Thursday, February 07, 2013

Peru's Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu World Heritage Site

Yesterday, February 6, was one of those days that will long live in the memory. It was full of color, landscape drama, and vivid expressions of culture. Visiting one of the "New Seven Wonders of the World" like Machu Picchu is always special but there were things to see and experience along the way as well. (See the previous link for an article on the controversy of the designation "new" wonders". The original Seven Wonders of the World can see be seen here).

On a trip such as this, one of the best ways to experience spontaneity is to go on every early morning option that is offered. Yesterday we had a chance to sleep in until 8:15 )which would have been so nice!) or get up early for a 7 AM departure and scenic drive to Ollantaytambo. Naturally, I took the early option, even though we did not return to our rooms in Cusco until 10 PM. Have a look.

After leaving Cusco, the road climbs up to over 12,000 feet in elevation. The hillsides are green with potato and corn plants highlighted with yellow mustard fields for miles. We learned that the Peruvian government has plans to build an international airport very close to this scene within the next few years to accommodate the recent surge in visitation to Machu Picchu (resulting from its recent designation explained above).

We arrived at a precipice on the road and got our first glimpse through the clouds of the Sacred Valley of the Incas. The Urubamba River can be seen on the valley floor and we would alter take a train along this same river to the ruins. The view hints at the weather drama we woul;d alter experience at Machu Picchu

Ollantaytambo town is an old Inca city that still retains its Pre-Columbian layout. The "streets" are only wide enough for llamas.

Datura trees gracing a garden in Ollantaytambo

The Inca foundations remain and are capped now by adobe and plaster

Tourism is a major activity in this part of the world now....

....but visions and remains of an older lifeway are quite abundant. Quechua women selling peaches in the town square.

Street scenes in Ollantaytambo

On her way to the market

In the town plaza

And climbing up into the main archaeological complex overlooking the modern town

The rock work is again quite impressive. The stone used here is rhyolite which originated in violent ash flows from an ancient volcano. These flows ultimately became hardened and welded into a rock known as ignimbrite, which makes for great building stones.

Terraces at Ollantaytambo where crops were grown in Inca times. After visiting these ruins we met the rest of our group, (the ones that got to sleep in) and boarded the train to Machu Picchu.

Perurail engine on the tracks to Machu Picchu

Of course, I think that if Inca ruins were not located here, travelers of an early bent would still want to come to this part of the world. Here the Andes rise over 10,000 feet, above rivers that are themselves 9,000 feet above sea level. The results are astounding as you can see in this view of the Urubamba River from the train window. The rapids were truly huge as large boulders have fallen from the talus deposits that line the rivers banks.

The boulders in the river are enormous in size! Note also how the vegetation is beginning to turn tropical as the river begins its steep descent to the Amazon Basin. In fact, the Urubamba River is the main vein of the mighty Amazon, gathering fast-moving water from numerous and stupendous side valleys.

Note the end of the rail line at the bottom of the photo. From there we took a tortuous 25 minute/14-switchback drive to the site of Machu Picchu. Shown here is the Urubamba River Canyon lying 2,000 feet beneath the ruins. The highest peaks here, which are glaciated, are hidden in the cloud.
This place is amazing! It is the rainy season in Peru's southern Andes and you can see how green it is. The peak in the upper part of the photo is called Wayna Picchu and there is a trail up to the top on this side of it (not visible). I hiked that trail on a trip in 2002 but now it is limited to 200 people a day.

One of the reconstructed roofs showing how the site would have looked in the time of occupation

Detail of windows and roof line. The site was occupied for only 100 to 150 years.

A llama rests on the grass at Machu Picchu. Note to deep canyon of the Urubamba River below and the rain that is beginning to fall in the far side canyons.

A great view of the Sun Temple at Machu Picchu.

The rain is getting closer but we are still dry

And then the skies opened up!

It rained hard for the rest of the day but I stayed out as long as I could without destroying my camera

A final view of the Urubamba River as it makes its way to the Amazon. What a day!


  1. Phenomenal photos and commentary! Jack

  2. Fantastic photos Wayne. I'm looking forward to the rest of your captions.

  3. Wayne, it looks like you are having an awesome trip! I am so jealous of your job, and I am looking forward to going to South America sometime again soon!
    Sean C

  4. Thank you for posting this interesting and informative blog, I am very interested in visiting Cusco and the Sacred Valley and have been looking everywhere for information. One of my favourite blogs is this one: I thought it may also interest you! Especially if you are still in the Cusco region.


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