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The Moonstone Trek: Part 4 - Into the Sacred Valley

After crossing the Accoccassa Pass in early-afternoon, our party headed down into the Chancachuco Valley to make camp. As the condor flies, we had only advanced 5 miles today. But we’d traveled up and down thousands of feet in elevation, back and forth along countless switchbacks, all the while gasping for oxygen in the thin air. This certainly wasn’t the most difficult climb of my life, but it wasn’t exactly a walk in the park, either. (Click HERE to read Part 3).

The several hours I spent crossing the Chancachuco Valley rank among my favorite during the Moonstone Trek through southern Peru. Falling back from the rest of my team, I found myself alone in a vast and breathtaking landscape of glacier-topped mountains, colorful alpine slopes, clear running streams, and the occasional herd of llama and alpaca. I stopped often to film or take pictures, continually overwhelmed by the scale and beauty of my surroundings. My imagination began to run wild. To picture an ancient people like the Inca living here centuries ago was easy. As fog wreathed the hills around me, my thoughts grew increasingly fantastical. I half-expected to see a dragon circling above, or a band of elves resting in a grove of flowers, or an angry giant hurling boulders at me from behind a distant peak.

(Above) The Chancachuco Valley and distant Urubamba Range.

(Below) Llama, alpaca, and horses graze freely in the valley.

Halfway down the valley, I spotted several stone ruins of corrals and farmhouses. According to my guide, these were at least as old as the Inca, if not older. I was impressed by his knowledge of Peru’s history, which was both broad and deep. He told me has read many books about the Inca and their ancestors, and over many years of trekking this route, he has also tried to learn as much as he can about its various features and landmarks. This information not only improves his value as a guide; it also helps satisfy his deep curiosity about his homeland.

(Above) Ruins of a stone corral and house; probably Inca-era (or earlier).

Having done a bit of research myself prior to this trip, I noted that the books my guide quoted were mostly written by authors with which I was unfamiliar – they seemed to be local or, at least, not members of the Royal Geographic Society. When I asked him why he consulted Peruvian experts, he smiled and said something along the lines of, “History is written by the victors.” After returning to the States, I examined some of the works he mentioned, including those written by self-taught scholars like Maria Rostowrowski. I gathered that my guide was correct – these books do seem to shed fresh and unique light on a subject that has been dominated by the theories of eminent 19th and 20th century American and European archaeologists and explorers.

(Above) Most of my pre-trip research focused on works by renowned American and European explorers and archaeologists. However, my guide helped open my eyes to a world of perspective offered by Peruvian historians and ethnologists.

Of course, I knew none of this at the time. Alone with my thoughts as I descended the valley, I reflected only upon what I’d learned prior to and during my trip to Peru. After two years of historical research, I had come here to see the land of the Incas with my own eyes. Initially, my observations during the previous week in Cusco validated what I already knew. However, bit by bit, new questions and doubts were beginning to chip away at this foundation. My visits to the Coricancha and Sacsayhuaman had made me skeptical of the theories by modern archaeologists and historians – who claim positively that the Inca Empire and its incredible architecture was assembled in less than 100 years by a society without iron tools, work animals, or the wheel. But is it possible that this understanding of Inca history rests upon many mistaken assumptions?

(Above) The megalithic (cyclopean) masonry of Sacsayhuaman, the massive fortress/temple that overlooks Cusco from the north. Some of the limestone blocks are estimated to weigh 300 tons (600,000 lbs), and yet the Inca are not known to have had the wheel, iron tools, or large work animals.

After all, nearly everything we know about the Inca is derived from the accounts written by a handful of Spanish chroniclers nearly five centuries ago, each of whom undoubtedly possessed his own biases and reasons for distorting the truth about this land, its people, and their history. In the early years of the Spanish conquest, most important Inca sites were destroyed or significantly transformed, as they were considered unwelcome reminders of the toppled political regime, or as symbols of a now forbidden pagan religion. What sites survived the Spaniards were smashed by earthquakes or looted by generations of huaqeros (or grave robbers) – destructive forces that both continue today.

(Above) What we know of the Incas is derived from archaeological study of surviving sites and the chronicles of 16th and 17th century Spanish and Peruvian writers. While helpful, these sources provide an incomplete (and probably distorted) picture of Peru's pre-Columbian history.

And despite the modern-day fame of sites like Machu Picchu, archaeology has only just begun to unravel the mysteries of Peru and South America. To date, no comprehensive investigation of Cusco has ever been completed, and new sites are being discovered throughout Peru every year. Finally, we should keep in mind that the Incas themselves may have destroyed many ancient sites, as well as invented (or reinvented) stories about their origin and meaning. After all, the Incas were conquerors, too, and relative newcomers in the grand scheme of Peru’s history. The Inca undoubtedly utilized propaganda to expand their new empire in the 1400s and early-1500s under the leadership of Pachacutec – the great Inca king whose adopted name means “he who overturns space and time.” Is it so hard to believe that he effected a "pachucutec” – or turning over of the world – when he came to power? Given that popular versions of Peru’s history are really just theories based on incomplete evidence, is seems more sensible to stay open-minded – and even skeptical – about what really happened here.

(Above) Statue of Pachacutec in Cusco's Plaza de Armas. Pachacutec was the ninth and greatest Inca king; his name means "he who overturns space and time." Did this leader rewrite Peru's history when he came to power?

(Below) Two very different styles of masonry found at Machu Picchu: 1) megalithic (large, granite stones that are precisely cut and assembled without mortar, and 2) rough style of pirca masonry fashioned of smaller stones and clay mortar. Was this contrast intentionally created by the Inca? Or does it represent two periods of construction at Machu Picchu?

We halted around dusk in a narrow basin at the foot of the valley. Once again, our muleteers had tents pitched and water boiling for tea when we staggered into camp. As I settled in and organized my gear, I noticed one of the cooks building a fire in a stone-lined pit across the field. It was already blazing high when he called our team over to witness an ancient tradition in the Andes – pachamanca. Standing around the fire, we watched the cooks place the pig and potatoes into the coals, cover it in plastic tarp, and then pile rocks and dirt on top. A couple hours later, we returned to the spot, where the cooks uncovered our dinner. That night, we ate the Peruvian equivalent of a smoked hog – altogether, an exquisite spread whose preparation was made even more remarkable considering that our muleteers had packed all the ingredients in on horseback.

(Above) They say, "a picture tells a thousand words." True, and after a long day of trekking, a picture might be all you have energy for.

That night, I lay down under the Milky Way, which this far from the lights of civilization shone in its full glory. Gazing up at the sky, I felt like I was floating among the stars and celestial dust, rather than being attached to solid earth. This connection – a perceived linkage between earth and sky – was appreciated by the Incas and their ancestors, as well [1]. Numerous sites in Peru are built with geo-cosmic alignments – with streets, walls, doors, and windows oriented towards constellations, solstice and equinox sunrises and sunsets, and zeniths [2][3]. The architecture of these places suggest that the people of Peru have studied and worshipped the cosmos for ages – as ancient people did all around the world [4].

(Above and below) Sites like Machu Picchu contain numerous geocosmic alignments; windows, doors, and walls orient with the cardinal directions, solar events like solstices and equinoxes, constellations, mountains, and other sites.

The question is, why did they do this? Perhaps only to predict the weather or schedule plantings and harvests. Maybe rulers and their astronomer-priests wanted to understand celestial phenomena so they could perform exhibits that would impress their subjects. It’s often been suggested that they simply invented myths and rituals to understand their place in a universe that was beyond their ability to reason. In other words, since they didn’t know any better, they prescribed supernatural or otherwise superfluous meanings to the earth and sky. But then again, perhaps they had a deeper understanding of the relationship between the universe and soul, between celestial processes and their own physical existence, experiences, and thoughts in this life [5][6][7][8][9].

(Above and below) The motivations for architecture at sites like Machu Picchu are not understood today. Many theories have been offered, but none are conclusive. Pictured here is the Torreón, a shrine that appears to align with the June solstice sunrise and constellation of Pleidades; the structure's curved wall is similar to that of the Coricancha in Cusco.

While the science-based viewpoints of historians and archaeologists have their roles in understanding these beliefs and related archeological evidence, I think the mystics do, as well – astrologists, cosmologists, metaphysicists, and shamans. Science is invaluable to unraveling the mysteries of the past. But alone it may not be sufficient for grasping the deeper meaning of these places. To understand the connection between natural phenomena and ancient beliefs, along with the architecture it inspired, perhaps we too must adopt an investigative mindset that blends science and spirituality[10][11]12][13][14].

(Above) Sunrise announces the beginning of another glorious day in the Andes Mountains.

Dawn broke with sunshine and a heavy frost upon the ground. After coffee and another delicious breakfast, we set off for our next destination – the Sacred Valley. Descending to the bottom of the Chancachuco Valley, we entered a vale of dense vegetation and gurgling streams. It was like we’d stepped through a portal that instantly conveyed us from mountain to jungle. This contrast would certainly have been noted by ancient travelers, too, and perhaps it was even assigned its own function in ritual. Perhaps this leg of the trail symbolized descent from the upper world – or Hanan Pacha, which is governed by the condor and higher self – to the lower world – or Uqhu Pacha, where the serpent and subconscious reign supreme [2]? With this possibility in mind, I kept my eyes peeled for potential huacas, or sacred places, as I moved through this granite-lined labyrinth of trees, waterfalls, and caverns.

(Above) I'm pointing to a cave with a "light tube" in its ceiling (note the light shining inside the cave); Andean peoples often worshipped such natural features as "huacas" (wak'as), or sacred places. The light tubes may have marked celestial events like zeniths.

(Below) This mossy canyon was an unexpected and stark contrast from the high altitude grasslands that characterize the Chancachuco Valley. Entering into a world of shadow, I felt as if I had descended into the Uqhu Pacha (Underworld) of Andean mythology.

Our exit from the canyon was just as sudden, presenting us with another extreme juxtaposition of landscape. From the jungle, we emerged onto one end of a long, steeply-sided valley lined by jagged mountains. The ribbon of trail clung to the high-angle slope, continuing around a bend and out of sight.At this point, as we started down the zigzagging path, I was very glad I had brought trekking poles. Several days ago, I had been reluctant to use them. But going downhill is torture on the knees – much worse than going uphill, in my opinion – and I silently thanked my guide over and over for his gentle insistence back in Cusco that I at least bring them along.

(Above) Trying to look cool while catching my breath.

At mid-morning, we halted atop an outcrop with a splendid view of Mount Veronica (also called Huaca Huilca) and the Urubamba Range. Everywhere you look in Peru, there seems to be yet another, even more extraordinary sight than before. I reminded myself that I had only seen a sliver of this land, and that views like this might be found throughout the rest of the country – to say nothing of the continent and world! Ah, the traveler’s dilemma: so much to see and do, but never enough time or money.

(Above) The ribbon of trail clung to the high-angle slope, continuing around a bend and out of sight.

Taking up the trek once more, we stumbled upon another interesting juxtaposition, this time between old and new. A rubber hose lined the trail next to what appeared to be the foundation of an old stone wall. Our guide explained that both were aqueducts that carried water from the Chancachuco Valley to the comparably arid terraces of the Sacred Valley. The hose system was obviously more recent, but it followed an Inca system built 500 years earlier. An hour later and several thousand feet lower on the trail, I looked back up at this system and my respect for Inca engineering grew. Though the aqueduct extended for many miles across rocky terrain, it maintained a remarkably even grade. The angle was such that water flowed at just the right speed, never too fast or slow, never ceasing, never overflowing its edges.

(Above) The modern aqueduct follows the route of one built from stone during Inca times. In the photo, the line demonstrates the consistent grade maintained by Inca engineers as they charted the watercourse over difficult and uneven terrain.

Adjacent to the canal was a boulder-strewn outcrop. Something about it seized my attention. The longer I stared, the more I thought the outlines of the rocks resembled the shapes of the distant mountains. Were these replication stones? I had read that the Inca often carved boulders into such stones as shrines to the mountain apus, or spirit gods. One of the most famous replications stones lies at Machu Picchu. But these stones have been found other places, as well. During the rest of my trek, I kept my eyes open for such stones, and spotted many, taking pictures where I found them.

(Above) Are these simply natural stone features, or hand-carved replication stones?

(Below) Replication stones are found throughout the Andes, including famous sites like Machu Picchu. During my trek, I saw several stones that seemed to follow the contour of distant mountains.

Lunch was served on a flat, grassy hill that overlooked the Sacred Valley, which is cut by the Urubamba (Vilcanota) River. Across the river, situated at its convergence with a tributary stream, lay our destination: the town of Ollantaytambo. I’d been here a hundred times in books and on Google Earth. Now, I shook with excitement knowing the incredible site was just a day away. This was the fortress where in 1536 the last Inca king, Manco Inca, and his army briefly held out against the Spanish conquistadors before retreating to the last, hidden refuge in the Vilcabamba region. Ollantaytambo was a place of megalithic walls, gateways, and terraces – an ancient place rebuilt by the Incas – a place once as sacred as it is now mysterious.

(Above) Ollantaytambo awaits.

Hitting the trail again, we made for our campsite near Kachiqhata, the quarry for Ollantaymbo’s stones. We would visit this site after dinner. But first, our guide would take us to one of the most inspirational landmarks in all the Sacred Valley – the sun gate at Huayraqpunku (Gate of the Wind).

(Above) Huayraqpunku ("Wind Gate"), a ridge-top shrine that overlooks the Sacred Valley. Its double-jamb doorway frames Mt. Veronica to the north.

Huayraqpunku is the ruins of a shrine set atop a ridge overlooking the Sacred Valley. It is notably not only for its expansive view, but also because it contains a double-jamb doorway – a feature that distinguishes important Inca political and religious sites. Approaching up a stairway, one passes through the door into a small space enclosed by low walls. A few niches adorn the interior space, including one with holes bored through the rock, meaning it was perhaps used for securing ropes. Most fascinating about Huayraqpunku is that its doorway perfectly frames Mount Veronica, which can also be seen from Machu Picchu. Even more intriguing is that this sacred mountain lies precisely north of Huayraqpunku! Yet another example of the geocosmic alignments woven into the architecture of the Inca (and many other ancient civilizations) [2].

After arriving at our campsite, where we deposited the majority of our gear and refilled water bottles, we headed for Kachiqhata. According to archaeologists, this talus field below Cerro Yanaorco is the source of stones at Ollantaytambo. The methods by which these blocks were hewn, shaped, and hauled across the river to the ancient city are not known, but several theories have been offered up.

(Above) Ruins of Cachicata, a granite quarry where stones for Ollantaytambo are believed to have been sourced.

(Below) View from Cachicata to Ollantaytambo. Stones of 20 to 50 tons would have been split and roughly shaped at the quarry, then dragged or pushed across the Urubamba River to the city. No Spaniards actually saw this process demonstrated, but Inca chroniclers informed them the work was accomplished using thousands of laborers.

Near the quarry we discovered a cave with human skeletons. Our guide explained that these may have been quarry workers. In any case, locals regard such places today as the sacred burial sites of their ancestors, and following the lead of our guide, we respectfully offered coca leaves as tribute.

(Above) View from my campsite, looking towards Ollantaytambo.

As the shadows lengthened, we returned to our campsite for another delicious meal and some well-deserved rest. Every day of this trek seemed more amazing than the one before. Today I had been treated to breathtaking views of mountains, lush thickets, and a hallowed valley. I had examined ruins of farms, shrines, aqueducts, ancient quarries, and burial chambers. Tonight, I slept at the foot of Mount Veronica and under the Milky Way. And tomorrow, I would enter the great city of Ollantaytambo – the city of the watchtower – and one of the most important archaeological sites in all of Peru.

Further Reading

[1] Gullberg, S. R., Ph.D. (n.d.). Inca Solar Orientations in Southeastern Peru. Retrieved from Incas worshipped their ruler (sapa Inca) as the “son of the sun.” Their ceremonies and architecture centered upon the cosmos and celestial phenomena such as zeniths, anti-zeniths, solstices, constellations (Pleiades), which they measured with stone towers, pillars (intihuatanas), and geocosmic alignments of cities, buildings, and even doorways.

[2] Ziegler, G. R., & Malville, J. M. (2013). Machu Picchus sacred sisters: Choquequirao and Llactapata astronomy, symbolism, and sacred geography in the Inca heartland. Boulder, CO: Johnson Books. Based upon their abundance of replication shrines and solar alignments, important Inca sites like Machu Picchu, Choquequirao, and Llactapata seem to have been constructed and used primarily for mountain and sun worship, and including features like intihuatanas, stairs, labyrinths, caves, shrines, and ceremonial platforms to observe and worship the cosmos (46). These sites include doorways, windows, and corridors aligned with the June and December solstices (72). “Shamanic transcendence through the three planes of the cosmos was a continuing theme in Andean cosmology (56). [Author’s note: intihuatanas, or “hitching posts of the sun,” may have represented an anchor by which to draw the sun back after its northward journey following the December solstice.]

[3] Urton, G. (1978). Orientation in Quechua and Incaic Astronomy. Ethnology, 17(2), 157. doi:10.2307/3773141. Andean religion included significant study and worship of the constellations, which aided understanding of spirituality, seasons, and agricultural cycles. Furthermore, in 1571, Polo de Ondegardo observed, “[The Incas] believed that all the animals and birds on the earth has their likeness in the sky in whose responsibility was their procreation and augmentation” – an observation that highlights the Andean peoples' understanding of the earth as a microcosm of the universe.

[4] Crystal Links. (n.d.). Astronomical Observatories. Retrieved from Discussion of ancient sites that align with “events like the seasons, lunar phases, solar phases and so on. As mankind has always been fascinated by the heavens, their mythologies reflecting many of these monuments connected to the Gods and Goddesses their civilization worshipped." Highlights the summer solstice sunrise as a moment of "peak power": observatories "became temples for meditation, a place to talk to their Gods, or to move through 'interdimensional doorways.’”

[5] Holloway, A. (2014, March 20). How Ancient People Marked the Equinox Around the World. Retrieved from “For thousands of years, the spring equinox has long been celebrated as a time of rebirth and abundance by many countries and cultures around the world.” Ritual and architectural celebration of these events is found today at many ancient sites, including Stonehenge, Angkor Wat, as well as sites in Ireland, Mexico, and Malta.

[6] Highestquest. (2011, December 19). Spirituality behind the Winter Solstice. Retrieved from Overview of universal esoteric teachings, including relationships of solstices and equinoxes to man's consciousness and spiritual evolution, association of religious and mythological characters and dates with celestial phenomena, and widespread nature of cosmic worship in ancient religions.

[7] Tellez, N. (n.d.). MythBlast | The Transparency of the New Year. Retrieved from “From time immemorial, in the highlands of Mesoamerica, the spectacle of the winter solstice has offered precisely such a point of spiritual concentration and reflection on time.” The annual path of the sun “`symbolizes the cycle of human life,’” as well as death and rebirth.

[8] Ward, G. (2018, March 01). The spiral: The eternal sign of the creative and organising principle at work in the universe. Retrieved from “The spiral is the age-old intuitive symbol of spiritual development and our identity with the universe. It is found in cultures the world over and reflected in shamanism, serpent cults, dragon lore, geomancy, magic, mysticism and ritual art and dance throughout history.” The spiral is found throughout nature as a “favored form for the transmission of its energy,” and has since ancient times symbolized the path to God and was, therefore, replicated in the architecture of ancient sites.

[9]Woolfe, S. (2018, October 30). Why Do Spirals Exist Everywhere in Nature? Retrieved from “[B]ecause of their prevalence in nature, and because of the sacred quality that humans attribute to nature, spirals have been used in a range of religious and sacred architecture.”

[10] Ahmad, F. (2018, June 21). Ancient Sun Worship. Retrieved from “Even traditional faiths and mythology seem to point to the worship of a single deity in their origins... The sun has been given an extraordinary position in early human culture, possibly as social leaders used their knowledge of seasons to maintain their own power and status through the ignorance of the masses.”

[11] Bucke, R. M. (1995). Cosmic consciousness: Classic investigation of the development of man’s mystic relation to the infinite. Penguin.

[12] Gardiner, K. (2018, June 20). 8 Architectural Marvels Inspired by the Summer Solstice. Retrieved from

[13] NASA. (n.d.). Traditions of the Sun: Ancient Astronomy. Retrieved from Explores the tradition of sun observation and worship at ancient sites around the world. “The builders of Angkor Wat were not interested in creating a temple merely to honor their deities. They created in its very structure and orientation, a reminder of the greater cosmic order, reflected in both the passage of time, and in the changing rays of the sun at propitious times of the year.”

[14] National Geographic Society. (2012, October 09). Solstice: Midsummer, Midwinter. Retrieved from Discussion of the science and cultural traditions of the solstices.

Originally published 1/21/2019 here. ©Beyond the Range. All rights reserved. Feel free to republish so long as credit is given.

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