Oy, Oy, Ollantaytambo – a day in the Sacred Valley

13th April 2018

[Long Read Warning – this was a content-rich day. Get a coffee, or a drink, is my advice]

The valley that runs from Pisac to Ollantaytambo was called the Sacred Valley by the Incas, as it ran along side of the Urubamba river, also known as Willkamayu in the local Quecha language, meaning “sacred river”. It became an important part of the Inca empire, and having the advantages of lower altitude and water, was a good area for farming, principally maize and potatoes.

Our day in the Sacred Valley was spent travelling through the valley from Pisac to Ollantaytambo. The weather at first was very dull – raining quite hard at times – but it cheered up as the day progressed.

Pisac is well-known for its market, which takes over a latge part of the town. These days, it plays mainly to tourists, and, like many such, it’s a colourful place.

Pisac - market stall

Many of the stallholders dress traditionally,

Pisac - market stall

and there are one or two locals also dressed traditionally, in the hope of getting a tourist Sol or two as a photo opportunity.

Pisac - seeking photo opportunities

Some of the fabric designs are wonderful.

Pisac - pattern weaving


Pisac - pattern weaving

Traditional dress figures strongly among the locals (particularly, it must be said, the older ones)

Pisac - traditional dress in modern life

but modern life exists alongside tradition.

Pisac - traditional meets modern


Pisac - lady carrying milk to market

Above – this lady is carrying milk, direct from the cow, to sell it at a stall

Pisac - street scene

Shortly after I took the picture above, one of the ladies handed her lamb to the other, and pottered off on some mission or other.

The town itself is pleasant, quite pretty in places, but the usual South American mix of colour, charm and scruffiness.

Pisac - side street and terraces


Pisac - view over the town

On the outskirts is a tiny church (not the only one, but the cutest)

Pisac - a tiny church on the outskirts

and many of the buildings sport a pair of animal statues on their roofs, by way of a blessing.

Pisac - roof decoration

The town is well-paved, with aqueducts running along many of the streets

Pisac - aqueducts in the streets to distribute rainwater

beside which you see mosaic versions of many Inca animals, with the condor (the animal the Incas held in very high regard) featuring often, in different representations.

Pisac - a stylised condor in street artwork

and other traditional Inca animals such as the snake (bottom of the snake-puma-condor hierarchy).

Occasionally, you can see, outside a shop, a small basket hangingn on a pole. This means that the establishment is a public bakery. People can bring things – including cuy, or guinea pig – to be baked.

Pisac - public baking oven

If the pole sports a red thing at the end,

Pisac - local version of a pub

it means that the place serves chicha, a local alcoholic drink. There are plenty of these establishments.

The town’s Inca roots can be seen in some still-extant terracing, originally used for farming, but here used to support a cemetery. Note the protrusions in the middle of the terrace wall; these form an Inca-style staircase

Pisac - an Inca staircase

which is still in use today!

Pisac - an Inca staircase

Our journey from Pisac to Ollantaytambo involved some notable items of interest. For example, a town called Lamay seems to specialise in eateries which will serve you the local delicacy – guinea pig, or cuy. The marketing is not subtle

Lamay - Cuy Central

in the way that it tells you that you get guinea pig on a stick.

Lamay - Cuy Central

Jane tells me that it smelt delicious.

Cuy is very clearly a delicacy and one to market heavily.

Lamay - Cuy Central

We stopped for lunch (not guinea pig!) at a splendid place called “Sol y Luna“, which, being Relais et Chateau, was, obvs, dead posh. We had a lovely lunch and were, unexpectedly, entertained with a display of traditional Peruvian horsemanship

and dancing.

After lunch we went to Ollantaytambo, which was a delight, but only after bumping up a considerably cobbled road through narrow streets. The town itself is, yes, typically South American – charming in places, scruffy in others and quite colourful.

Ollantaytambo seen from the Temple

Ollantaytambo - side street with central aqueduct

Ollantaytambo - street with aqueduct

but what it’s best-known for is a very substantial Inca fortress.

Ollantaytambo - at the foot of the Temple

Ollantaytambo - view over the temple terraces

which you can climb up if you have the stomach (or, rather, the lungs) for 300 steps up at altitude. If so, you get to see some fabulous Inca stonework

Ollantaytambo - Inca stonework

with beautifully interlocking (and very substantial) stones which provide a base stable enough to resist earthquake)

Ollantaytambo - Inca niches

containing niches for idols, fashioned in the traditional Inca trapezoidal shape)

and differentiatng between the temple part (on the left, with top notch stonework) and the farming part (on the right, still good stonework, but not of the top quality reserved only for noble houses and temples).

At the top is the throne, reserved for the ruler to view his fiefdom,

Ollantaytambo - the ruler's seat

and this is his view. Note that the alignment of this is such that at spring equinox, the sun rises exactly over the top of the mountain in the centre of the picture.

There was a huge amount to learn from the Ollantaytambo site – how the accoustics of the design allowed for eavesdropping on conversations at a lower level; how it was never completed; how much of it was buried so that when the Spaniards came and took over (after a battle which they lost, incidentally) they didn’t find (and hence destroy) what was there – it’s around 80% complete and only the perishable stuff (like roofing, traditionally made using bamboo to support thatching) has disappeared. Some restoration work has been done, but fundamentally the site has survived over the centuries due to the remarkable stoneworking abilities of the Incas.

This was the first significant exposure to Inca work that we had seen on our travels, and it was a very impressive site and sight. There is much to learn about the Incas, and Camila, our guide, gave us some wonderful historical and cultural insights. I’ve tried to get across some of them, but, fundamentally, what takes your breath away is the size and scale of the place – an excellent end to a long and varied day.

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