We began our second day in Peru's Cusco area with a journey into the Sacred Valley of the Urubamba. This was an important agricultural area for the Incas and it remains so today for their descendants.
There are several roads in the valley including one that follows the river, but it ends at the Incan fortress (and current town) of Ollantaytambo. From there it was trails only to Machu Picchu which is down river, and today the great ruins can only be reached by high ridge trail or by the train line that now hugs the Urubamba.
When we left Cuzco, we headed for the highland town Chinchero, which like all the settlements here, is populated by direct descendants of the Incas. While there has been much intermarriage with descendants of the Spanish in most of Peru's larger towns and its cities, here in the countryside, the people are of largely pure Chanca stock. The Chancas are first traced from about 1400, and it is known that they submitted peacefully to the rule of the Incas based in Cusco.
Chinchero is home to stunning Incan ruins, and the town has numerous crafts people who produce high quality yarns and weavings. Our first stop there was a textile shop owned by middle-aged, local women who showed us how they clean, spin, and dye the sheep and alpaca "wools" that they then weave into beautiful textiles.
We were impressed to see that the dyes they use are all natural and made from insects, lichen, and plants. They produce surprisingly vibrant blues, greens, reds, and purples of every shade. Their tools and supplies are of indigenous design and creation. Even the soap with which they clean the wool is natural, and in part comes from the root of a native plant.
Next, we visited the Incan ruins in Chinchero. The ruins include the house of an Incan king, which Spanish conquistadors later turned into a church. It is now full of Spanish gold work and colorful frescos, but the impressive Incan stonework is still an integral part of the structure.
After a walk through the market to buy some handmade souvenirs, we headed back to the bus and stopped for a delicious buffet lunch of traditional Peruvian food.
Next stop was the town of Ollantaytambo to visit the ruins of the Temple of the Sun. These ruins were much more crowded than the ones we visited previously, but they were perhaps more impressive since they were maintained so well. We went on a short but steep hike to the top of a hill where we had a beautiful view of the ruins and the town below.
– Elsa Balton, Kodner Laboratory and American Alpine Institute Research Assistant