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Sacred valley

The Sacred Valley of the Incas is a fertile maize producing region of the Urubamba River valley that contains numerous Inca archeological sites, the most famous of which, Machu Picchu, we would see the next day. We would visit another two, Pisac and Ollantaytambo, on the way to catch the train to Machu Picchu.


Road to the Sacred Valley

Our driver, Javier, picked us up early in the morning as scheduled. He spoke very good English and we enjoyed asking him about Peru. The road climbed out of Cuzco. I observed his driving habits, including a frequent use of the horn to alert oncoming cars on narrow streets. We stopped at a lookout to take in views of the city in a different light than that of the early evening the day before.

The road continued over a nearly 13,000 ft pass before starting a descent toward the Sacred Valley. I caught glimpses of snow capped peaks. Our first stop was at an alpaca farm. We walked among several species of the llama family - guanacas, llamas, alpacas, and vicunas - and watched Indians in traditional costumes spin yarn into threads and weave fabrics out of them. The admission was by a voluntary donation and their gift shop was a good place to pick up some snacks.

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Cuzco A native woman with llamas A native woman with llamas in BW Dragon Llama Alpaca
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Alpaca hair Handspinning yarns A girl and her spindle Traditional cloth making Traditional cloth making Traditional cloth making
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Sacred Valley


Pisac

Our next stop was at Inca ruins above the town of Pisac. This is a large site where one could spend a whole day easily. Our time was limited. We climbed up to the top of one of its areas, enjoying the views of the valley, the terraced fields below us and the higher peaks in the distance. Another part of the complex is connected via a trail that traverses a side of a mountain. I wanted to explore it and I half ran and walked to see what is behind a nearby ridge. After passing through a tunnel, I got to an overlook. I started returning back. After I was past a rugged part of the trail, I continued on a wider trail to meet Irina. It was a beautiful day with puffy clouds dotting the sky. I was still on a high from running at this elevation. As it sometimes happens, one lets his guard down and bad things happen. I took a bad step and sprained my ankle. I collapsed in pain, thinking to myself - this had not happened in 20 years, why now? It turned out better than it had seemed initially. My ankle became quite swollen and colorful over the next few days, but as long as I watched my step, I could walk virtually pain free.

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Pisac terraces Pisac ruins Geometry Young enterpraneur Photographer Irina
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Gate Path between the earth and the clouds


Pisac market

From the ruins we drove down to Pisac. It is famous for its market. We spent quite a bit of time there. It was swarming with people, many of them tourists. There was also a fair number of locals shopping for potatoes, veggies, fruits, mushrooms, spices, and even meat being cut up right on the site. A big part of the market was dedicated to native arts too and a nice pendant caught our attention.

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Spices at the Pisac market Mushroom vendor Pork Canonian Irina Kids at the market in BW
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Kids at the market More kids Pisac market


Ollantaytambo

From Pisac we continued down the valley toward Ollantaytambo. At one point there was a short detour on the road. Javier commented that it had been there since a land slide some 10 years before. Even though the infrastructure in Peru is getting better, it is a slow process another example of which we saw a couple of days later in Puerto Maldonado. We passed through the town of Urubamba before finally reaching Ollantaytambo.

The ruins at Ollantaytambo are accessible straight from the town itself. There is a small market near the ruins too. We climbed up through the terraced fields and admired the precise stone work of the ruins. Across on the other side of the valley, ruins of Inca storehouses can be seen built high up into a mountain side. The staircase up to the ruins resembled an ant trail at times. I even overheard a Czech tourist group as they passed by. Before long, it was time to go to the train station to catch our train to Machu Picchu.

The train ride follows the Urubamba River and takes less than two hours. The views were great as one would expect from a train aptly named the Vistadome. The valley was wider initially and snow capped peaks could be seen high up above the valley. It narrowed later obstructing the views of anything but the walls of the canyon covered by a jungle. The vegetation got gradually denser as the train descended deeper and deeper into the cloud forest surrounding Machu Picchu. We were greeted upon our arrival by a staff of Hotel Presidente where we were spending the night. We walked there from the train station as it was getting darker by the minute. Incidentally, my credit card was not charged until six months later for the stay. This must be some kind of a record. We could not resist having more ceviche for dinner. I fell asleep trying to moderate my anticipation of one of the highlights of the trip.

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Drive by shooting Native woman Irina in Ollantaytambo Lichen Nose Ollantaytambo
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Irina Self-portait on stairs Into the sun Tourist lines Market in Ollantaytambo The world's smallest sandwich
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Urubamba valley Pensive look Arrival in Machu Picchu Ceviche! Irina at dinner


Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu, or as it is called sometimes, the Lost City of the Incas, was built in the 15 century at the height of the Inca Empire, likely as an estate of the Inca emperor Pachacuti. It was abandoned about one hundred year later. It was never found by the Spanish and it was rediscovered for the modern world in 1911. The year 2011 was marketed by Peru as the 100th anniversary of its rediscovery. It was our second new wonder of the world to visit on our South American trip,

I like good photographic light in beautiful places, both to enjoy that special moment while I am there and also give myself an opportunity to capture it so I can try to relive it through my photographs later. So we made an attempt to get to Machu Picchu as early as possible. To accomplish that from Machu Picchu Pueblo/Aguas Calientes, one has to get up around 5am to catch a bus leaving shortly thereafter. Another option was to get up one hour and a half earlier to walk up some 3 miles to the ruins with a flash light. Given my freshly sprained ankle, the former was a much more viable alternative.

The line was already long when we got to the bus stop. Fortunately, they were ready for the hordes of tourists and buses arrived one after another. It was about a 20 minute ride up a series of switchbacks on Carretera Hiram Bingham, a dirt road named after the Yale professor who discovered Machu Picchu, at least for the modern world, a hundred years ago. The road is cut into the cloud forest covered mountain side. At the end of it, a long awaited moment of finally seeing the ruins had to wait a bit more. Yet another line formed in front of the entrance station.

After we finally got in, we chose to head for an area near the Watchman's Hut first to have a view of the entire site from above. The sun was just above the mountains, though well past the sunrise, and it was a special sight indeed. I am not sure where I had seen a photo of Machu Picchu the first time. Perhaps it was in a Czech edition of the ten volume History of Art by Jose Pijoan, that I remember browsing through a lot when I was a teenager. It would seem I did not look just for the type of pictures a teenager might look for and some others left a mark too.

The ruins themselves, as impressive as they may be, are a distant second to the magnificient setting of the site itself. Steep mountain sides dropping some 2000 ft to the Urubamba river, clouds often enveloping the surrounding mountains above, with still higher snow capped peaks in the distance, the backdrop of Huayna Picchu on the other side of the ruins, are a sight that will thrill the most dispassionate soul, a phrase that I picked up from Gerry Roach's book, "Colorado Fourteeners, From Hikes to Climbs", and that so often comes to my mind.

A few clouds blocked off the sunshine for a while and we started searching for a different subject than the surrounding scenery. The subject came to us. A small herd of llamas was grazing on a meadow between the ruins. Irina took to them with suspicion initially, but then they became friendly. She almost got trampled when the llamas got startled at one point. She would, according to her own words, smell like a llama since then, and characterized llamas as snails. I had to give it to her. They may look photogenic at first, but they are seriously out of proportion in every picture I took of them.

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Line in front the entrance Sunrise Machu Picchu Sun rays Llamas Huayna Picchu
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Irina Irina Mountain layers Machu Picchu
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Shadow lines Irina and Machu Picchu Lost City of the Incas Irina


Among the ruins at Machu Picchu

After the sun came out again, we spend some more time photographing, and then went back down to the entrance to meet our guide. He walked us through the ruins, offering an interesting description of various parts of it. The sky got cloudy and the wind started to blow. Gradually, the clouds lowered occasionally obscuring the summit of Huyana Picchu. The rain drops started to fall shortly after. We took shelter inside one of the temples for a while. The rain subsided and then got heavier still. We left the site in a downpour around 2pm and boarded a bus that took us back down to Machu Picchu Pueblo.

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Gate Huayna Picchu Terraces Ruins Bromelia
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Blooms Bird above the ruins Lizard Peeking out Stairs Geometry of terraces
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Geometry of terraces II Peekaboo Menacing clouds Andean chicken/eagle Andean chicken/eagle Andean chicken/eagle
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Windows into the wall Windows Bear Our guide Urubamba River Valley Stones
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Wedged Incoming storm


Aguas Callientes

The entire town was without electricity. Most of the restaurants were closed. It was still raining and it was relatively chilly. We walked around, had coffee in one of the few places offering it, and eventually managed to have what amounted to an early dinner. We picked up our luggage at the hotel and headed to the train station. There were crowds of people waiting to board their train in the train station and it was an interesting scene when it got dark outside and only a few candles illuminated the hall. The boarding took place in the dark too. It was a lot more cheerful on board the train again. The staff of Peru Rail put on a fashion show walking up and down the car as if on a catwalk. They pitched alpaca sweaters and other clothing and it was a lot of fun to watch. Javier waited for us in Ollantaytambo and took us back tu Cuzco. It was a great day and more were to come.

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Aguas Caliente Propane Roll it Barrel show Flower
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Urubamba River Up to construction code? Rusty poster of Alejandro Toledo No electricity... Fashion show Fashion show


Last updated: March 4, 2012
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