The Center of the World: Cusco and the Sacred Valley

Like roosters, we were up at the crack of dawn to catch our flight to Cusco. In what was one of the most gorgeous approaches to an airport I’ve ever experienced, we flew into the city with the Andes on either side. It was as if the mountains were hugging the plane and it was beautiful and humbling.

We spent part of the afternoon in Cusco, which loosely translated means “navel of the world” (trust me, it’s a million times more attractive than a belly button), where we visited the ruins of Coricancha, the Incas’ flagship temple of the sun.


In the days of the Incas, the temple was covered in gold. The gardens were decorated with full-size reproductions of fauna and flora – in gold.  Sort of like King Midas. As you approach the site, which is now dominated by a baroque-style dome, it’s not too difficult to imagine the rays of the sun shining on the gold walls of the Incan temple and bringing good fortune to the people.


The labor it took to build such a magnificent homage to the gods is all the more insane considering the Inca Empire lasted less than 100 years.  The tribes the Incas conquered transported the stones from 35 km away – without wheels. Instead, men carried the stones on wooden beams and used another rock, hematite, to split the stones into perfect rectangular shapes that were placed together without the use of any mortar. If these poor souls had known all their work would be destroyed after a few decades, I wonder if they would have tried so hard.


The Spanish Conquistadors arrived and pillaged most everything on the site, melted all of the gold and built the church above the temple ruins. It was only in 1950 that the ruins were discovered, after an earthquake destroyed much of the church and revealed the perfectly preserved walls of the Incan temple underneath. Somewhere from above or below the Incan gods were laughing.

After marveling at the temple engineering, we made our way to the market at Pisac, which was filled with vendors selling their wares to all the tourists.  It was easy to find trinkets for Chloe and Sophie, who will be the lucky recipients of all sorts of adorable souvenirs.

Our hotel is in Yucay in the Sacred Valley, which is absolutely breathtaking. The local people farm land that’s been in their families for generations, growing crops like corn, quinoa and potatoes on agricultural terraces that date from the time of the Incas.  Although the altitude in the valley is more than 8,000 feet, because the equator is so close, there’s no snow until at least 14,000-15,000 feet. The farmers irrigate using a complex aqueduct system (and no machinery) that’s essentially dependent on a combination of the 35 inches of rainfall the region receives annually, and the rivers and melting snow that wind their way down from the higher elevations. How the farmers climb those steep slopes to care for their crops is beyond me, but they do it.  The region is incredibly poor – as we were driving past some of the villages, you could gauge relative wealth by whether homes had roof tiles or not, or glass on the windows or not.  Although there seems to be quite a lot of new construction, which perhaps indicates a better economy, it’s not nearly as much as what we saw in Lima.  The indigenous people are struggling mightily and greatly depend on the tourism industry so that they can continue their traditional way of life.


It’s quite an amazing feeling to be surrounded by mountains, to breathe the fresh air and to see stars that are only visible in the Southern Hemisphere.  It reminds me of how small we all are, how vast the world is and how we’re all connected to each other, simply by virtue of being alive and sharing in the beauty that surrounds us.

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