Through my eyes

living my life without regrets

Saturday, February 06, 2010

The Sacred Valley

I had heard so much about the Sacred Valley that I just had to take this tour. Every travel agent offers a tour here to visit this nearby valley. I guess it is obligatory when you visit Cuzco. We followed the crowds, became total tourists and the way this is organized is interesting.
We had an early pick up at 8 AM at our hotel. A runner, usually a girl with a cell phone, makes sure we are ready. She then waits with us at the hotel entrance for her collection bus to show. This bus comes rather quickly once she calls them on her cell phone. We hop on the bus and off we go. The runner will then run ahead thru shortcuts to the next hotel. But this was not the sightseeing bus. This was just the collection bus. This collection bus moves from one hotel to another and collects people. Then, after this smallish bus is full we are transferred to a full size, larger bus. Only when everybody is collected in all of Cuzco does the tour begin. The whole process takes about a half hour and I felt like I was being processed, rather than given a tour. I felt like I was in a herd of cattle on a farm, all they had to do is put a tag on me and scan me on and off the bus to make it more efficient and to make sure I attended all stops. This was not a personal tour; it was like a cookie cutter presentation no matter how much you paid for the tour.
We had the same guide as yesterday on the city tour. He was a likable chap, albeit prejudiced in favor of the Quechuan. The bus ride was long, it took nearly 2 hours before our first stop because we had to take a detour around a mountain and then cross the river Urubamba over a bridge that survived the latest rain storms. There was a shorter way but the bridge on this short route was destroyed and had not been fixed yet.
Our first view of the Sacred Valley was from way up high, an overlook on a mountain top, naturally occupied by folks trying desperately to sell you something, anything. In traditional dress with a Llama next to them to make it picturesque they charge you one soles if you want to take a picture of them. Anything was done to make money. Little girls with lambs on their arms, really cute, had the same set up. The mother nearby made sure you paid first before you took a picture.
The view of the valley was startling. Deep in a crevice I could make out a town. The fields around the town, the fields climbing up the mountains were lush and green and had many different crops growing on them; naturally, mainly potatoes or maize. Other items such as barley, onions or other vegetables were trained to grow at this high altitude, too.
The guide pointed out that an agricultural research station, sponsored by the government, hybridizes common vegetables to grow here. Sometimes, it takes decades to find the right combination to have a certain vegetable grow at this altitude. The research is an ongoing agricultural project.
Climbing back on the bus, still being followed by the sellers of junk, we departed for the town we had seen below. The Sacred Valley is at about 2900 Meters above sea level, substantially lower than Cuzco, plants grow better down here and are more sheltered from winds and get more water from the river Urubamba and the many springs that feed the river. Along this valley are towns with long, Quechuan names and all the towns live exclusively off agriculture. Near or in some of those towns are ruins of former Inca strongholds, or temples or installations of Inca waterworks that use the natural springs to feed the many fields. Those Inca irrigation systems are a marvel of civil engineering and are superb in every way. After all this time of neglect they still work perfectly. Yes, some channels are no longer productive due to earthquakes in the past but the main channels still produce water for the many fields. Other astounding sights in the Sacred Valley are the many terraced fields. In order to maximize the yield of arable land and to make working the land easier, the Inca terraced the hillsides. Exquisite stone work holds the fields in place. The production of each hill is increased many fold and the work is a lot easier to perform on terraced fields than on steep hillsides. Inca priests in years gone by, needed to watch the sky and the stars. They needed to watch the sun, when is it highest, lowest, when will it come back, etc. Astrology and Astronomy were the basis for the priests’ knowledge. And in order to get a good look at the stars and the sun, temples and observatories had to be built. Those ruins are still present in the Sacred Valley today and are stops along the way for any tourist bus.
There were many temples built here, dedicated to the sun, or the moon, or the water, or whatever deity affected the yield or production of the fields. Food was all important, it was sacred. The Inca did not have a monetary system. Their system relied on labor, trade and on relationships. It was important to know a lot of people because each favor done for any of those people guaranteed a favor back. Careful records were kept as to what favors were owed. The more people one knew, the more favors they owned. The man who was owed the most favors was called a rich man. The poor man was the man nobody knew, who knew nobody and who had nobody to take care of him when he needed a favor. The Inca King, by birthright, was given 30% of the common man’s labor during his life time. This system worked for the Quechua, it was a system without money but food was important, was essential to all. Food was stored for times of famine by the priests. Food was planted when the priests said the time was right to plant. Food was limited at this high altitude and the stored food needed to be protected from invaders. Food, like I said, was sacred.
The valley that grew the best or most food near Cuzco, the seat of the Inca King, was called the Sacred Valley. Yes, this valley was fortified with forts to protect it and its storage facilities. Yes, water was needed when it did not rain in the summer. Yes, prayers needed to be given to the gods when it did not rain in the normal rainy season. And each god had his or her own temple. The sacred valley was protected, was prayed over, fussed over and contains many artifacts of the former Inca.
We visited a few of the old sites. Long names I cannot remember were given to each particular spot but the gist of the trip was the production, the protection and the distribution of food. This was done long ago and is even done now. The valley is large and beautiful in an agricultural sense. The people living there are farmers. Some others specialized in weaving, some in tool making or some other things, like having a restaurant, but the base of all of this is and was food; the sacred source of life for all.
The tour given to the Sacred Valley concentrated on old, looted cemeteries, on fortified installations that not only served as military training centers but contained a sun temple, too. There was even a bath set up on top of a hill supposedly for a princess or queen. Of course we visited specialty shops of weavers who tied to sell ‘hand’ woven and naturally dyed woolens. We also saw a church, again built on an old Inca foundation with very baroque and very ornate, over the top decorations, gilded and so full of gold and silver that it is more disturbing than nice.
Many details were given that nobody will remember and names dropped nobody can pronounce. The tour is interesting enough yet I prefer the general overview I gave above, it makes the most sense to me in the long run. What I certainly could have done without were the many vendors and/or beggars that were like locusts clustering around, being obnoxious and in my face. It was hard for me to keep my composure and not slap some of them. What I could have done without were the artificially inflated prices of everything just because we were foreigners. The consensus seems to be to charge at least double if not four times the regular price any Peruvian would have to pay. The Sacred Valley tour is must, if only it would be more elegantly done.

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