Thursday, July 30, 2009

Through the heart of a former empire

Huge stones carved by the Colla people lie around Sillustani

Heading northeast from Puno towards Cusco, the road winds between remains of civilizations that fell to the Incas in the 1400s. The Inca civilization began in Cusco and quickly spread north to conquer Peru and Ecuador, then south to conquer Bolivia and Chile. In less than 100 years, they became the most powerful empire in South America. We first visited the funeral towers, or chullpas, of the Colla people who were conquered by the Incas in the early 1400s. Current-day descendants of the Colla around Lake Titicaca still speak Aymara, their pre-Inca language. While all of the towers at Sillustani have been looted and many destroyed, the remaining intact sections were built from perfectly carved stones and towered stories above us. We then continued our drive through the yellow landscape as mountains rose around us to snow-capped peaks. Even in this seemingly inhospitable environment, Inca agricultural terraces climbed the hillsides, evidence that people had been farming this land for hundreds of years before the arrival of the Spanish. After briefly passing through Cusco, we stopped at the Inca site of Pisac. This impressive fortress, farm, and ceremonial center is thought to have defended the southern entrance to the Sacred Valley and the route from the Inca empire into the Amazon jungle. We marveled at the beautifully carved and perfectly fitted stones that formed the terraces and buildings. As the sun dipped behind the valley walls, we left Pisac and drove along the rocky river to our final destination.

The picture everyone has to take when they visit Machu Picchu - for good reason

We concluded our journey in the small town of Ollantaytambo, deep within the Sacred Valley. One of the best preserved and oldest continuously occupied towns in South America, we wandered its alleys to admire the Inca stonework. Many houses had characteristic Inca foundations topped by adobe walls, and drainage paths cut through its cobble-stoned streets. Towering over the town is an unfinished Inca ceremonial site that was hastily converted into a fortress upon arrival of the Spanish. Huge terraces cut by narrow steps climb to the hill's peak which is crowned by an enormous monolith of pink granite. Primed by all of this Inca history, we eagerly awaited our trip to the crown jewel of Inca architecture, Machu Picchu. While it was raining and foggy as our train chugged through the valley in the early morning, by the time we fought our way through the lines for the bus up to Machu Picchu and the entrance gate, the clouds cleared to reveal the stunning vista. Immaculately carved aqueducts directed water through channels and under buildings, trapezoidal windows framed green valley views, and steep terraces surrounded the amazing site. While the Incas were by no means a peaceful people, we still rooted against the Spanish when we discussed their 40-year resistance to the conquest.

Sure, you have to pay to take their picture, but who can resist baby lambs?

After gorging ourselves on Inca ruins for several days, we returned to Cusco to explore its colonial history. While Inca influence in Cusco is still evident in the perfectly crafted stone foundations, narrow alleys, and locals speaking the Inca language of Quechua, many of the spectacular sites in Cusco are found in its ornate churches and cathedrals. We spent a leisurely day admiring the silver- and gold-gilded altars, intricately carved wooden pulpits, and gold leaf embossed religious paintings. This last day in Cusco was bittersweet though. After a full two weeks of exploring southern Peru with my mother, her visit had come to an end. We said a sad goodbye at the Cusco airport and headed back to our hostel. Our car feels quite empty now without her in the front seat navigating.

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