Sacred Valley – Peru
Peru is amazing. There’s that overworked word again—AMAZING. Traveling the world I’m quickly running out of superlatives. They always sound trite, but when you see these sites firsthand you’re at a loss to describe them. My camera helps, but even it seems inadequate at times. This side trip from Cusco included visits to both Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu (one of the Seven New Wonders of the World). It spanned two very long days, and one very short night.
Map of Sacred Valley
I departed Cusco early Wednesday morning by bus. Stopping briefly I grabbed a quick shot as we overlooked the entrance to Sacred Valley (see photo above). The weather was perfect for photography: an interesting sky with dramatic clouds, and the floor of the valley illuminated with early morning golden sunlight. No photographer could ask for more. The bus was continually dropping altitude from Cusco’s 11,000 foot elevation.
Terraces at Pisac
The bus stopped next at Pisac to see the terraced hillsides and to explore the Inca ruins farther up. The terraces are not carved into the hillsides as one might suppose but built on the hillsides. Retaining walls came first, and after filled with rock, sand, and earth. These terraces supplied the growing area for hillside crops like potatoes and corn. Water was ingeniously transported from the Urubamba River below to the crops and settlements above. Learn More.
Ruins at Pisac
I climbed the terraces and ruins, as did many others, before striking out on my own to get a better vantage point. I found a narrow trail leading away from the ruins, crossed a small footbridge, and gained a little elevation. I was able to capture this distant view of the ruins, and thankfully the many people crawling all over them virtually disappear into the background. If you look closely though, and your eyes are good enough, you can see the little specks that are human beings.
Back on the bus we continued our journey through Sacred Valley. We stopped in the town of Urubamba for an excellent meal of indigenous cuisine, and then headed for Ollantaytambo (these Inca names are really something aren’t they?). In Ollantaytambo we explored more cliff-side ruins, and prepared to board our afternoon train to Aguas Caliente aka Machu Picchu Pueblo. Exploring the various ruin sites sounds easy but it’s not. They’re steep, treacherous, and the afternoons can get warm (hot).
Cliff-side Ruins at Ollantaytambo
Younger folks might find these explorations pretty easy, although a fair number of them were wheezing every bit as much as me. The Incas weren’t particularly fond of switchbacks, they seemed to prefer straight up & down steps (the shortest distance between two points I guess). The block steps are each pretty high in themselves (kind of funny because the Incas are of short stature), so it puts a real strain on your legs. Combined with the heat and the altitude (we were still at 8,000 feet) it’s not as easy as it sounds. Learn More.
Inca Dwelling in Ollantaytambo
Ollantaytambo is the last town that can be reached by bus. From here you board Inca Rail for the 1-hour and 40-minute train ride to Aguas Caliente (Machu Picchu Pueblo). The train is small but very nice and comfortable. The tracks follow the Urubamba River through the narrow and beautiful canyon. The tracks are rough and the rail cars seem like small bobbing boats as they wind themselves along. A small snack and beverage came with the package.
Boarding Inca Rail in Ollantaytambo
The train departed the station at 4:30 p.m. and arrived in Aguas Caliente a little after 6:00 p.m. (it was already dark). There are no taxis or tuk-tuks in the small town, and so you walk everywhere (like most of Peru the town is up & down). I slung my rucksack over my shoulder and made my way to the hotel. It had already been a long day climbing and exploring the various ruins, and riding the many miles through Sacred Valley in a bus. Tired I turned in early after confirming my schedule for the next day.
Thursday morning (yesterday) came early at 4:00 a.m. (I had to be at Machu Picchu at sunrise). I got dressed, had a simple breakfast (coffee and bread), once again slung my rucksack over my shoulder, and by flashlight found my way through the dark and deserted streets to catch my bus. The only vehicles in town are the buses that transport travellers to and from the ruins (how did they get there?). I boarded with the other early risers, and we began the 25-minute perilous journey up the mountainside (in the dark).
It rained during the night and it was still cold, overcast, and drizzling. Reaching the entrance I queued in line with everyone else, and waited for admission into this world-famous archeological site. Situated in Cloud Forest, Machu Picchu is high in the Andes, so weather is often problematic. Such was the case on this day. It never cleared limiting my visibility to about 30-meters. I couldn’t see much, no grand views, and taking photographs was impossible. The photo below will show you what I mean.
Machu Picchu Deep in Cloud Cover
I spent many long hours shivering in the cold and damp waiting for the sun to finally break through, but it never happened. I talked to fellow travellers who spent multiple days visiting the site, and they informed me that the day before (when I was photographing Sacred Valley) had been beautiful. I guess you win some and lose some. You have to stay philosophical when it comes to Mother Nature, after all I had great weather in the Amazon, Galapagos, and Cuba, and came back with some stellar photos.
I spent most of my remaining time exploring the ruins, and though I couldn’t see very far at any given vantage point, what I did see closeup was the craftsmanship and genius of the Inca. Machu Picchu is one of the Seven New Wonders of the World for a reason. Visitation is tightly controlled, and if you’re planning to visit make sure you make your plans and reservations well in advance (you can’t just show up at the gate).
I eventually made my way back to town, ate a late lunch, and headed to the train depot. My train left Aguas Caliente at 7:00 p.m. and arrived back in Ollantaytambo shortly before 9:00 p.m. Once again I grabbed a bus, this time non-stop, and headed back to Cusco. The driver drove like a bat out of hell through the Andean Mountains (and the dark Peruvian night), and I was back in Cusco shortly before 11:00 p.m. I snagged a taxi on arriving and got back got back to my hotel—and some much-needed sleep.
Today has been recovery day. I slept like a log last night and even took a nap this afternoon. I ate both breakfast and dinner here at the hotel, and I’ve just been goofing off ever since. Every muscle in my body aches, and I feel jet-lagged even though I was on buses, trains, and my own two feet (probably from lack of sleep). Was it worth it, yeah it was worth it ($284 usd total cost). I wish I had gotten some snaps of Machu Picchu, but hey that’s life. I have some nice photos of Sacred Valley and lots of memories.
Stephen F. Dennstedt
Photographer, Writer, World Traveller