A pilgrim in Peru: Part Five, going to Racchi, Tipon, Pikillacta, and off the tourist trail

After croissants and café con leche in the elegant restaurant of Inkaterrra La Casona, looking onto the hotel-home’s green and graceful interior courtyard, I met Manuel in the sitting room. He had been infectiously smiling and enthusiastic every day, but today there was a special gleam in his eye. “Hola, Don! Que tal? Today we have a very wonderful journey planned: We are moving even further into the past, into the pre-Inca world. You will see places not many tourists see.”

We drove east from Cusco toward Lake Titicaca, and for me, this already induced the frisson of exploring virgin territory. Even though the road was a well-paved thoroughfare that clearly carried thousands of travelers, most tourists confine their Sacred Valley explorations to the region between Pisac and Ollantaytambo. Driving toward Lake Titicaca, we were moving beyond Pisac and away from the tourist trail.

Our destination was Racchi, about 70 miles southeast of Cusco. John drove us through more spectacular scenery: the blue-gray Vilcanota River ribboning through yellow-green grasslands patchworked with deep green crops, all framed by snowcapped mountains; mud-brick, terra cotta-roofed houses dotted the landscape and little boys in woven caps shooshed bushel-burdened donkeys along the side of the road.
Racchi itself was a revelation. This expansive 20-acre site includes the remains of agricultural terraces, storehouses, walls, baths, a jailhouse, a lake, and the impressive centerpiece, the Temple of Wiracocha, the Inca’s great creator-god. The temple is represented by nine towering rectangular columns, each more than 20 feet high and four feet wide. Built of polished stone on the bottom and mud brick atop the stone, the columns have a distinct earthen color and a shape unlike any other Inca monuments. These attributes imbued the place with a feeling of singular age and significance, and as I walked around the stark ruins, I felt immersed in their desolation and purity, as if I were stepping further and further into the ancient heart of Peru.

That feeling continued at the two other ruins we visited that day. Tipon was a vast grass-and-water complex of broad green terraces and burbling canals and aqueducts. Like Moray, Manuel said, this site – irrigated by water brought from a distant spring by an ingenious network of canals — had been used as an experimental laboratory for the cultivation of different crops. It may also have been, Manuel added, a place to worship the water gods. Wiracocha, water gods. I was beginning to get a sense that the Incas had been surrounded by sanctity – in the fields they worked, the water they drank, the sun that warmed them, the mountains they moved through.

We wandered alone through the terraced past and I had the impression that I was walking over a time-bridge, to a place rocky and green and smelling of fresh mountain water. Then a family appeared in rough woven clothes; they were calling and laughing to each other, the children hopping merrily on the ancient walls. A mirage?

Manuel whistled and said in a gentle voice that they should respect the walls and not play on them. The patriarch, splendid in a gray and green poncho, nodded gravely and they moved on.

Our journey climaxed at Pikillacta, a site built by the Wari empire, an advanced civilization that had been the dominant power in the central and northern highlands of Peru from about 500 to 1000 AD. Along with the contemporaneous and equally powerful Tiwanaku tribe, Manuel said, the Wari laid the cultural foundations for the Inca empire.

These ruins were the rawest yet and very much a work in progress. “Maybe only 5 percent of this site has been cleared and cleaned,” Manuel said; “there is still so much to discover. But this is good,” he continued, nodding at a distant knot of workers with a small smile. “I have been coming here for 16 years and this is the first time I’ve seen government workers here. More archaeologists are becoming interested not just in the Incas but in other cultures that lived here too. And more foreign universities and countries are helping with the excavations; this is what we need, and this will lead to our own government getting involved as well.”

Evidence of the excavations was everywhere. Near the entrance to the site a sign read, “Zona de Trabajo. Prohibido el Ingreso.” We could see workers with towels covering their heads and necks digging on a distant hill, and nearer, modern archaeological tools scattered in the shade of a wall, wood scaffolding bordering a paved pathway, and wooden props that had been set to keep a long, intricately pieced rock wall upright.

In one hut-like chamber we could clearly see the remains of an elegant rock floor and ragged swatches of white plaster on what had once been a gypsum-covered adobe wall. Suddenly I felt a sliver of what Hiram Bingham must have felt when he stumbled on Machu Picchu, and I could begin to understand what drives explorers and archaeologists to hack and stumble through swamp and jungle, to sift and sluice under a relentless sun – this sense of connection with a distant culture. I had no idea what feet had slipped across that white rock floor, what hands had brushed that age-worn wall, what joys and tears, despairs and dreams had taken seed and blossomed here. But still I felt a mortal, human, bond – that rock and clay called to me, pulled at something deep within. Part of me wanted to stay and sit under that thatch; part of me sits there still.

But life must be lived in the present, and we moved from the 7th century ruins to a 21st century home-cum-restaurant specializing in cuy, or guinea pig. This local delicacy was baked in a backyard oven to a crisp and served with its little paws splayed, its snout snouting and sharp teeth gritting, accompanied by noodles, potatoes, and beer. Lots of beer. The World Cup semifinals were being played, with Uruguay upholding the honor of South America, and the restaurant owner genially agreed to accommodate his guests by hauling his prized set out of his living room and laboriously connecting it to an Incan trail-like network of wires and cables, so that we could enact another semi-religious rite while eating our cuy: watching futbol on a grainy TV.

After our guinea pig gourmandizing, we set off toward Cusco and my final afternoon in the Sacred Valley. On the way we passed a roadside roof tile-making facility we’d seen earlier in the day, and Manuel said something quickly to John, who smiled and made a swift U-turn. Suddenly we were veering off the paved road onto a dusty driveway. We bumped and bounced past a mud-brick home and a wary grandmother perched on a porch and rolled to a stop at the edge of the tile-maker’s lot.

Typical of the hospitality we had received throughout the trip, rather than being alarmed or perturbed by the site of a gringo and his guide striding across his work site, the tile-maker welcomed us with a broad smile. When Manuel explained that I had been admiring the roof tiles throughout the Sacred Valley and wanted to understand firsthand how they were made, he beckoned me over to his workplace. There, surrounded by a growing gaggle of kids, he proceeded to demonstrate how he mixed, dried, wet and then fashioned the mud that became the terra cotta tiles, and how he smoothed them into just the right shape, making sure there were no bubbles that could crack later, and then carefully placed the semi-rounded tile in the sun to dry. Soon he was draping an apron over my neck and inviting me to plunge my hands into the muddy mound; with his help and the giggling encouragements of the kids, I shaped and smoothed a tile, gingerly separated it from the mold and placed it in the line of tiles that would eventually end up crowning some happy family’s home.

There were more treasures and grace notes to come. The next morning’s itinerary called for “free time in Cusco” before my mid-day departure for Lima, but Manuel rearranged his schedule and conscripted his benevolent, beaming father, who had recently retired from a career as a tour driver, to take us on an impromptu excursion to some of the city’s grand cathedrals and museums, the astonishing stones of the temple-fortress of Saqsaywaman just outside the city, and a heartening wildlife sanctuary called the Santuario Animal de Ccochahuasi, whose passionate founder proudly showed us a magnificent condor that was being nursed back to health there.

But when I recall this pilgrimage, Manuel — himself one of the principal treasures of the trip — guides me back to that afternoon among the ruins and the roof tiles, when I felt a first sliver of the explorer’s heart-quickening connection, that shiver of spanning time in the touch of cool white stone and the brush of gypsum line, and when a family of roof tile-makers opened their heart and art to me for a timeless half hour of their lives.

On that afternoon, this pilgrim found his way. Roof tiles are made from clay and in many ancient cultures it is said that men are made from clay too. I believe this is so, for I know I left a piece of me in the Sacred Valley of Peru.

A pilgrim in Peru: Part One, Arriving in Peru

A pilgrim in Peru: Part Two, visiting Moray, Pisaq and Ollantaytambo
A pilgrim in Peru: Part Three, arriving in Machu Picchu
A pilgrim in Peru: Part Four, visiting Machu Picchu at sunrise
Related: How to hike the Inca Trail

This trip was hosted by both LAN and Geographic Expeditions, but the opinions, joy, and amazement concerning the people and sunrise in Peru are purely my own. LAN Airlines recently celebrated the inauguration of its four-days-a-week nonstop service between San Francisco and Lima. LAN’s non-stop service to Lima with next morning connection to Cusco can help maximize your time in the Sacred Valley. Geographic Expeditions, a San Francisco-based adventure travel company offers overland tours, treks, walks, and expeditionary voyages around the world. GeoEx’s web site provides a wealth of information on its varied Peru tours.

Where I stayed:
In Urubamba: Sol & Luna
In Aguas Calientes: Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel
In Cusco: Inkaterra La Casona