By Robert Scheer
Although Machu Picchu is the highlight of most trips to Peru, it is certainly not the only destination. When my wife and I went on a “Sacred Mysteries of Peru” tour several years ago, three of our 12 days were spent at Machu Picchu, and any more would have been too much of a good thing. Besides the “Lost City of the Incas,” there are many more sacred sites in Peru that are conveniently located enough to be included in an itinerary.
Centuries ago, Cusco was the center of the Inca empire. Today it’s the jumping off place for most Peru trips, because it is where you get the train to Machu Picchu. Cusco was built in the shape of a stylized puma, and at its head is the ancient fortress of Sacsayhuaman. The name, Quechua for “satisfied falcon,” refers to a terrible battle fought in 1536 between Spanish invaders and the defending Incas. After the natives were annihilated, carrion-eating falcons feasted on the bodies. Sacsayhuaman is acclaimed for its walls that are built from enormous blocks of stone, weighing up to 300 tons and precisely fitted together without mortar.
If Sacsayhuaman represents Cusco’s head, then its heart is the Coricancha. The Temple of the Sun was the primary temple of the Incas, and it is said to have been the repository of a magical golden disc that originated in the lost continent of Mu. When the Spanish came, the disc was taken away and hidden near Lake Titicaca. A 17th century convent, the church of Santo Domingo has been built on top of the Inca stonework. Earthquakes have caused the Spanish-built church to require significant repairs over the years, but the Coricancha has so far been impervious, although the sheets of gold which once adorned its walls have been missing for centuries.
About five miles outside of Cusco is Tambomachay, the site known as the sacred Inca baths. There is a remarkable system of beautifully carved aqueducts in the rocks where the sights and sounds of clear, trickling water have led many experts to believe this is a site where water was worshipped as the source of all life on earth. Tambomachay is a popular place for spiritual tour groups to hold cleansing ceremonies.
If ever I were to return to Peru, the one place I would most like to re-visit is Pisac. Located in the Sacred Valley about 20 miles out of Cusco, Pisac is the name of both a delightful village and the Inca citadel above it. Situated on the top of a small mountain, but surrounded by much higher peaks, Pisac is very much like a miniature Machu Picchu. Although my visit was on one of the three days when there is a lively public market held in the village, our tour group had the sacred temples and terraces all to ourselves. Similar to Machu Picchu, Pisac has an intihuatana, a “hitching post of the sun” carved out of the bedrock and seemingly in communication with the spirits of the powerful mountains that surround it. Although the day had been mostly sunny and warm, as we were leaving it suddenly began to rain very heavily for a few minutes. Then the rain stopped as quickly as it had started, leaving us with a vision of a dramatic, double rainbow glowing above the Sacred Valley.
Less than 40 miles from Cusco, and also in the Sacred Valley, is Ollantaytambo, another Inca complex that rivals Machu Picchu with its dramatic architecture. The site is most famous for the six stone monoliths in the Sun Temple at its top. The cyclopean stone wall, over 12-feet high, is made from pink granite that was quarried many miles away and on the other side of the Urubamba River. Carved into the wall were the animals that represented the three worlds of the Incas, a condor, puma and snake. The conquering Spanish erased all but a faint trace of these pagan images, but the citadel is magnificent nevertheless.
About the author:
Robert Scheer is a travel writer and Communication Director of Body Mind Spirit Journeys, who offer spiritual tours of Peru. For details visit www.bodymindspiritjourneys.com or call 888-445-5678.