Tag Archives: Inca


After splitting ways in Manta I (Mark) made my way to Cuenca in the south via Guayaquil. The latter is a modern city that is surging forward. Many people visit as a stop off to the Galapogas Islands and it is worth a day to go down to the city centre (people were very friendly – I got a lot of 'hello' from people who genuinely just wanted to say hi).

Cuenca is a short trip from Guayaquil through some nice hill country. It was fairly rugged and foggy, reminded me of photos I had seen of Scotland. Apparently there are a few hiking trails in them thar hills.

The view from my hotel rooftop.

Cuenca is a great little city built on an old Inca site. It sits in a valley with the old town separated from the modern city centre by a river. I discovered some nice restaurants and bars, an ugly museum, a nice aviary and a merry Belgian selling waffles.

The central square features a lot of wonderful colonial architecture.

The cathedral borders the central plaza. It is very nice but impossible to photograph from a good angle.

Short video of Cuenca and the aviary.

It was almost a year ago that I was in Cuenca and I still have fond memories of it. I could easily have stayed longer. The weather was beautiful the whole time I was there and I really enjoyed just walking around the city. A nice place to rest before exploring the region.

The rest of my trip was spent making my way to Santiago, via stop offs in Máncora and Lima to break the trip up. The goal by that point was to make it home without having anything stolen (we had been very lucky to date) and I must admit it felt like a minor victory to arrive in Santiago with all my possessions – although the adrenaline was already pumping through my veins after my alarm didn't work, necessitating an emergency dash to the airport!



Lima: The City of Kings

The best thing about this city is the food. We finally found something worth eating – ceviche, the delicious dish that is the star of Peru’s culinary repertoire.

A sample of ceviche.

Wandering along the coast line, stopping to drink wine and eat seafood is a pretty awesome introduction to any new place. We decided to stay in Miraflores, the seaside suburb of Lima, and stopped for lunch at ‘La Mar’, one of Lima’s best cevicherias. Here we were treated to a selection of different ceviche dishes (variations of raw fish, chili and onions marinated in lime juice). Ceviche, where have you been all my life!?

Lima is also the home of the Pisco Sour, a cocktail that is popular along the west coast, and the Lima Sigh, a wonderfully sweet desert. A stop at the Gran Hotel Bolivar, where the Pisco Sour was conceived, is mandatory, and any decent restaurant around the central squares will spoil you with a Lima Sigh.

We weren’t in Lima for long, but we did manage to catch up with old and new friends, as well as wander around the shops and city streets. A referral put us onto a city tour bus, which we thought was the easiest and cheapest way to get around and see the sights all in one afternoon.

We went through the old squares in the center of town and saw the glamorous buildings from the colonial era, which still look magnificent.

The tour finished at the Museo Larco, which has one of the most incredible collections of Inca art anywhere in the world. The museum is a beautiful building of white washed walls and red flowers. Established in 1926, the Museo Larco hosts a vast collection of around 45,000 artifacts excavated from northern, central and southern Peru.

Photo taken from the courtyard.

Peru is one of the six cradles of civilization and the museum exhibits cover the many tribes that rose and fell over the last 5,000 years. Over time it is possible to see how the art became more sophisticated and how the different cultures influenced each other. The apex of this art is represented by the Incas, who amalgamated all of these influences as the empire spread across Peru.

We learnt a lot from the visit, and as it happens many of the best pieces from Cusco’s Museo de Art Pre-Colombino are on loan from this museum. We were so impressed with the collection that we bought a photographic book published by Museo Larco (which Mark used to design a tattoo on his back).

Lima itself was rather grey due to a haze that hangs over the city from April to November. It would have been nice to stay longer, but we were getting travel weary and were keen for some sunny beach time. So we boarded a dreadful overnight bus and escaped to the surfer’s paradise of Mancora!

The hazy shades of Lima.


Alternatives to Hiking the Inca Trail

Hola amigos,

Today we wanted to share a few ideas on great treks that you can do around Cusco in addition to, or as an alternative to, the Inca Trail. This post largely reflects our own research but also conversations with fellow travellers. If you find the Inca Trail to be prohibitively expensive, or you want a bit more Indiana Jones in your adventure, then this might be of interest to you.

There are three trips near Cusco that we would recommend looking into:

  1. Choquequirao
  2. Salcantay to Machu Picchu
  3. Vitcos and Espiritu Pampa

These trails are great alternatives the Inca Trail. There are companies offering hikes to all three, although Choquequirao and Espiritu Pampa are not covered by many companies, which is part of their appeal. They are also multi-day hikes of at least four days in duration.

A brief explanation on each is offered below. If any of them catch your interest then we highly recommend looking into the South American Explorers Club, who have a Cusco office. They gave us valuable information on everything from details on the trails, the cost of guides and where to buy hiking equipment. Membership is cheap and covers all of their clubs in South America. We also highly recommend the Trailblazer Guide to the Inca Trail, which provides detailed hiking information on these and other trails.

Note: Machu Picchu is part of a network of trails within the region. The Inca Trail is but one route to get there. The other trails range in terms of difficulty but it is possible to link up other ruins as part of a greater multi-day adventure to reach Machu Picchu. See the Trailblazer book for more information.


This hike caught our intention for a number reasons. It is one of the few trails you can do without a guide, which brings down the cost substantially. In fact all you have to pay is the park fee, which from recollection is under USD100. So, those used to carrying their own gear will appreciate it. The trail is also straightforward – it is two days to the ruins and you return along the same path.

Choquequirao is a large site south west of Machu Picchu. Some consider it to be Machu Picchu's sister site because of its size and the quality of the stonework. Part of the appeal lies in the fact that the ruins are still being uncovered, so there is a genuine opportunity for a bit of exploration. It is off the beaten track too so you won't have the same crowds and it is possible to walk from here to Machu Picchu or to Espiritu Pampa.

We were dead set on tackling this but due to a bought of food poisoning we had to pull out. A shame as we put a lot of time into planning it. Send us photos if you go!

Salcantay to Machu Picchu

This is touted as one of several alternative trails to Machu Picchu. Salcantay is a nearby mountain with trails that can connect you to Machu Picchu. This trail is common amongst tour companies and it costs less than the Inca Trail. We are not clear on whether this trek can be done independently but we suspect it will require a few vehicle pick ups.

Source: https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b6/Salcantay_Stevage.jpg

We spoke to several peope that tried this trail and highly enjoyed it. Worth looking into!

Vitcos and Espiritu Pampa

Those wanting a real adventure need to seriously consider Espiritu Pampa, the real lost city of the Incas. This was the city Hiram Bingham was trying to discover when he found Machu Picchu. For many years people really thought Machu Picchu was the last city if the Incas. However, the general consensus is that in fact it was Espiritu Pampa, the last refuge of Manco Inca when he was in rebellion against the Spanish.

Source: https://i2.wp.com/www.thewhiterock.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/Peru-2011-333-Copy.jpg

Like Choquequirao the ruins are still being uncovered however you are probably going to see more vine-covered ruins here. The reason is that this site is so off the beaten track. We only found two companies that would hike there. Unfortunately at the time we could not go because the Peruvian army was cracking down on local drug traffickers. Anyone interested should make enquiries as to the security situation.

Our understanding is that it is not advisable to tackle this hike on your own. Guides should be used. The track is not frequently walked and is at least four days. To get there you need transport to Huancacalle, the last town on the road west of Ollantaytambo. We explored public transport and it seemed difficult. We looked into just visiting Huancacalle for the day and were told it would cost several hundred dollars. So, a trip that needs serious planning and a good guide.

The White Rock. Source: National Geographic.

This trip has the advantage of including Vitcos, the ruins of an Inca town, and the sacred white rock. Neither site is visited frequently and apparently the local valleys are beautiful.

And so ends our series of posts on the Incas. We hope you have enjoyed them and if you missed any just click on the 'Inca' tag below or on the right hand pane.


Mark and Saskia


Discovering Machu Picchu’s Secrets

We have previously written about the Inca's reverance for nature and their clever use of solstice lines in town planning. In this post we are going to delve a bit deeper and reveal a few secrets about the design of Machu Picchu and it's exciting features.

Top: Mark puzzles over clues. Bottom: A wall with the three windows. Scholars are still undecided on it's purpose.

The Gates of Machu Picchu

Pachacutec and his architects aimed to amaze with Machu Picchu. This is demonstrated with the sites superiority in overall design but it also becomes evident in the detail. For example, the placement of the Sun Gate, the point where 'The Inca Trail' ends, on the ridge south of the ruins was deliberate. The gate there has been placed to create a grand impression of the town and it's vista. Even today it inspires awe, an effect the Incas wanted visitors to experience.

Machu Picchu. Still impressive.

Further into the site one will find the Main Gate. This marked the formal boundary for the city (the exterior mostly consists of agricultural terracing and guard houses). This gate was placed to frame a view of Huana Picchu and Machu Picchu as one passes through. Again, the intention here is to impress.

The Main Gate.

Of course throughtout the ruins one will find many clever designs. It's easy to spend a full day exploring the site!

Left: A window looks out into a courtyard. Right: Saskia stands in a doorway, an excellent example of Inca stonework.

Imitating Landforms

The Incas had a special reverance for mountains, which they considered to be sacred. Possibly because of this reverence for 'Apus' the Incas carved out small rock models of the nearby peaks.

The clearest example is on the left. The rock on the left in the foreground has been carved to resemble Huayna Picchu, which is in the background.

We didn't use a guide but we needed help finding these stones. If you opt not to use a guide try trailing one of the groups and you will find them fairly easily.

The Southern Cross Stone

In the temple complex there is a courtyard where you can look out to Llactapata. In this courtyard the Incas carved a kite shape into the rock. At first this seems a little pointless but a compass reading shows that the top and bottom points run South to North. It is possible that the shape mimics the Southern Cross constellation and for this reason the rock has been named the Southern Cross.

Never leave home without a conpass.

As an side, the Cusco Planetarium is worth a visit to learn more about the Inca's knowledge of astrology. For example, they had named their own constellations, including black patches of sky where there are no stars. After a visit one can easily find the condor and the black llama!

The Intihuatana Stone

Machu Picchu has the best remaining example of an intihuatana stone. Placed with a commanding view of the valley, the stone sits within the Sun Temple, the highest point in the ruins complex. We were able to see people standing on the edge from the train station's intihuatana stone below.

The stone features many different flat planes carved on it's sides. If you look at the above picture, in the bottom left corner, there is a step at the base of the stone. The top edge of this step runs along a north south alignment (we checked this ourselves). Furthermore, it is possible to trace an invisible line between the peaks of Mounts Machu Picchu (south) and Huayna Picchu (north) along this edge.

The gnomon.

We are not sure whether the other flat planes are also aligned to other points of reference. It is possible that there are connections to other mountains and cities but we haven't looked into this. If you are curious have a quick read of this Wikipedia article for more info.

The Condor

This one requires a bit of imagination but on the eastern side there's a patch of cleared earth with a triangle of rock. This has the outline of a condor head carved into it. Looking up, two rock outcrops stretch away from each other. They are the condor's wings.

Pachacutec's Tomb

There are several notable buildings within the ruins of Machu Picchu. We have already mentioned the Sun Temple and the Main Gate on the western side. On the eastern side, where the residential buildings are placed, the Incas built a squat tower called the Torreón.

The eastern side of the Torreón.

The purpose of the Torreón has long caused debate amongst Machu Picchu enthusiasts. This enigmatic tower faces due east and contains a doorway on its western side. Inside the tower are possible scorch marks around a rock slab. The tower also features a courtyard with trapezoid insets (which often designates a temple) and there is a cave with carved rock underneath.

As recently as 2011 an enthusiast put forward the theory that Pachacutec was buried at Machu Picchu. The Peruvian Government undertook an excavation in the courtyard behind the tower and a chamber was discovered. As Mark Adams reports, this may have been the tomb of Pachacutec.

Looking down onto the structure. The excavation sight is on the right, covered by plastic roofing.

Looking into the chamber.

An alcove where possessions would have been stored.

We won't go into the details in a big way but it is also believed that the Torreón housed a gold statue of Pachacutec. This statue was described in Spanish chronicles as part of the empire wide ransom payment to the Spaniards when Atahualpa was captured. It is possible that the statue was fixed here atop a platform, which the Incas burned in order to remove it.

Mark Adams also established that during the winter solstice the sun shines directly through the east facing window, in a perfect line that may have lit up the statue of Pachacutec, if indeed this was where the statue was stored…As we noted above, such design features are unlikely to be coincidences. Perhaps with time there will be consensus but we at least believe the theory that this was the resting place of the Inca empire's greatest Sapa Inca.

Statue in Aguas Calientes. Note the use of the condor, jaguar and snake.

Hope you enjoyed the post. Machu Picchu was great fun to explore and we highly recommend doing the research before paying a visit. That said, it is still a great time regardless and a good guide can share much, if not all, of what we have covered here.

This is our second-to-last post on the Incas. The last post will share our plans to visit the last city of the Incas, Espiritu Pampa, and the sister site to Machu Picchu, Choquequirao.

Stay tuned,

Mark and Saskia


Machu Picchu

Llama photo bomb!

Machu Picchu. You have seen it all before. But don’t be put off by the touristy cliché, it is amazing, and it is one of the world’s top tourist destinations for a reason!

Seeing the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu was something we had been looking forward to for years and we were really excited about it, despite aforementioned food poisoning. Everyone at our hostel seemed keen to get up at 5am to watch the sun rise over Machu Picchu. However, we had read that the mountains are usually covered in a morning mist that blocks out the sun, so we decided to sleep in to a more respectable time.

Arriving at the top of the mountain, looking down to the Urubumba River.

It is possible to hike to the entrance from Aguas Calientes but as we weren’t feeling well we decided to just catch a bus up. This was cheap and easy and got us to the entrance to Machu Picchu at around 9am.

When we arrived it felt like we were lining up to enter a theme park, but the lines moved quickly despite the hundreds of people pouring off buses all at the same time. After a quick bag check we had our passports stamped and we were on our way!

First glimpse of Inca Ruins at Machu Picchu.

This was actually a perfect time to arrive, as the mist was lifting and the ruins were starting to show us their full glory. We weren’t sure exactly what to expect. After having seen thousands of images of Machu Picchu over the years, we were worried that we might be underwhelmed. However, this was definitely not the case as the sheer scale and location of the ruins were breathtaking!

We wandered around for a while, took a few photos, and pinched ourselves. Hikers started to appear covered in mud from multi-day treks, and even though that would have been an incredible way to arrive, we were just stoked that we made it at all!

Machu Picchu: morning and afternoon.

Unfortunately we didn’t book our tickets in time to hike up Huayna Picchu (the mountain behind the ruins – numbers are limited to 400 people per day and they sell out quickly). We were however able to get tickets to hike up the higher peak, Mount Machu Picchu, which overlooks the postcard view. The mountain is ridiculously steep, and combined with altitude and remnants of food poisoning, pretty tough! The last part was more like rock climbing than hiking but the views over the valley were spectacular and gave us a good idea of the layout of the ruins as well.

The steep climb up Mount Machu Picchu.

Looking down over the ruins from Mount Machu Picchu.

Mount Machu Picchu.

We brought our own food and had lunch on a grassy terrace overlooking the ruins. The mist had slowly cleared and we had perfect views of the whole valley. We spent the afternoon wandering through the ruins with our guidebook in hand, feeling like explorers. Every now and then we latched on to a tour group to hear their explanation of certain sites, but it was pretty easy to get around and by 3pm most people had left. One of the best tips we had was to stay two nights in Aguas Calientes so that we didn’t have to rush off to catch a train back to Cusco. That was great because it meant that we had access to the ruins without being surrounded by hundreds of people, and it was easy to just catch a bus back down the hill when everything shut at 5pm.

Machu Picchu in the afternoon, minus hoards of tourists.

Just before we left we went on another walk to see the Inca Bridge, which is precariously placed on the side of a cliff. It is no longer possible to get too close (a tourist died trying) but it's still interesting to see how they would have controlled these access points as a security mechanism.

Inca Bridge at one of the entrances to Machu Picchu.

After a long day we headed back to the hostel, quickly got changed, and wandered up to the thermal springs to soak our tired bodies in warm pools. The complex was really nice and it was the perfect way to finish off the day!


Llactapata to Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu is a big deal. The feature piece of Inca architecture, it was designed with strong connections to nature. We will talk about this in our next post, but one major point we picked up is that the Inca's beliefs strongly influenced not only the design of their cities, but the relationships between the cities.

The ruins of Llactapata provide a classic example of this. Situated on an opposing ridge, Llactapata has been designed to have structures that align with both the solstice line and key buildings in Machu Pichu.

The reasons behind the alignment with the solstice line are speculation, but the solstice would likely have been a major event for people that worshiped the sun. At this time of year the sun is closest to the earth and the Incas probably staged major rituals in their sun temples and around their intihuatana stones.

Looking out over the train lines and power station. Llactapata is located on top of the ridge in the background. The intihuatana stone is at the bottom of the valley. This photo was taken from the western edge of Machu Picchu.

Several clues suggest that this is the case. In Llactapata a stone corridor has been built in alignment with the solstice line. Mark Adams notes that when the sun rises during the solstice it's light runs straight down the corridor. In Machu Picchu, Mark was the first to establish that during the solstice light shone directly through a window in a major building, the Torreon (also known as the Room with Three Windows and other variations), and is thought to have lit up a golden statue of Pachacutec inside.

The last clue is the placement of the intihuatana stone near the hydroelectric train station. This can be found about 10-15 minutes walk uphill in the direction of Machu Picchu. The word intihuatana literally translates in Quechua as 'hitching post for the sun'. It is thought that the Incas wished to stall the suns passage, possibly to ensure a good harvest. Such stones are present in Pisac and Machu Picchu, however there were many more before the Spanish destroyed them.

Mark and the intihuatana stone. You can see the remains of the broken gnomon to the left of Mark.

Armed with this knowledge we decided to try a different way of getting to Machu Picchu. We had already been put off by the cost of the traditional hike and there was also the issue of not knowing when we would be passing through Peru (our haste to get to Brazil in time for Lollapalooza had put us off booking events too far in advance). So, with the help of the kind folk at the South American Explorer's Club and the handy Trail Blazing Guide (which contains a map of Llactapata), we decided to go the back route…

This consisted of catching a local bus to Santa Teresa, which lies north west of Machu Picchu. From here it is possible to catch a taxi south to the western side of the ridge where Llactapata is situated. We intended to stay a night in Santa Teresa and then tackle Llactapata in the morning. The plan was to then walk down the eastern side of the ridge to the train station, where we would catch the train to Aguas Calientes (you can also walk along the train line if you can be bothered, but we wanted to squeeze in more beer drinking time).

All this was well and good until we were struck with food poising during our night in Santa Teresa. Terrible timing! We were guttered as we had been looking forward to this for months. Our main worry was missing Machu Picchu, so we hedged our bets and bailed on Llactapata. This, fortunately, was the only compromise we needed to make for this leg of the trip. We still visited the intihuatana stone (which we had to ourselves) and despite feeling somewhat sorry for ourselves, there were no 'incidents' on the train.

We highly recommend this approach to getting to Machu Picchu. The trip on the local bus was very scenic, amazing views. We would however recommend taking a tour to Santa Teresa if the budget affords – the van will travel at a reasonable speed and you won't be packed in like sardines. Our driver was an asshole with a death wish. Several passengers were car sick (literally throwing up in plastic bags on their laps and he refused to stop or slow down) and we had several close calls on the windy mountain roads. The worst stint we've had, and we've had some bad trips.

That aside, the trip is great, as is the section through to Aguas Calientes. You can actually see Machu Picchu from the train and the intihuatana stone, which gave us goose bumps. The landscape is lush with tropical forest and you'll have to resist the temptation to jump into the Urubamba.

Machu Picchu from the intihuatana stone at the hydroelectric power station.

Getting to the Intihuatana Stone

We found our books to be a bit vague on the stone's location so perhaps our advice may make it easier. To get there walk about 10 minutes in the direction of Machu Picchu. Keep an eye on your right hand side for an unmarked dirt path that runs up the hill. Follow this path to a little house (ignore the carved rocks), where the path hooks left beside the house. Carry on as the path hooks right again and takes you to another railway line. Head along the tracks towards Machu Picchu and you should see a path to your left. There may be a sign but don't count on it. Head downhill and within seconds you will see the stone.

We found the scrappy remains of 'Caution Do Not Enter' tape around the ruins so it may be that the Government doesn't want people visiting. If you do go please don't climb on the intihuatana stone and do your best to leave it as you found it. It was really interesting and worth a look if you have the time!


Mark and Saskia


Pumamarca: Inca Outpost

The area around Ollantaytambo was so beautiful that we decided to stay for a couple of days to have a look around. We read about a day hike to Pumamarca, an Inca outpost in the valley not far from Ollantaytambo. It was only five hours return so we picked up a picnic lunch from Heart's Café and headed up the valley.

Soon we were heading through the valley, surrounded by high peaks and incredible terraces still used for agriculture.

The most impressive piece of terracing we saw.

The path was not well marked, and if it wasn’t for a kind old man who happily rambled away in an incomprehensible dialect and showed us which way to go, we would have missed it completely. One path lead straight through the valley, but we needed to veer up the hill to head for the ruins. The climb was steep, and was made even tougher by the altitude, but the views were amazing!

After about 3 hours, we stopped for lunch inside the ruins of what was perhaps an old grain store, before climbing the last stretch up to the top. Upon reaching the top we discovered we had the whole place to ourselves! This was definitely some kind of outpost, as it was quite remote, but the scenery was beautiful!

A water channel follows the contour of the hill on the left. At on e point it ran right through the ruins but has since been diverted.

We spent a couple of hours exploring Pumamarca. Mark found a water channel and resolved to follow it to the source. This led to a hill rise, where the water tumbled down in a control waterfall. Mark went quite high up but could find where the spring emerged from the rock. It was a cool little innovation though and it was fun to think that this channel had been in place for several hundred years!

Pots, statues and other items would have been placed in these alcoves.

We highly recommend a trip to the ruins. It is a great walk, the ruins are largely intact and there's a good chance you will have them all to yourselves. Note that it is possible to get a taxi up there but we recommend the walk.


Pizarro’s Boys Get Their Asses Kicked

History provides a sad record of how the Incas were crushed by Pizarro and his band of merry men, but at Ollantaytambo the Incas had a rare victory. This is the site of an Inca fort, where the Sapa Inca Manco Capac had retreated to face the Spaniards. Manco Capac was Atahualpa's brother, who was installed by the Spanish as a puppet emperor at the age of 17. This proved to be a bad decision. After three years under Spanish occupation he rebelled, starting an uprising across the empire.


When word got out that the Sapa Inca was fortified at Ollantaytambo the Spaniards resolved to head out and kill him, hoping that with his death the rebellion would end. However, they underestimated how difficult the fort would be. To quote Pedro Pizarro:

“When we arrived we found Ollantaytambo so well fortified that it was a terrifying sight…for the place is very strong, with very high terraces and with very large and well fortified stone walls. It has but one entrance that is against a very steep hill. And…there were many warriors with many boulders, which they had up above to hurl down whenever the Spaniards dared to enter.” – The Last Days of the Incas.

The Spaniards attacked but were repelled by the entrenched Incas. Apparently the amazonian tribes were particularly fierce, raining down razor sharp arrows as the Spaniards charged. The cavalry falted under the stones and arrows and withdrew. With a roar the Incas stormed the plain infront of the fort, the site where the town now stands, to engage the Spaniards directly. Here Manco Capac had devised a cunning plan.

A fine example of Inca masonry.

Steps in the terraces provided short cuts.

The Incas were clever builders. Apparently each Inca was expected to leave buildings behind as a legacy, and this must have helped foster a culture of engineering and architecture. Their achievements included the mastering of aqueducts, which they used to channel water from springs and rivers to towns and fields. Ollantaytambo provides a great example of this, as the aquaducts are still intact and run through the town.

This marvellous piece of stone work can be found within metres of the car park. Note the stone carvings that have been broken off. They would have been serpent, condor or puma heads.

Guttering runs behind the ruins of buildings. This channeled water from a spring to several small basins carved out of the rock.

Manco Capac used these aquaducts to flood the plain when the Spaniards attacked. It effectively bogged down the cavalry, the Spaniards' equivalent of a tank, and forced a retreat. The Incas probably hoped to hold them on the plains and slaughter them all in one go, but the Spanish force was able to escape back to Cuzco.

The valley that was flooded. Note the silos on the opposing cliff face. To the left is what appears to be the face of an old man.

Ollantaytambo was ultimately abandoned by the Incas in the face of a more concerted assault by the Spanish. Manco Capac retreated north west into the wild mountains behind Machu Picchu, where he built the famed last city of the Incas, Espiritu Pampa. Now this is serious Indiana Jones stuff. This was the city that Hiram Bingham originally set out to find, thinking that Machu Picchu was such a place…but we are getting ahead of ourselves.

For now it will suffice to say that Ollantaytambo is a fantistic site to visit. The town has a certain romantic mystique to it and there are plenty of great places to eat and drink. Bear in mind that the tour groups swamp the place in the afternoon, so morning is best. We recommend lunch at Hearts Café and try and grab a huge pisco sour at Ganso.

Local niños.


Pisac: A Royal Retreat

Pisac is a small town in the Sacred Valley, not far out of Cusco. We caught a local bus out there for the day, which was significantly cheaper than going with a tour group (around $2 instead of $30-40) with the aim of seeing both Inca ruins and the famous local markets.

The bus ride was lovely, winding down the valley through some amazing scenery. We arrived in Pisac in time for lunch, only to find that Mark had left his jacket on the bus, with his money and credit cards in the pocket. Panic ensued, followed by a good old-fashioned car chase where we jumped in a taxi and yelled “follow that bus!”

The Sacred Valley from Pisac.

Luckily the bus stopped regularly and we knew which direction it was headed, so it didn’t take long to catch it. Mark jumped on, grabbed his jacket and ran off again, leaving the driver and passengers somewhat confused. The taxi ride there and back meant that we didn’t in fact save any money by catching the local bus, but it was a bit exciting nonetheless!

Pisac turned out to be a beautiful little town with an old plaza and some very good quality shops and cafes. There is a popular market, which sets up around a massive tree in the central plaza. It is possible to buy a huge range of hand made goods here, including the gaudy, colour clashing rugs that are a specialty of the area.

We recommend stopping for lunch at Ulrike’s Café, which serves up an amazing vegetarian menu del dia consisting of soup, a main meal and desert that was so good we came back for dinner before we left for Cusco at the end of the day!

Pisac also has a large Inca fort on the ridge above the town. The young Sapa Inca Pachacutec built a fort here after he conquered the local tribes. The Sacred Valley was and is a very fertile area with a temperate climate, and the Incas knew its agricultural value. A similar fortification was built in Ollantaytambo at the other end of the Sacred Valley and both are easily visited.

It is possible to walk up to Pisac but we opted to catch a taxi up and then walk back down to town. This turned out to be a great idea – the views are stunning and we would have missed them if we hadn’t taken a cab. Upon arrival we turned down a guided tour at ridiculous prices and struck out on our own (again, we recommend the Trail Blazer Guide as it has a map of the ruins).

The Spanish destroyed most of the structures at Pisac in the 1530s, but it is still possible to see that it would have once been quite grand. Highlights include an intihuatana stone, or hitching post for the sun, which can be found in an old Sun Temple (we will provide more detail on these later). There are also large agricultural terraces, aqueducts and look out points.

The black arrow points to the Intihuatana stone.


Perhaps the most interesting feature was the evidence of grave robbing. The ridge on the northern side looks like a beehive, full of little holes, which were once filled with mummies inside urns that were accompanied by various treasures to take with them to the afterworld. This area is off limits to tourists but it was still interesting to look at from a distance.

By the time we got back down into the main part of town, the weather had turned cold and windy. We did manage to have a quick wander through the market and buy a few little souvenirs. Most of the markets sell exactly the same products – standard llama clothing, scarves and beanies; rocks and crystals for the spiritual tourists; key rings; toys; jewellery etc. but we did manage to find some handmade silver jewellery, which was a nice souvenir to take home from such a pretty little town!

Horseriding Through Inca Ruins

Getting sick while travelling is never fun. We were struck down with a combination of the flu and food poisoning, and were forced to lie low in Cusco for a few days feeling sorry for ourselves. Luckily we were staying in a really beautiful old colonial building near the main plaza (Ecopackers Hostel), which had a great TV room full of lounges and beanbags so we didn’t do much apart from rest there.

When we started to feel better we felt like we needed to see a few things in one go so we were pretty happy to find a half-day horseriding tour that goes to all the main archaeological sites around Cusco. This was a quick and easy way to tick a few things off the list ($35 booked through the hostel) while having a bit of fun riding horses past some beautiful scenery.

Scenery around Cusco.

Our fifth horse ride in South America was lovely. It was a nice change to ride a horse that wasn’t starving or looking like it would collapse underneath us!

We started by driving out to pick up the horses and rode in a loop to visit the Qenko ruins, the Salapunco moon temple, the fortress of Puca Pucara, and the water temple of Tambomachay. We finished up the tour with a quick visit to the famous archeological site of Sacsayhuaman before the sun set.

Traditional Inca dress.


While not the most impressive of Incan ruins, we were excited because these were the first major ruins we had seen. It looked like a pile of rocks from a distance, but up close you could see that the rocks had been cut and placed there for a specific purpose. Unfortunately the Spanish destroyed much of the Incan architecture but it is possible to see that there were huge rock statues of pumas at the entrance to these ruins. There is also a carved stone that apparently casts a shadow of a puma’s head when the sun rises on the winter solstice.

Qenko ruins with what once was a puma statue.

Our guide also pointed out several significant ceremonial sites, including where the Incas performed sacrifices (mostly llamas). One rock had a platform for the sacrifice, with two crevices cut into the base below for blood to drain through. Apparently the Incas used this as a way to tell the future depending on which path the blood flowed down.

Channels cut into the stone for ceremonies.


Not far from Qenko is Salapunco, otherwise known as the Temple of the Moon. Again it just looked like a giant pile of rocks and we wouldn’t have taken much notice if it wasn’t pointed out to us. The entrance inside the cave had snakes carved into it and led to a small chamber. This chamber featured a platform that was lit by a crevice in the roof. Apparently the Incas would perform rituals here when the full moon passed over the rock, casting light into the chamber. You can see where the script writers for Indiana Jones have been geting their ideas!

As we entered the cave we disturbed a group of people who had apparently been meditating in the caves for several days. Cusco and the Sacred Valley attract a lot of spiritual tourists and these temples were no exception!

The Temple of the Moon.

The platform underneath the hole in the roof of the Temple of the Moon.

Puca Pucara

The ruins at Puca Pucara are a collection of stone buildings overlooking a valley. While no one really knows exactly what it was used for, there are theories that it was either a fort or checkpoint along an Inca road leading to Cusco. We do know that the Incas used to tax farmers by demanding a portion of the seasonal yield be donated to the empire. It is likely that Puca Pucara was a site for storing this food and tallying the contributions from neaby provinces.

People may be interested in knowing that the Incas did not write or use paper. Intead, they would send messages using quipu, which recorded information using multiple chords that would feature several knots. These would be interpreted in a similar fashion to morse code and allow basic accounting. Messengers would transport these records across the empire, on foot using a relay system. Apparently the runners were renown for their speed and stamina.

Tambo Machay

We were running out of time if we wanted to make it to Sacsayhuaman before it got dark, so we tied the horses up to a fence and caught a minivan up the hill to the water temple. There are ruins everywhere along the road, with the remains of various temples, lookouts and fortresses scattered throughout the landscape. After walking a short distance up the hill (which is harder than it sounds because of the altitude) we came across the ruins of Tambo Machay. This temple has carefully cut stones that channel fresh water from a spring in the mountain down through the terraces to a fountain. Nice.


The giant stones used to construct the fortress of Sacsayhuaman have left many people perplexed. The stones at these ruins are so massive that they have caused some theorists to conclude that they must be the work of aliens. Some stones have been discoloured from people touching them after claiming that the rocks have a particular energy that emanates from them – or it could just be that they are in the direct line of daily sunshine, which heats up a massive black surface and generates heat…either way, there is no denying that it would have been a huge undertaking to cut such giant pieces of stone and place them together so perfectly (the largest stone is 8.5m tall and weighs 361 tons). Apart from their size, there are also archways and patterns in the stones such as snakes and llamas.

Giant stones placed together at Sacsayhuaman.

Stones placed in the shape of a llama (looking right).

The Spanish Conquistadores destroyed most of Sacsayhuaman when they were trying to overthrow the last of the Incas, but it is possible to get an impression of how imposing it would have been. Something also impressive about this site is that the zig zag shape of the fortress forms the shape of a puma head, which is connected to Cusco, whose original shape was that of the puma body and legs. Clever!