Pisac Ruins & Cusco, Peru

Updated: Jan 17

Peru was our first international destination and what a way to start - Lima, the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu. On the recommendation of a friend at work we also added a trip to Ecuador. Due to the multiple destinations on our trip to Peru and Ecuador, I've broken the trip into 4 separate blogs. Click

  1. Lima

  2. Pisac and Cusco

  3. Inca Trail and Machu Picchu

  4. Quito and Banos Ecuador

Our trip to Cusco and Pisac started with a 90-minute flight from Lima (sea level) to Cusco (11,154 ft). We didn't stay overnight in Cusco, but instead drove straight to Urubamba (9,514 ft). Heading to the lower altitude of Urubamba helped with acclimatization and prevented an immediate stay at a 10,000 foot altitude.

The 90-minute 'downhill' drive to Urubamba provided a great introduction to the Andes.

The hotel where we stayed, Tambo del Inka, is considered one of the top 100 hotels in the world. This was the first time we had ever stayed at a hotel this extravagant and damn was it worth it. Our philosophy: treat yourself right before starting a 4-day hike in the Andes!

Just a short note regarding acclimatization. I began taking acetazolamide 1-2 days before the flight to Cusco to help avoid altitude sickness symptoms, while Dave, who is allergic to this class of drugs began taking ginko biloba. In addition, both of us were also drinking coca tea. Well, within 6 hours of arriving at the hotel, I developed a mild headache, which by the time we finished dinner had ramped up so that it felt like someone was sticking needles in my head. I barely got back to the room in time to projectile vomit across the bathroom floor. After crawling into bed and assuming the fetal position, we got the hotel to provide a 10-minute oxygen treatment. I was praying the symptoms wouldn't last the usual 2-3 days. Incredibly, I woke the next morning feeling 'good' with only a mild headache. Meanwhile, Dave never experienced altitude sickness symptoms throughout our stay in Peru and Ecuador.


Pisac

With our free day in Urubamba, we decided to visit Pisac, which is a 2.5 hour drive from the hotel. The Pisac ruins are among Peru’s most intact ancient sites. It's unknown when the site was built, but since there are no signs it was inhabited by pre-Inca civilizations, it was most likely built in the mid-1400's.


The sheer size and location of Pisac suggest it may have been built to protect Cusco, the capital of the Inca empire, against possible attack.

Below are a few pictures of Qantus Raccay, one of residential areas at the site. It contained rough stone buildings, walls with niches, and small squares.

Notice the construction. These buildings were made with smaller field stones, not the large, precisely fitting stone blocks the Inca are known for. The Incas reserved their best construction methods and materials for ceremonial centers and buildings for the elite.


The hillsides were covered with stone-walled agricultural terraces. These terraces were created by hauling richer topsoil by hand from the lower lands. The Incas used terraces as we might use greenhouses, nurturing seedlings at different altitudes on the mountain-sides, seeing what could grow where.

This farming technique enabled the production of more food than would normally be possible at these altitudes. Archaeological studies indicate that corn was probably grown on the lower terraces, potatoes in the middle, and quinoa grain on the high terraces.

In this picture, I'm standing on 'flying stairs' that the Incas incorporated into the terrace stone walls. These stairs allowed workers to easily move between the 8-foot high terraces.

Q’alla Q’asa, was another major area within Pisac. This hilltop complex overlooked the Sacred Valley and most likely served a military role providing living quarters for soldiers and guards. This is the highest part of Pisac. Unfortunately, we did not get a chance to walk around this sector.

We continued on to the 'Amaru Punku' or 'Serpent Door'. This entrance served as a control point to prevent invaders from crossing the path to the temple complex.  Notice the smooth and precise stonework of the walls.

After climbing a steep staircase built into a rock face, we came to the entrance of a tear-drop shaped tunnel bored in the rock. Somehow Incas engineers enlarged a rock fissure and created this 16-foot long tunnel through the rock thereby allowing elites to proceed to the temple complex. How this task was accomplished without iron or steel implements is just another of the unanswered question about the Pisac ruins.

As we continued on the path to the temple complex we passed the ruins of several other buildings.

Finally, we had a view of the temple complex perched on a ridge below us. The ceremonial center of the complex was the Temple of the Sun (arrow pointer). This D-shaped building was surrounded by 12 other temples. This complex was one of the marvels of Inca stone masonry; many consider it on par with Machu Picchu .

In the center of the Sun Temple is the Intihuatana, a ritual stone or astronomical tool. Its precise use is unknown, but the word means “place where the sun is tied”. The carved rock was oriented so that it aligned perfectly with the sun on the summer solstice. It was damaged by the Spanish who wanted to wipe out the religious and spiritual significance of Pisac and the little of it what remained was damaged by local vandals. Visitors are no longer allowed to get up close.

Unlike the buildings we saw earlier, the temples were constructed using pink granite. The precise cut and almost seamless placement of the stones without mortar was amazing.

The use of interlocking blocks, rounded corners, sloping walls, and trapazoid door openings made Inca buildings extremely resistant, but not immune, to earthquake damage. Despite 500 years worth of earthquakes there is remarkably little damage to Inca structures. 

Our visit to Pisac had come to an end. It was time to walk down what seemed like the never-ending stairs and hike back to the Village of Pisac.


Cusco

Because we had spent time in Urubamba, we weren't able to explore Cusco; proper acclimatization was the driving factor in our decision to stay in Urubamba. Cuzco was the religious and administrative capital of the Inca Empire, which flourished in ancient Peru between 1400 and 1534. The Incas controlled territory from Quito to Santiago, making theirs the largest empire ever in the Americas and the largest in the world at that time.


We arrived back in Cusco in the early afternoon so we had a few hours to explore the city before dinner. After dinner we had a meeting with Llama Path, the trekking company, and met the other people who would be part of our hiking group. We liked what Llama Path stood for and their commitment to the local community and their porters. Click on the hyperlinked text above to be redirected to their website.


The Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Virgin, also known as Cusco Cathedral, is the mother church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cusco. The building was completed in 1654, almost a hundred years after construction began.

Most of the stones for the building were taken from Sacsayhuamán, an Inca holy and defensive structure located on the hills above Cusco. However, because of its large size, much of Sacsayhuamán remains intact.

The statue of Pachacuti can be found on top of the main fountain in Plaza de Armas. Pachacuti was the 9th ruler of the Kingdom of Cusco and later the Emperor of the Inca Empire. Pachacuti began the expansion of the Inca dominion from the valley of Cusco to a large part of western South America. Some say that Machu Picchu was built as an estate for him.



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