We took a collectivo taxi (a mini van filled with locals and us) over the mountains from Cuzco to Pisac, which is in the ¨Sacred Valley¨, along the Urubamba River. The Sacred Valley has massive mountains on either side of the river, with flat farmland in the bottom of the valley. There are amazing terraces way up on the steep hillsides, we can´t imagine hiking all the way up there to make stone terraces and then farm these remote and high fields, but evidently someone did it. They even included both normal stairs and stones inserted into the walls to allow them to move up through the terraces (see photo of Alexa below). The Urubamba River started way back when we crossed from the altiplano around Puno over into the Cuzco area, and eventually flows into the Amazon River.
As we go further along the river, things have gone from arid and dry to more wet and lush. The town of Pisac (elevation about 9,500 ft) has a central market that is frequently visited by tourist buses on their way to the ruins on the hills above Pisac. Most tours stop at the craft market and then head up to the ruins for the morning, and then move on down the Sacred Valley to other archaeological sites.
We came to Pisac to stay for a few days and hike all the way up to the ruins, our own (cheaper) version of the “Inca trail.” The perched towers of the ruins are visible from town, way, way above the town on the top of the towering mountains.
The next morning after arriving in town, finding a place to stay and getting some food for the hike, we set out up the stairs leading from town to the first set of terraces. We climbed slowly up the stairs and terraces, gaining elevation and rewarding views of the valley below. Fortunately, we´ve been at high elevations for over a week, so the climb didn´t cause any bad elevation sickness. As we steadily climbed the hill, we came to the first set of ruins, a small settlement on the steep slopes that has a site plan in the shape of a bird. Then we climbed up to the ceremonial center of the ruins at Pisac, Intihuatana. Intihuatana (hitching post of the sun) was an important ceremonial site and solar observatory that has very fine rectangular stone work. There is a central stone that was very important, with a complex drainage system that captured the runoff from the stone and stored it in a basin that discharged to a series of channels and fountains below the hilltop site. We eventually learned (from the excellent museum below Machu Picchu that is all too often missed by visitors) how the Intihuatana stone was used to determine when the winter and summer solstices occurred, important for the timing of agricultural work for their society.
From there, we moved up through an Inca tunnel, along a defensive wall beneath military barracks (where they guarded the main entrance) and into a saddle that had some sacred baths and views of cliff sides with burial caves in them. Since the caves have been hit by grave robbers, tourists aren´t allowed into that area. We finished by going to the tour bus drop off area to get a coke and some fresh squeezed orange juice before heading back down into town. In addition to the sense of accomplishment from having climbed all the way up (11,200 feet above see level) from town (over 1,700 feet of elevation gain) we got to visit the site in the opposite direction as the flow of the tour groups, and we couldn´t help but feel a little smug as tourists huffed and puffed their way back to the bus parking area after their short tour, loudly complaining about their short hike.
When we made it back down to town, we feasted on lomo saltodo (beef cooked with onions, tomatoes, seasoning and served with fries and/or rice). Jason helped Alexa finish hers, then we went and had some alpaca skewers and chocolate cheesecake, just to be sure we were full. Next stop Ollaytaytambo and then Macchu Picchu.