I have to tilt my head all the way back to fully appreciate the spectacular and massive Inca fortress, spilling down a steep, rocky hillside. Running up into the sky, like the proverbial stairway to heaven, are 200 gigantic step terraces, each twice the height of a man. Towering around like silent Titans guarding a secret are large, pyramidal mountains.
The same pyramidal peaks loomed over the road when we were entering Ollantaytambo, their tops touching, blocking all the light. The sudden semidarkness that fell over the bus shut down all of its laughter.
Even Abby and Emily stopped giggling and throwing furtive looks in my direction, distracting me from fully enjoying the extraordinary beauty of the Sacred Valley of the Inca, that we’re visiting today.
The landscape has been incredible ever since we left Cusco. It started with the snowy sierras, jagged summits and glacier caps of puna, the high-mountain grassland zone, and continued with green bulging hills, quaint rustic villages and hilltop Inca ruins with staggering views of stone-tiered terraces, once the road dipped into the warmer fluvial valley of the Urubamba River.
Especially breathtaking was the last part, where the gaping gorges cascaded down to the bottom of the valley, so perfectly flat, it looked like someone had just taken a giant bulldozer and run it in between the mountains, flattening out everything in its way.
The Sacred Valley of the Inca, the former agricultural heart of the Inca Empire, is a 70-mile long strip stretching from Cusco to Machu Picchu, one of those rare places that live up to highest expectations. Everything about it is visually stunning, filled with almost otherworldly beauty.
Ollantaytambo is no exception. Tucked in between snow-capped mountains, it’s the Valley’s last town accessible by road. From here to Machu Picchu, it’s either by llama or rail.
Wouldn’t wanna end up here with a one-way train ticket!
The town has been continuously inhabited for more than 700 years, and it shows. It’s the only place in the Valley where people still live in original Inca buildings. These canchas look like tiny strongholds – they’re constructed from stones of different sizes, from extra-large blocks in the foundations to smaller pieces in the upper parts, and organized around small traditional courtyards. The streets themselves, straight as arrows, are cobbled with river pebbles and have stone canals, gurgling with fast-flowing mountain water.
“Stones,” exclaims Abby, dramatically rolling her eyes, “stones just everywhere …”
What did you expect at these altitudes – bamboo trees?! Ignoring her, I turn to check out an original Inca doorway. Looking like a Neolithic dolmen, the cyclopean door is supported by a horizontal stone monolith, a sign of its former noble owner.
I take out my camera.
My new camera, that I got at the black Molino market in Cusco specialized in smuggled goods, pirated electronics and fake branded clothes.
And stuff pickpocketed from other tourists, I run my thumb over the scratches on the camera surface.
Abby keeps complaining, this time about Pepe, the only guy she’s ever met and that has been totally indifferent to her distinct and well-defined “shelved units,” as she calls them.
Pepe is our Cusco area guide. I like him. He seems pretty knowledgeable about everything related to the Inca and passionate about his work.
And as a bonus, he has a muscular body, thick wavy hair and a manly, teddy-bear face.
“I’d do him right here, right now, any way he wants,” says Abby who can’t help herself. She finds him insanely hot.
In fact, she’s so crazy about him, she makes it her mission to seduce him deploying for that purpose a whole arsenal of weapons, recommended by Elle, such as deep-cut V-necks, meaningful eye contacts and soft hand touches.
All failing in their desired effect.
Pepe’s too professional. Or maybe he’s just seen it too many times.
“Ollay, as the locals call it, is one of the best-preserved examples of Inca urban planning, with streets running in a grid layout that is still in use today,” Pepe spreads out his arms to make his point. His muscles bulge out.
“Yeah,” Abby cuts in, “it’s really amazing what the Incas could do with such limited resources and with no iron tools and wheels!”
Paradoxically, as a side-effect of constantly hanging around Pepe, she’s picked up quite a lot of historical information.
The Inca fortress soars above us like the insurmountable wall at the end of the world.
“Let’s go,” Pepe says and takes a step forward towards the sloping hill, reshaped by the Inca into a stairway of terraces.
Two hundred of them to the top.
Abby normally wouldn’t bother to do such an absurd hike (what am I, a llama?!), but Pepe smiles at her and so she follows. Never leaving my side, that is. Just like Emily.
Sticking to me like geckos to a glass wall, like there’s some kind of a bond between them and me after our joint adventure in Písac.
Complaining that “getting high” should be fun, Abby gives me a poke and nods with her head in the direction of Emily, who’s holding in her hand a small red statuette, rubbing it softly with her thumb.
“I’d rub him just like that. All over!”
For the tenth time, I regret the gesture of camaraderie I made towards them in Písac, the famous market town we visited earlier.
I should have just had my lunch elsewhere. Or hidden from them.
But then again, we’d have never come across that “treasure” store, and wouldn’t have …
Písac is the second of the two entrances to the Sacred Valley particularly famous for two things – a traditional Sunday and Tuesday market (the largest handicraft market in the area), and the extensive Inca ruins on top of a mountain across the valley from it.
Since today is one of the two market days, the normally sleepy plaza goes through a crazy transformation.
Spilling out into neighboring streets are tables fully packed with alpaca sweaters, hand-woven tapestries, Nazca-style ceramics, wooden sculptures, tribal masks, Andean musical instruments, finely wrought silver, traditional jewelry from metal and beads, and chessboards with hand-made pieces of Spanish vs. Inca warriors.
Sitting under the pisonay tree the Inca regarded as sacred are local Quechua farmers, who’ve come down from their villages to sell their products and to stock up on supplies for the week.
Piled on the ground before them are bananas, melons and pomegranates from their gardens, giant peppers, onions, tomatoes and corn of all colors from yellow to red-orange, dark purple and black-and-white from their terraced fields; filling the air with their heavenly scents are fresh flowers, grown at 10,000 feet!
It’s all so overwhelming, I have to take a break from it.
And what’s a better place to do that than a large street oven, selling fresh, hot, mouth-watering empanadas filled with ham and cheese.
Abby and Emily don’t take long to show up.
With a generous, sweeping gesture and a beaming smile, I invite them to join me for lunch.
And before I know it, I’m helping them buy gifts for their friends and families (“you speak the language so well and are sooo good at haggling …”).
Having dropped anchor in a little side alley, attracted to a shop window showing little wooden statues of Inca kings, dressed in delicate silver armors and decorative headdresses, we’re distracted by a mutter of excited voices.
A group of Japanese tourists is standing outside the tienda next door, discussing something with a man in their midst. The man holds sheets of sturdy paper in his hands, with pieces of colorful fabrics pasted to them.
Overcome with curiosity, we follow him inside his store to a dusty counter at the back.
The storekeeper reaches up to the top shelf and takes down a small wooden box. He places it on the counter and carefully opens. In the dim light, falling in through a small window in the wall, we catch a sight of several old-looking objects: clay statues, fragments of pottery, pieces of faded woven fabrics, a miniature spinning wheel, mostly.
Dumb-founded, we keep staring at them. It’s only when the store owner explains that they were found in the Inca rock tombs above the town, that it hits me. These are relics from raided Inca tombs, and we’re participating in an illegal trade of historical artifacts!
A chill sweeps over me.
Is the guy out of his mind?!
Doing it in the open like that …
The smiling man places two small, hollow statues before me, along with sturdy sheets of paper that have pasted on them miniatures of traditional Inca garments, made from fabrics found on the mummies in the tombs, and says: “Setenta y cinco dólares, todo.”
The chill turns into excitement; owning something someone else had created with their hands hundreds of years ago is a wish come true!
No way I’m passing up a chance like that!
Really?! Abby and Emily look at me with a reproach. If everyone did that …
I’ll take good care of them, I promise. I might be lacking all restraint right now, but I’m not a person without principles!
Joy is contagious, and ten minutes later, I’m not the only one winding up in hell one day.
Emily is captured by a small, reddish statue with features so unclear and rubbed smooth with time, that it’s hard to tell what it represents.
“It’s a rare piece made of spondylus conch,” I translate the storekeeper’s words.
“In pre-Inca cultures, spondylus was a symbol of fertility and female power because the shape of the seashell resembled the shape of a woman’s vulva. Magical powers were attributed to it.”
“Yay!” Abby exclaims, “a Goddess of Fertility with 3 tits!”
Really, the goddess has three breasts.
Abby herself ends up with a piece of pottery utterly in her style – a decapitated head with 2 spouts shaped as male genitals. “A double dildo – nice!”
From that moment on, they wouldn’t leave me alone.
They’d be sticking to me like we’re some kind of accomplices to a crime and only together, we’re safe.
I just can’t shake them off.
When, at last, we make it to the top of the terraces, the rest of the group is already gone.
What now? I look around the fortified complex.
Lying around the half-collapsed, cyclopean structures of the Temple area is a number of unfinished stone blocks. One of them is a prominent wall, formed of six ten-feet tall blocks of pink rhyolite; crossing their smooth surface are cobwebs of regular scratches and grooves, looking like they were carved there a millennium ago by a laser beam.
I look down.
The views of the town below, and the massive pyramidal hills around one of which has a huge face of a bearded man carved into it, are fabulous.
The two dead weights tagging along are instantly forgotten.
I do my usual camera dance around the sunlit platform, when a body pops up in my viewfinder, rubbing itself up and down against the cyclopean wall.
“I pretend it’s Pepe’s hands,” Abby says with a grin on her face, pressing her breasts against the warm stone. Her T-shirt and bra are pulled high up.
I shut my camera off and head down a trail, made of strangely-looking carved steps. It runs along some half-ruined walls and terraces to the hill’s backside, ascending, descending, taking a couple of curves and finally coming out on the other side.
A tiny valley filled with sunlight opens up before me like something out of a fairy tale.
Glittering above are glacial peaks, sparkling below are silver strings of water canals. Falling through a wedge in between two hills is a stream of sunrays, creating on the plain, covered by a patchwork of rectangular fields, a shape in the form of an illuminated piece of pizza.
A river is zig-zagging at the bottom of it.
That’s unusual, I think, the flow of the Urubamba River always follows a straight line.
Then it hits me.
This must be the valley of the famous battle between Manco Inca, the rebellious Inca emperor, and the Spaniards. The site of the last victorious battle of the Inca, won by their ability to control river flows.
After installed by the Spaniards as a puppet ruler, the 21-year old Manco Inca escapes, gathers an army and lays a 10-month siege to Cusco. When it eventually fails, he withdraws to Ollantaytambo pursued by the Spanish troops.
Knowing well that the biggest threat to his army is the Spanish cavalry whose speed, stamina and striking power gave no chance to his own infantry, he decided to take advantage of the cavalry’s biggest weakness – heavy weight.
When the Spaniards attack, they’re showered with arrows, slingshots and boulders from the raised terraces and fortified ramparts, Manco Inca had built in the narrowest sections of the valley to slow down the armored horse riders.
While his warriors hold off the Spanish advance with continuous attacks, he opens up the canals, he had built to divert the flow of the river from the left side of the valley to the right and back, flooding the battlefield.
When the water and mud reach to the horses’ bellies, bogging them down, the Spaniards have no other option but to beat a hasty retreat.
(A temporary one, true, but still a retreat).
Wit over numbers, that’s how it should be done.
Too bad Manco Inca’s predecessors didn’t know that.
I look down at the silent plain where nothing suggests today the drama played out here a couple of hundred years ago.
My eyes stop on a big, bulging mass of rock wrapped around something.
Around something strange, rendered almost invisible.
A huge throne carved into a rough rock!
Abby has just climbed down to it, to the warm monolith, looking like it was devised for giants. The throne’s design is simple – it has a seat, a backrest and a foot support, all smoothed to a high gloss and cut at such straight angles, as if someone just ran a chisel through it like a hot knife through butter.
The Inca were really good at that kind of a thing.
Abby sits down and takes the posture of a benevolent goddess looking down at the world at her feet.
And there’s a lot to look at – a mosaic of fields, a rampart of hills, blinding sunrays.
The sunrays that are falling through the opening between two mountains, start growing stronger, flooding the plain with even more intense light.
Suddenly, a perfect, two-dimensional pyramid rises up in the air, shimmering in the golden light like a divine mirage.
Our mouths pop open. The sides of the pyramid copy the lines of the canals, the steps copy the rectangular fields. Suspended on a rocky promontory right above its top is a stone temple, crowning the perfect pyramid like a shrine.
A deep moan comes from the sun-lit throne.
Emily and I turn our heads.
Abby’s spine is arched up in a high pose, her head tilted back. Holding onto the armrests with her hands, and onto the sides of them with her legs, she and the throne come to form a closed circuit.
And just like a current flowing through a conductor, electricity is travelling through her body. From the ends of her hair to the tops of her toes, wave after wave of ecstasy make her tremble and utter loud, drawn-out grunts, echoing throughout the valley.
The pyramid hovers in the air for a couple more minutes, then it slowly fades away.
Just like Abby’s groans and contracting body.
A stunned pillar of salt, that’s what I am.
What the hell just happened?!
Is she for real?!
Some people have really no self-restraint!