The Sacred Valley of Peru

“The reasons the Incas called this the ‘Sacred Valley’ are all around you. Discover them in each of our explorations.”

So read the welcome note left on a desk in our hotel room. It rang true: The mountains and fields and Incan terraces surrounding the hotel amounted to quite an awe-inspiring scene.

I’m not sure I was even aware of the Sacred Valley of Peru prior to this trip. I knew about Machu Picchu, and I suppose if you had mentioned the Incan empire, I would have had vague awareness of the history. But five days of hiking and biking around the valley guided by experts brought the history and culture to life. The history of the Incan trails is pretty interesting, and it’s cool to be able to still walk on many of the trails, many of which were built over 500 years ago.

Most intriguing to me was how the Incas saw God in nature. Mountains were God. Trees were God. Rain was God. Many of us feel a sense of awe in nature. Turning that sense of awe into a full religious fervor is something else entirely. Archaeoastronomy is apparently the study of “how ancient peoples incorporated the sun, moon and stars into their daily lives.” The religious connection to the mountains is multiplied by Peru’s insane weather. As someone told Mark Adams in his book below, “I was in the Sacred Valley in 1983 when a hailstorm knocked out ninety percent of the corn crop in fifteen minutes…So if your perception is that the mountains control weather, you’re going to try to make those mountains happy.”

Machu Picchu itself is a sight to behold. Of course, it’s famous, so it’s crawling with people, which distracts a bit from the sacred vibe. It’s still awe-inspiring to see a mini stone city nestled amidst the Andes. And it’s hard to imagine thousands of men carrying thousands of heavy stones to build the buildings, with no modern stone carving tools. The purpose of Machu Picchu is debated among archeologists and historians to this day. Maybe it was a mini temple. Maybe it was simply the home of the Inca. Maybe it was meant as a stop on a longer pilgrimage. Who knows.

In Johan Reinhard’s book — quoted by Mark Adams in the book I link to below — he suggests that “trying to understand places like Machu Picchu and Vitcos as individual, self-contained sites misses a larger point. These monuments were built in relation to the sun, the stars, the mountains—and to one another.”

There are many microclimates in the Valley, and hikes, bike rides, and car tours available at different elevations. On our last day, we climbed to 14,000 feet and experienced a moonscape-like set of lakes and paddies nestled in the the high Andes mountains. There were no other people; just alpacas and shepherds. The whole scene felt quite distinct from the river trails in the basin of the valley.

Overall, I’d rank this part of Peru up there in terms of outdoor activities combined with historical interestingness. (Note that the city of Lima is generally not a recommended stop for tourists and my one day there on the way home didn’t move me to challenge that recommendation.)

The book “Turn Right at Machu Picchu” by Mark Adams is a really engaging tour through Peru and the Sacred Valley from a modern travel writer. The first 20% is slow going, but the last 80% was excellent. Recommended reading if you’re traveling to Peru and aren’t aware of Hiram Bingham’s explorations. Here are some highlights from my Kindle reading of the book:


Measured in square miles, the country is not especially large. On a globe it looks like a swollen California. Within that space, though, are twenty-thousand-foot peaks, the world’s deepest canyon (twice as deep as the Grand Canyon), unmapped Amazon jungle and the driest desert on earth. Peru is an equatorial country that depends on glaciers for drinking water. It’s one of the world’s hot spots for seismic and volcanic activity. (Both Lima and Cusco have been leveled by earthquakes; the country’s second-largest city, Arequipa, sits beneath a smoking peak that could blow its top at any time.) Scientists have calculated that there are thirty-four types of climatic zones on the face of the earth. Peru has twenty of them.

“But if the mules do get in front, let them go because they’re stupid and they do stupid things. Of course you know not to stand within”—here he spread his arms wide—“of a mule. I saw a kid a few weeks ago with a hole kicked in the side of his head. He’ll probably get better because he’s a kid. I’ve seen adults with dented skulls that are never going to heal.”

When Bingham saw [Machu Picchu], it was largely in ruins, torn apart by Spanish religious fanatics infuriated by Inca paganism and generations of Andean treasure seekers looking for Inca gold.

“For two weeks out of every year, the sun comes straight down this corridor,” John said, sweeping his gloved hands backward as if he were a matador ushering in the solar bull. “It’s right on the June solstice line, the point where the sun rises on the shortest day of the year. And it’s a straight shot to Machu Picchu. The Incas probably hung some sort of golden sheet or reflector at the end of it to reflect sunlight back to Machu Picchu. Can you imagine how spectacular that would have been? Machu Picchu would’ve still been dark, waiting for the sunrise, when the reflection would just shoot across the valley! “And in that direction

The masonry, like that of most Inca masterworks, tilted slightly inward and tapered as it went up. “Owing to the absence of mortar,” Bingham wrote, “there are no ugly spaces between the rocks. They might have grown together.”

There’s an old kitchen maxim that squid should either be cooked for two minutes or two hours. A similar rule could be applied to Machu Picchu. With a good guide—there are dozens of them lingering by the front entrance—a visitor who’s short on time can see the highlights of Machu Picchu in two hours. A visit of two days, though, allows enough time to take in the site’s full majesty.

One of the major factors in the rise of archaeology had been the birth of the public museum.

“Of course. What’s the difference between Bingham and a huaquero at this point? Nothing. Bingham was very clever at marketing himself. He managed to make himself look like the discoverer. That’s a legend that needs to be completely thrown out.”

Aside from a small group of scholars, administrators, and lawyers at Yale, almost everyone with an interest in Machu Picchu agreed that the artifacts Bingham took should be returned. There has long been, however, some (politically incorrect) doubt about Peru’s ability to take proper care of its antiquities. The National Museum in Lima was notoriously robbed of hundreds of irreplaceable objects in the late 1970s. The Museo Inka in Cusco had twenty-two gold pieces stolen in 1993. One well-known explorer I spoke with recalled handing mummies and artifacts over to the INC, only to return later and learn that they’d been lost or stolen. In 2008, a pair of vendors operating a souvenir shop off the main plaza in Cusco was found with 690 Inca and pre-Inca artifacts; they’d been hawking them on the Internet.

Just now, when we thought there was practically no portion of the Earth’s surface still unknown, when the discovery of a single lake or mountain, or the charting of a remote strip of coast line was enough to give a man fame as an explorer, one member of the daredevil explorers’ craft has “struck it rich,” struck it so dazzlingly rich, indeed, that all his confrères may be pardoned if they gnash their teeth in chagrin and turn green with envy. Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about that extraordinary sentence is that it happened to be true.

The irony of Bingham’s prosecution is that he really was smuggling artifacts out of the country, hundreds of them—just not those that Valcárcel had accused him of. The previous year, the historian Christopher Heaney has written, Bingham had negotiated the purchase of 366 Inca artifacts from Tomás Alvistur, the son-in-law of Huadquiña’s owners. After a bit of haggling, the antiquities were smuggled out of Peru and arrived in New Haven, where they outshone the pieces that Bingham had excavated at Machu Picchu. … “Frankly, Bingham didn’t find shit. He bought the Alvistur stuff.” This was the collection of 366 artifacts from the son-in-law of Huadquiña’s owner. “Machu Picchu was completely sacked before Bingham was born. Far and away the best stuff that Bingham got out of Machu Picchu he didn’t find—he bought. The funny thing was, Bingham snuck that stuff out and they wanted to keep it a dirty secret. But that stuff legally they can keep. It’s the other stuff that has to come back.”

The truth about Bingham, perhaps the only thing Paolo Greer and Eliane Karp-Toledo would have agreed on, is that he did something less romantic but ultimately much more important than discovering Machu Picchu. He saw the ruins, quickly determined their importance (if not their origin) and popularized them to a degree that they couldn’t be blown up with dynamite or knocked over in the search for buried gold, as Vitcos had been. Would Machu Picchu exist if Hiram Bingham had never seen it? Of course. Would it be the same Machu Picchu we know today? Almost certainly not.

Similarly, if he’d never published Lost City of the Incas, would Bingham have been accused of stealing credit for the discovery? No. Was he the original Indiana Jones? Not exactly. But if he hadn’t published Lost City of the Incas, would the character of Indiana Jones ever have existed? Probably not, at least not in the form we know.

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