The Sacred Valley of the Incas

Jan 16-22 2008

random trip report

[Click images for large version and again for full resolution]

(Photos with date stamps are by Blake Meyers)

I'm invited to participate in a workshop on Genomics and Cyberinfrastructure in Lima Peru, with an excursion to Cusco and Machu Picchu. How can I say no?


I get up from a non-sleeping stupor at 4:30 AM for a 7 AM flight SFO to Miami.

On the Miami/Lima leg, I spy on my seat-mate's customs form and deduce that she's a biologist going to the same workshop. Her name is Chris, and she admits that she was spying on my laptop screen and noticed C++ code. We talk about parachutes, motorcycles etc. and the flight goes quickly.

She tells me a story that I'll repeat even though it has no relevance to this trip. A colleague of hers was traveling in Colombia, at a time and place where, if you resisted muggers, there was a good chance they'd kill you. The guy was riding in a bus and someone took his pack and money. A woman saw what was happening, kept him out of danger, and helped him locate the American consulate afterwards.

Three years later he was walking down the street in Miami, and saw a woman who looked vaguely familiar. It was the woman from Colombia. He greeted her, they talked, they arranged another meeting, now they're happily married!! (swell of romantic string music).

Back to the trip. We arrive in Lima on time (10:40 PM), but it takes an hour for the luggage to emerge, and when it does my suitcase is missing. I queue to file a lost-luggage form. The line moves very slowly. Tempers flare when a wealthy businessman tries to cut in line. It's midnight by the time I'm done. Fortunately the limo driver from the hotel has waited for me. We drive through some gritty commercial neighborhoods of Lima, then along the ocean for a mile or so to the suburb of Miraflores, where the hotel (the San Augustin) is.

We check in at 1 AM and are given a coupon for a free Pisco Sour in the hotel bar. Sadly, the coupons are never used.


No suitcase means no sleeping pills. I get up dog-tired, eat the hotel breakfast (so-so) and walk to the venue, which is the psychology building of the University Heredia Caetano. Security guards check laptops. I am very impressed by one of the speakers, Nicole from UW, who studies enterobacteria, and is ironically suffering from an intestinal malaise - she brandishes a bottle of Pepto Bismol as proof.

I skip the workshop lunch and return to the hotel to see if my suitcase has arrived. It hasn't, but I do some work in my room and the suitcase arrives soon thereafter. I lunch on some granola which my wife had the foresight to pack.

After the workshop we board a bus for the conference dinner. Traffic soon grinds to a halt; there's an altercation involving a taxi and a bus, which are stopped, blocking traffic. The bus driver tries to smash the taxi's mirror, and the taxi driver tries to pull off the bus's antenna. Soon the two drivers are rolling around on the ground and trading punches in earnest. The bus driver is smaller but seems to have more spunk. Finally order is restored and we continue.

Dinner is at the world's fanciest private fitness club. It occupies a huge tract of land on the seashore, and has everything you can think of: gyms, indoor and outdoor basketball courts, several swimming pools, clay tennis courts, racquetball, lawn bowling, and numerous bars and restaurants.

Our party occupies one of the restaurants. We get Pisco Sours (which are very tasty, and will mess up your head) and walk around. I talk with Mark, a guy from Salt Lake City who looks oddly familiar to me. Turns out he used to live in Berkeley and went to Ironworks.

Dinner is so-so, but I have a nice talk with Miron. Afterwards a few of us wander over to the beach, which is being raked by a menial. Eliazar suggests a swim, so I strip down to my boxers and wade out into the ocean. The surf is gentle, and the water is the perfect temperature.

I walk around with Chris and she explains basic bioterminology to me.


The workshop continues. I make efforts to talk with people, but there's no interest in or need for either volunteer computing or distributed thinking. So be it.

After lunch I go for a walk. A small army of government-sanctioned money changers roams the street, and I change $60. I walk through the central square of Miraflores.

A young woman asks for the time. She falls in step with me and asks whether I think the park is beautiful. She tells me about some other part of town that I should see, and by the way she's headed in that direction. We walk and converse. She asks if I want to stop and have a Coke. At this point alarms go off - either she's trying to pick me up (a flattering thought, but unlikely) or turn a trick (possible, but she isn't dressed for the part) or it's a mugging set-up, or a scam.

We reach the top of some high cliffs overlooking the ocean. She says that she's a nursing student, studying physical therapy, and that she'll give me a (therapeutic) massage in my hotel if I will 'help' her.

I decline the offer and ask her why she needs money. Her story: she comes from the north of Peru, was impregnated by a man who turned out to have a wife and family, she moved to Lima to try to make a life, her daughter (now 3) is in the hospital with a stomach tumor, possibly malignant. There's no health insurance, she has sold her furniture and appliances to pay the bills, she needs 380 Soles, she's desperate.

I don't know what to think. She seems honest, but scammers always do. She's not slick, and she doesn't seem comfortable with what she's doing. Whatever the case, I have money and she doesn't. So I give her $40. Disappointingly, she asks for more, and I quickly get up and leave.

Back at the hotel, I run into John, the 60-ish uncle of one of the attendees (Blake, from Delaware). John is a voluble, jovial type. He's excited about the existence of 30 varieties of potato in Peru. He got a restaurant recommendation from a local, so he, Chris, Blake and I go to scope it out.

It looks good, so we return there with a group of 12 or so. The place (Tanta) turns out to be extremely good - a hybrid of deli and semi-fancy restaurant, with a huge variety of Peruvian dishes, all of them ample, delicious, and inexpensive. I talked with Jose, a biocomputing person from Univ. Heredia Caetano.

The plane flight to Cusco the next day has been shifted from noonish to 5:10 AM (bus leaving at 3:30 AM) due to the threat of torrential rain, so we decide to call it an early night.


Everyone is in the lobby on time, but the bus is 20 minutes late (this becomes a recurring theme: La Hora Peruana). The airport tax is not included in the ticket: you have to stand in line to pay it. We fly to Cusco and are shuttled to another Hotel San Augustin. The altitude (11,400') is immediately felt by all of us (even me). As we check in we're handed steaming cups of Coca tea, and there's an urn of it in the lobby 24 hours a day.

At 9 (actually 9:20, of course) we board a mini-bus for a tour of the Cusco region. The rain has not materialized (in fact the weather throughout is cloudy but wonderful). We drive through the main plaza, then through increasingly poor neighborhoods up into the hills. Heidi (Julio's colleague) has cadged a bag of coca leaves from the hotel, and I chew them throughout the day (I notice a numbness and tingling in the mouth; other effects are subtle at best).

Cusco doesn't seem big but has a million residents. It's the South America I remember from Ecuador in the 60's: low windowless buildings made of mud-and-straw bricks, huge political slogans on the walls, tiny peasant women carry babies and other loads in colorful cloth wrapped around their backs, dogs trot and lie around.

We reach the plateau above Cusco, a green patchwork of fields. In some of them, peasants (singly or in teams) are tilling and weeding with hand tools; there are no work animals or tractors. Yvonne (our excellent tour guide) tells us that in the 70s the government instituted land reform, breaking up the haciendas and giving the land to the peasants, who farm it in a communal style. (Later, Jose elaborates on this: the peasants don't actually own the land; they can't sell it or use it for purposes other than farming, and their standard of living hasn't changed much.)

Yvonne tells us a bit about the Inca empire. 'Inca' refers to the king; his subjects are the 'Quechua people'. The empire was the union of several earlier kingdoms, and existed only for a few centuries. there were on the order of 15 Incas. The Quechua people, in spite of the usual colonial efforts to eradicate their culture and language, retained their identity, and today the province (centered at Cusco) has a certain amount of autonomy from the national government. There have been misguided efforts to hybridize Catholicism and the Animistic spiritualism of the Incas.

Our first stop, reached by a winding dirt road, is an archaeological site called Moray, a terraced depression about 300m across and 60m deep. This topography creates a wide temperature gradient, and the Incas used this to experiment with different varieties of their crops (corn, potatoes, quinoa, coca), developing strains that would grow well at particular altitudes. They measured temperature by timing the freezing and melting of bowls of water.

The walls have 'fly stairs': diagonal sequences of rocks that jut out, forming a sort of staircase. We walk to the bottom of the depression, which has been restored and is planted with various crops.

See fly steps in hi-res version

Temple foundations at left

Note water channel in walls

Yvonne harvests some Quinoa

We continue to the Sacred Valley of the Incas, about 30 miles from Cusco and at a lower altitude. First we come to Urubamba, which shares its name with the river that flows through the valley. The valley is flat and fairly wide at this point, and the dominant form of transportation is a motorcycle-based rickshaw (also found in Lima).

The town of Urubamba

The mountains behind Urubamba are steep and many thousand feet high; the ridge is capped with spectacular glacier-covered peaks. Many of the steep hillsides above the valley are terraced with stone walls (many of which go back to the time of the Incas and before) and are still cultivated.

We stop for lunch at a fantastic buffet that puts Las Vegas to shame. Alpaca carpaccio, ceviche made to order, chicken with elderberry sauce, zillions of other dishes and desserts. After lunch we walk through a beautiful garden down to the banks of the muddy and turbulent Urubamba.

Note mandatory Pisco Sour

The sign says: Alpaca w/ black beer sauce

We continue about 15 miles down the valley to Huayallatambo, a tiny town over which, atop a steep terraced slope, looms the Temple of the Sun. We climb a long staircase directly up the slope.

Blake searches for the perfect picture

View down the valley

Yvonne points out 'handle' in stone, used to pull it

Most of the tourists were Peruvian

Across the valley is a mountain with two features resembling human faces, one on the face of the mountain, the other in silhouette. On June 21 (winter solstice in these parts) the sun appears to rise out of the latter; this was a primary holiday for the Incas.

Several hundred feet up the mountain, accessible only by a sketchy-looking path, is a neat array of little houses, which Yvonne tells us are granaries in which crops were dried and stored, typically for 1-3 years.

Note face in middle of mountain (between two sets of granaries)

Note other face on left silhouette, 2/3 of the way up

Near the top of the staircase is the 'throne of the Inca', a stone seat with an optimal view up the valley. A couple of the stones have traces of ornamentation with a ternary theme, corresponding to trinity of the spiritual world, the material world, and the underworld where the souls of the dead go; these are symbolized by the condor, puma, and snake respectively. The holier the place, the more precise the stonework is. The larger stones are huge (~10' long) and it's hard to imagine getting them up here by human power.

At the base of the slope is the 'water temple', where the would bathe prior to visiting the Temple of the Sun.

The site also has military significance: it overlooks a narrow point in the valley, and the Incas temporarily repelled the Spanish invasion by flooding the river at this point, poisoning the water, and ambushing the Spaniards from the temple.

We head back. Near Urubamba, a dump truck has overturned by the side of the road, and a crowd as gathered to watch.

In Cusco we are taken to a tourist-oriented Alpaca store and are taught to distinguish Baby Alpaca from Maybe Alpaca.

I walk around the main plaza.

Newlyweds. Yes, they are very short.

I have two empanadas for dinner, watch some Australian Open on TV, and retire early.


The big day - Machu Picchu! We board the mini-bus and drive to Huayallatambo. Heading downstream, the valley becomes narrower and steeper; kind of a mile-deep jungle slot canyon. At Huayllatambo the road ends, and the only way to continue is on a train. The track, hugging the river, was built in the 1940s.

We ride on the train for about an hour to the tiny town of Aguas Calientes, which indeed has hot springs but is mostly a transfer point and a whole lot of tourist restaurants and souvenir stalls. We board a bus, which ascends a steep switchbacked road to Machu Piccho. An intriguing footpath, with stone stairs, goes up more directly.

One can climb Huayna Picchu, the large peak next to Machu Picchu, but they allow only 400 people a day to do so. A group of us - Me, Blake, Eliazar, Victor, Phil - immediately head for this, but the quota has been reached and we're turned away.

Huayna Picchu in background

Jumble of rocks; trail to Sun Gate faintly visible at upper left

So we head for another hike, to the Inca Bridge. The trail leads from one end of Machu Picchu, goes through the jungle for a few hundred yards, then emerges looking out over a huge near-vertical cliff made of rock encrusted with jungle plants, a couple thousand feet high.

Roughly halfway up the cliff there's a thin horizontal ledge, marked by the plants growing on it. The trail continues along this ledge, but in between there's a 50-feet section of sheer rock. The Incas stacked rocks up from a gully, maybe 50 feet below, to make sort of a synthetic ledge. They left a 15-foot gap in the middle, and laid some timbers across the gap, removable in case of enemy attack; that's the Inca bridge. The whole thing is extremely hazardous, and it's all closed off now (I was not tempted to explore).

Note ledge/trail along cliff face; yikes!

The Inca bridge

Random rock face, possible wallpaper

View down another valley; I'm confused about overall topography

Back at Machu Picchu, there are a few llamas grazing, including a mother and calf. A self-styled comedian tells each passer-by that they're not llamas but Alpacas, and the baby is an Alpacino.

Phil and Llama

My camera battery went dead after this - no more pix

We immediately head for the other hiking option, a section of an Inca trail leading to a saddle point called the Sun Gate. It's about a mile with an 800' rise. Blake and I go into mountain-climbing mode and do it at an absurdly fast pace.

At the Sun Gate we meet a group of Argentine teenagers who have hiked the Inca Trail for 4 days up from the lowlands. They're in high spirits, using all sorts of Peruvian words as substitutes for 'cheese' as we photograph them.

Blake and I return to the bus and Aguas Calientes, talking at length about our hiking and climbing experiences - he's done lots of Yosemite climbs, Shasta via Casaval ridge, Conness, Devil's Tower, John Muir Trail, etc. We get back in time for the buffet lunch at Toto's - not quite as spectacular as the place in Urubamba, but very good. There's an odd salad made of plantain chips and mayonnaise.

I wander around the tourist shopping area, run into Robin and then Blake, and we walk to the hot springs. Bathing suits are for rent. A sign warns against taking river sand for construction purposes.

Robin is taken with a group of children rolling CDs down a channel in the middle of the street.

She observes that the town, being reachable only by train, is completely devoid of cars - nice. Blake and I marvel at the ambitious yet ridiculous architecture and construction techniques.

We return by train to Huayallatambo, and back to Cusco with a stop at the plaza in Urubamba. I randomly observe that all the places I've seen in Peru are much cleaner than the Ecuador I remember, where papaya peels and other trash fill the gutters, creating an omnipresent stench of fruity decay.


We go to the Cusco airport for the flight back to Lima. As we stand in line, the terminal fills with smoke from some kind of electrical fire. The employees don gas masks, and the main lighting abruptly goes out, but no one seems to be alarmed, or even to notice it.

Robin, I, and the Brazilians (Carlos and Silvia) have flights later that night (1:40 AM in my case). We decide to hang out in the airport. There's wireless, but the payment server is down, so I work on this instead.

At around 7 PM Robin et al. go through security in search of a power outlet. I realize I need to go back and get a boarding pass. Unfortunately the AA counter isn't open; their first flight is the 10:50 PM arrival. So I wait, and wander around, and wait some more. Finally at 8:30 the counter opens. They look at my ticket and tell me that the flight is operated by LAN Peru, which has been open all along. Doh! I go there and the pleasant young man (Isaac) says Lo Siento, but the flight is delayed... by six hours. Double Doh!

Actually this is OK because it means I can sleep. Isaac gives me a voucher for dinner and lodging at the Sheraton, and fixes me up with a taxi. The Sheraton, it turns out, is in the heart of downtown, a drive of 45 min. or so. It's extremely expensive ($300/night and up) but not very good - the luxury is c. 1960, and it reeks of mildew. By the time I'm settled it's about 10 PM and my pickup is 5:30 AM, so I skip dinner and retire.


I awake more or less refreshed for the first time in a while. Breakfast is a bitter disappointment. The cab driver (Sr. Moreno) is on time but we wait 20 min for other passengers who, it turns out, took another cab. I get to the airport in plenty of time, buy some Pisco at duty-free, and find the only power outlet in the entire airport. Roughly 12 hours later, I'm walking in my door in Berkeley, dealing with Reverse Culture Shock.

Addendum (from my mother, Alice McLerran)

By the way, maybe today 'Quechua people' is the PC phrase, but initially everybody was an Inca. THE Inca was the ruler, but the rest of them used to identify themselves that way once they were incorporated in the empire. The Quechua were originally one small group, somewhere near Cuzco, I forget just where. John Rowe, the scholar under whom I studied, hypothesizes that the beginning of the use of the word 'Quechua' to identify the language (which Incas actually called runasimi, or 'human speech'), and thence the people who spoke as well, it may have come when the first of those remarkably scholarly clergy that traveled with the conquistadores was assembling a dictionary of the new language he was trying to learn (there were some VERY early Spanish-Quechua dictionaries) and wanted to know what the language was called. Speaking it only imperfectly himself, with an Inca who spoke only a little Spanish, this would have been a rather difficulty question to phrase, and Rowe hypothesizes that in the attempt to do so he pointed at some nearby group, and said something like, 'Well, what do you call what those people over there are talking?' The nearby group could have been from that nearby tribe, the informant would have recognized their dialect and might have thought that was the question. (Or maybe he just misunderstood the question and thought what was needed was an identification of the group rather than their dialect.) A plausible theory.

In any case, 'Quechua people' still exist and speak the language in countries other than Peru, and in Ecuador I hear them refer to themselves in Spanish only as 'indigenas.' (And as you may remember they call the language 'quichua.' ) They speak a dialect of the language that lacks the distinctive but difficult glottal stops that are still used in Peru. They have forgotten a number of words in it that once existed, by the way, and have begun to alter Spanish words in ways that let them substitute. If I remember correctly, I once heard an indigena in Ecuador (where for generations llamas have been very rare and therefore not talked about, whereas sheep have overrun the highlands with lamentable effects on the environment), refer to a llama as a runaoveja, which would communicate the concept 'the kind of sheep that our people had'. Imagine that word being lost! The Incas had prayers for increase of llama flocks; llamas were VERY important for loads of uses, some obvious, others more obscure. Reading the markings on their inflated lungs was maybe the top method of divination, the type used to confirm the suitability of the son the ruling Inca chose to be his successor.

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