A pilgrim in Peru: Part Two, visiting Moray, Pisaq and Ollantaytambo

On my second day in the Sacred Valley, I awoke to clear mountain air, the faint sweet scent of distant smoke and the green and bright-blossoming grounds of the Hotel Sol & Luna. Manuel met me over cafés con leche in the hotel’s breakfast room, unfurled a map and traced our itinerary for the day: The Sacred Valley is a swath of level land bordered by the Urubamba and Vilcabamba mountain ranges and threaded by the Urubamba River; the distance from the endpoints of Ollantaytambo in the northwest to Pisaq in the southeast is about 70 miles. Strung throughout this valley are some two dozen towns and villages, as well as the grand capital, Cusco. On our first full day here we would travel the length of the valley and visit three ancient sites: Moray, Pisaq and Ollantaytambo.

A couple of what would become recurring themes emerged on our morning visit to Moray. The first was that archaeological tourism and archaeological stewardship are still very new in Peru. As we gazed over the site’s mesmerizing sunken circular terraces, Manuel said, “No one is sure when it was built, but many people believe it goes back to 1420s, 1430s. And it was no more than five years ago that the government really started paying attention to what had been done here. Farmers had been using this as a corral before that. And if the government doesn’t pay attention, people will just take these stones and use them for themselves.”

The second was just how technologically sophisticated the ancient settlers here were. Moray’s multi-tiered amphitheater was a laboratory where agricultural experiments were performed to see what kinds of crops would grow best at what altitudes and under what climatic and meteorological conditions. Each terrace represented a different temperature and ecological level. “The Incas were trying to domesticate crops that didn’t grow naturally here,” Manuel said. “For example, cotton seeds have been found on the site. This shows that the Incas were not only expert building engineers and hydraulic engineers; they were also great genetic engineers. Some people think this is where potatoes were domesticated. Think of it. The potato is probably the number one crop all over the world, and it may have been introduced here.” He shaded his eyes from the sun and stared at the grassy circles. “Five grains that are now used all around the world also came from here – who knows, maybe they did that work right in these terraces before us.”
Pisac, 60 miles to the southeast of Moray, had even more impressive terracing – ribboning up a towering slope crowned by a complex of reddish rock ruins. As we huffed and puffed up in the afternoon sun, the view of golden valley expanses and distant brown mountains became more and more impressive. The panorama from the top was breathtaking: Terraces descended like waves below, with the modern town of Pisac to the right, behind us a lush green gorge and across it a cliff wall pocked with ancient tombs. The site’s significance as a strategic watchpoint and easily defensible fortress was clear, but as we poked around its walls, windows, entranceways and alleys, its everyday significance came to life as well: A family had cooked and slept here, stored their grain and housed their livestock there; we could identify courtyards where religious ceremonies had been performed and guardhouses where lookouts were posted.

As the day cooled in the waning afternoon light, the thin sound of an Andean flute floated up from below; a little shiver – the breath of an Inca messenger? – fluted along my spine.

Moray and Pisac were illuminating and impressive, but the highlight of the day was Ollantaytambo, 60 miles northwest of Cusco and the last big town before Machu Picchu. As we bumped along its cobbled streets, Manuel said, “Ollantaytambo was very important because of its location – the way the valley narrows, anyone traveling to Machu Picchu or beyond had to go through here. So Ollantaytambo was important economically and strategically. We call it a living museum – many people here are descendants of the original Quechua settlers and are living in houses with Inca foundations that were built at least 500 years ago.”

An impressive fortress-like pile of rockwork that ranged from rough-hewn to astonishingly smooth, the ancient temple-fortress of Ollantaytambo rises like a juggernaut out of the valley floor. “Look at this!” Manuel exclaimed after we’d ascended a stony stairway to the main temple area. The rockwork here was so smooth and perfectly pieced together it almost defied comprehension. “How did they cut these rocks so smooth?” Manuel said, echoing my own thoughts. “Maybe they had a wire made of gold or silver and they used stone chisels – but it’s amazing that they could make such quality. And look at the sizes of the stones!” The biggest stones were easily 12 feet high by 8 feet long. “Some of them weigh 80-100 tons. The quarries were over there,” Manuel pointed to a hillside across the Urubamba River, perhaps two miles away. “They had to move the stones downhill, get them across the river, then bring them uphill. Yes, they had stone tools, but you know, the best tool they had was men. They must have had thousands of men working here.”

Manuel turned to me. “I believe the Incas must have had a writing system to do this work. We know they had a counting system, and I’m sure they had a system of measurement and a writing system too. How else can you explain this perfection?” The Incas must have written down their methods of transporting heavy stones and piecing together the intricate picture-puzzles of their massive, masterful monuments; surely such a sophisticated civilization had developed an efficient way to transport information as well as materials all along the Inca trail. As we walked around the site, Manuel gazed over the valley. “You know, people today feel more safe to build houses on Inca terraces than on plains built by modern engineers.”

Later we walked through the cobbled streets of the endearing town, past 21st-century dwellings built on 15th-century foundations, 15th-century canals irrigating 21st-century crops, past and present interwoven on a Quechua loom.

A final highlight of the day was something much more mundane – a stop at a roadside chicha establishment. Chicha is a fermented beverage made from corn. Manuel took me to a place he favored – signified, as with all such establishments, by a red flag hanging jauntily on a pole outside the shop. After admiring a basket of multi-colored ears of corn which the proprietress brought out to illustrate the source of the brew, we sampled two kinds of chicha: the traditional straw-colored drink, which was a little bitter for my taste, and a pinkish one that had been flavored with strawberry, known as frutillada, which tasted like a mildly alcoholic smoothie.

Manuel said that after a hard day of work in the fields, locals would repair to the neighborhood chicha place, down a few brews, talk and unwind. I cannot imagine a better way to end a hot Peruvian day. As we drank our second round of frutilladas, Manuel introduced me to the traditional game of sapo which often accompanies chicha-quaffing. Sapo involves a somewhat desk-like piece of furniture with about half a dozen holes in its top plane and a golden frog perched with its mouth open. You set the desk about eight feet away, then take a round brass piece about the size of a silver dollar and toss it at the desk. You get points if your piece lands in one of the holes and even more points if you manage to toss it into the frog’s mouth. How did I do? Well, I probably won’t be invited to join the Peruvian national sapo team for a while. But I did hit the desk a couple of times – and as further frutilladas slid smoothily down, even that seemed pretty special. And I managed to avoid hitting Manuel and John. So all in all I considered it a pretty successful chicha stop. And I’m happy to say no frogs – golden or green — were harmed that day.

Manuel and John dropped me at the Sol & Luna, where that night I feasted on mushroom consommé with chicken-filled ravioli and grilled local king fish, all enhanced by the hotel’s handsome, mural-graced circular dining room. Then I retired to my tiled cassita, admired the handicrafts artfully arranged throughout – like lodging in an exquisite handicrafts boutique – and took one last walk through the crisp Andean air, under the star-skeined Inca sky.

Previously: A pilgrim in Peru: Part One, Arriving in Peru
Tomorrow: A pilgrim in Peru: Part Three, arriving in Machu Picchu

This trip was hosted by both LAN and Geographic Expeditions, but the opinions, joy, and amazement concerning the people and archaeology in Peru are purely my own.