of restaurants and our hostel having the best hot showers ever. We liked that Machu Picchu was just around the corner and that every day some part of town was having a festival with food and games. So what’s the problem I hear you ask? No idea really, hard to pinpoint. What we didn’t like was the constant noise or countless people trying to sell us tours, train tickets or massages. We didn’t like how tired we were, or the fact that Mike was still really suffering from altitude sickness (dammit – the holy sweets hadn’t worked, lol). And we made the agonisingly hard decision not to go hiking after thinking we would be for the best part of 8 months. Right decision though – I’ll tell you why in a minute.
Enough of the bad though, on with the good.
The first couple of days in Cusco were spent organising and planning our Inca activities. Machu Pichhu was top of the list obviously but also one place in Cusco (Sacsayhuaman) and two places in the sacred valley (Pisac and Ollantaytambo). We declined all the organised and overpriced tours to these places, preferring to go at our own slow and chilled pace. Seriously we were in no shape, Mike especially, to go tearing off into the distance exploring.
Our first activity was to check out the ruins of Sacsayhuaman, which turned out to be really really interesting. Sacsayhuaman which is pronounced something close to “sexy woman” actually means ‘house of the sun’ and at an elevation of 3,555m (which is higher than Machu Picchu) it’s actually pretty close to the sun all things considered. No-one knows for sure who built the fortress. The Inca people told the invading Spaniards that giants built it; according to their mythology the Cusco giants would have been the only ones capable of moving such huge stones. Fair enough the Spaniards said - that’s actually quite plausible. Giants, fairy’s and other mystical beasts feature heavily in Inca mythology. With stones weighing between 50 and 120 tonnes no-one has yet been able to convincingly theorize how the fortress was built – the stones are cut and fitted together perfectly without a single imperfection. How did they do that? The Inca’s somehow figured out a way without the use of the wheel, and without writing either. Machu Picchu is often adored for its incredible location and surrounding views rather than its actual construction, but Sacsayhuaman “can be admired mostly for the remarkable architectural engineering skills that were needed for its creation”. A famous Quechuan-Spanish chronicle writer, Garcilaso de la Vega had this to say about it:
“This fortress surpasses the constructions known as the seven wonders of the world. For in the case of a long broad wall like that of Babylon, or the colossus of Rhodes, or the pyramids of Egypt, or the other monuments, one can see clearly how they were executed. They did it by summoning an immense body of workers and accumulating more and more material day by day and year by year. They overcame all difficulties by employing human effort over a long period. But it is indeed beyond the power of imagination to understand how these Indians, unacquainted with devices, engines, and implements, could have cut, dressed, raised, and lowered great rocks, more like lumps of hills than building stones, and set them so exactly in their places. For this reason, and because the Indians were so familiar with demons, the work is attributed to enchantment”
For those who know the Nazca lines nearby: who made them, how, and why are top of the list of unanswered questions? I’m not so sure about the enchantment aspect at Sacsayhuaman, but it’s certainly more feasible than aliens. And if the Inca’s didn’t have help then it’s all the more impressive. Archeologists reckon that only about 20% of Sacsayhuaman remains, and unfortunately we only saw about 50% of that 20%. As we were strolling about finding stone formations that particularly pleased us, Mother Nature decided to throw hail stones at us, so we made a hasty retreat back to town.
In another interesting bit of trivia: Cusco is shaped like a puma, with Sascayhuaman being the head. So go figure: more puma love.
The next day, after sorting out tickets, trains and transport to Machu Picchu (OMG, so excited) we caught a local bus to the sacred valley to check out the ruins at Pisac. Mike usually gets “ruined out” rather quickly, same as “templed out” or “churched out” so I had to choose our ruins carefully. Pisac though is awesome, perched on a hill overlooking the valley and Urabamba River below. Getting to the ruins involved a 2 hour climb straight up thousands of stairs. After climbing perhaps 25 stairs (no joke) we made the unusual decision for us to get a taxi to the top. If we were in any doubt about not doing a hike this was our proof. Mike and altitude: not working. The taxi driver however dropped us off in the middle of the road, seemingly half way up the mountain. In our limited Spanish we tried to figure out why he hadn’t taken us to the top. What was the point of a taxi to the top if it wasn’t to the top etc. etc. etc.? Turns out a land-slide had taken out the road, so we got dropped off as near as possible to the ruins. Still walking up stairs for about 20 minutes was more than we had bargained for. We timed our visit to Pisac to coincide with a market day, so after walking down the mountain through dark rock tunnels, across narrow bridges and down steep stone steps we had a few minutes for look around the stalls before catching the bus back to Cusco.
Ollantaytambo we actually did after Machu Picchu but it makes more sense to add it in here so that Machu Picchu can have its own blog entry next. We got the train from Aguas Caliente back to the sacred valley then two buses from there back to Cusco. The train had surround windows so we could marvel at the scenery while enjoying the complementary beverages and snacks (luxury by our usual standards).
Ollaytantambo is much like Pisac. Inca ruins: hill top, destroyed by Spaniards, pretty good condition. I won’t go into too much detail other than to say we had a great tour guide and almost adopted her: a dog we called Pear. She happily trotted up and down all the stairs showing us the way around; other people even thought she was our dog. Facing the ruins is a huge cliff face where the Inca people carved the likeness of a grumpy man into the side. Not sure why? Has a striking resemblance to Mike don’t you think? Ollaytamtambo town will also be remembered for a massive salad at a café where 100% of the profits go to local women and children. Good fresh food with a good feel factor too.
Back in Cusco once more we had time to check out one more Inca ruin: Qoricancha. Can’t actually tell you much about it other than it was a temple/monastery way back when, it has the same perfectly positioned and aligned stones and the Spaniards raided it for its gold painted walls. Qoricanha means “golden courtyard” in the traditional language. No gold anymore though. We visited it because it looked cool illuminated at night and once inside spent ages taking black and white photos: our favorite few included here.
Our last night in Cusco we treated ourselves to a nice meal, the first meal in something like 10 days that Mike was actually looking forward to. He had the biggest burger known to man, while I tried Llama meatballs with a passion-fruit and mint sauce with asparagus, mushroom and tomato salad. We shared a plate of Yucca’s which I think is a type of potato/vegetable with a blue cheese dipping sauce and parmesan shavings. It was 100% delicious.
So although we did have a great time in and around Cusco, there’s still something we can’t put our finger on about the place that didn’t quite live up to our (admittedly very high) expectations. Never mind - the good outweighed the bad. Next stop: Machu Picchu! But first we had to get to Aguas Caliente the town below the ruins. Aguas Caliente basically only exists to serve as a tourist pit-stop for Machu Picchu. Our guide book doesn’t hold anything back saying things like “it’s hordes of tourist trap restaurants and firelit bars are vaguely tolerable for an evening” or it “is ruined by its dependence on tourism, which has turned a scenic location into a gringo nightmare”. Ouch! Don’t hold anything back Lonely Planet. We actually really liked it. Yes - it’s touristy but no one hassled us, the locals were really friendly and everyone wanted to know how much we liked Machu Picchu. It’s got a good vibe of people either excited about their upcoming visit, or totally exhausted but content after their visit. As I said, we really liked it.
Getting there though was a real bitch. We absolutely refused to get the ‘tourist’ train from Cusco at extortionist ‘tourist’ prices. We flat out refused to do a tour of any kind, preferring to do our own thing. Which left two choices. One: get 2 local buses, 1 taxi, and then walk the rest of the way from a hydroelectric dam along the railway tracks. Or Two: take an organized transfer to the dam but still do the walking bit. Mike wanted to do option one, I wanted option two. Had we had more time to research the local buses and found out what time they left we probably would have gone for option one, but in the end tiredness and uncertainty won and we got the transfer to the dam. Got a free lunch out of it too. We were told to be ready at 7am, so we were. Got picked up at around 7.45am. But didn’t leave Cusco until 9.15am. So annoying - first we had to wait for other passengers to get out of bed, shower and take their lazy selfish time about getting ready, then we had to wait while the driver popped back home because he forget to come to work with his driver’s license. Truly annoying! The drive though was at times specular and just as the guide book described: “unpaved, narrow, bordered by deep precipices, with over a hundred dangerous curves”. Not to be attempted in the wet season. But as a result of the delay we got to the dam rather behind schedule meaning we had to do the 10km/2 ½ hour walk mostly in the dark. Rant over! The ONLY thing that made it OK was seeing otters in the wild (for me a first), and the fact that Mike had packed his head-torch and a new set of batteries for just this eventuality. Clever man! The photo is a bit rubbish as the light was fading fast and they were quite far away but hopefully you can still tell they are otters?
So we had made it to Aguas Caliente. One more sleep and Machu Picchu time. But wait, hang on a minute. What’s happening? Rain? It can’t rain! We’re off up the mountain tomorrow. Rain is bad, very bad. Noooooooooooooooooo. Please don’t rain!