04.05.2012 - 11.05.2012 15 °C
We were both excited to finally be going to the cradle of Inca civilization; Cusco. Arriving on yet another night bus, we made our way to our pre-booked hostel, Pariwana. To all of you planning to visit Cusco on a budget; Pariwana is probably the best hostel in town. Hot showers with good water pressure, super comfortable beds with real comforters right in the center of the city is pretty hard to beat.
As for many so many others our main reason for visiting Cusco was to see Machu Picchu. However, Cusco and it's surrounding area has so much to offer in itself that this post will not include the famous ruins. That being said a combination of waiting to get tickets to see Machu Picchu and Jason's short hospital stint caused us to spend more time here than intended. (Don't worry, it was "just" a parasite. Nothing a bunch of drugs couldn't cure.)
Arc of Barrio de Santa Ana
Cusco is the biggest tourist town in Peru, there's no doubt about it. Here you'll find backpackers, Japanese tour groups, Europeans in trendy trainers, American retirees and everything in between. The city was the site of the historical capital of the Inca Empire, and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. It sits in the Andes at an altitude of 3400m (11,000ft), which can cause altitude sickness in people not used to it. Fortunately, we had gotten used to being at these altitudes while in Bolivia and did not suffer the same difficulties as people fresh off the plane.
In the heart of the city you find Plaza de Armas aka "Square of the Warrior" in the Inca Era. This square has been the scene of many important events in Peruvian history. It is where Pizarro, leader of the Spanish invasion, declared Cusco as conquered as well as the site where Tupac Amaru II, considered the indigenous leader of the resistance, died.
Iglesia de Compañia de Jesus, built in 1576, at Plaza de Armas is considered one of the best examples of colonial baroque style in the Americas.
The Spanish destroyed many Inca buildings and used the remaining walls as bases for the construction of their new city. In 1950 a major earthquake shook Cusco, damaging many of the Spanish constructions. The Inca architecture however withstood the earthquake, even the walls supporting the newer buildings.
Oldest Inca wall in town
You can often see the "Whipala" or "Flag of Cusco" in and around the city, even on government buildings.
Not to be confused with the Gay Pride/Rainbow Falg, the flag is used to represent Tawantin Suyu, or Inca Territory.
Just outside of Cusco you find the Sacred Valley, full of Inca ruins that will forever stand in the shadows of Machu Picchu. We made a little detour to Ollantaytambo after our visit to the more famous ruins. After getting off the train we spent the night here before getting up early to check out the ruins. Of course these ruins had to be on the top of a small mountain, which none of us found particularly amusing at 6 a.m. after climbing Wayna Picchu the day before. Strategic location aside, I really don't understand the Inca's fascination of mountains or hill tops.
Ollantaytambo with Inca ruins on the hillside
Back in the days of the Inca Empire Ollantaytambo was the royal estate of Emperor Pachacuti who conquered the region and built the city. Today it is known as the starting point of the famous Inca Trail.
Local ladies in their traditional costumes
The Incas built a series of storehouses in the hills surrounding the city. Building them here was no coincidence; the higher altitude provided lower temperatures and more wind protecting their crops from decay.
Other than storehouses Pachacuti had agricultural terraces built all over the valley. By constructing terraces the Incas could farm land that would otherwise be unusable. Having the terraces built at rising altitudes on the steep hills the Incas were able to take advantage of different ecological zones growing different crops at different altitudes. The terraces built around Ollantaytambo show a higher standard than the most common Inca terraces, similar ones are found at other royal estates.
After climbing the surrounding hillsides to get a closer look at the storehouses and a view of the terraces as well as temple hill, we decided it was time to head back to Cusco. Back on the streets of Ollantaytambo we started negotiating with a taxi driver about the fare. He asks us if we'd seen the salt ponds in Maras. We had not. After a little back and forth he had us convinced this was something we had to see as it was on the way to Cusco anyway. So off we went.
The salt pond system seen from the road. It is huge.
Since Inca times, maybe even earlier, salt has been obtained from salt evaporation ponds in the town of Maras. Highly salty water from a subterranean stream is led trough a complex system of tiny channels running down a hillside through hundreds of shallow ancient terraced ponds.
This little cutie hangs out at the look out point taking her own snap shots of the tourists
As the water evaporates in the heat of the sun, the water becomes supersaturated and salt is precipitated. At this time "farmers" will cut off the water supply and allow the water to dry up, upon which he will collect the salt by carefully scraping it off the earthen floor of the pond.
Traditionally the salt ponds have been available to anyone who wants to farm them. So, if you are so inclined all you need to do is find an empty pond, talk to the local cooperative to get some info on how to take care of your pond and get working
Back in Cusco it was time to get packing again. Our next stop; on oasis in the Peruvian desert. More on life in the desert later, or next post will be from Machu Picchu