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Pisac: A Walk in the Dark (Peru, September 18-19, 2010)

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Our last weekend in Cuzco we took a bus to Pisac, a town in the Sacred Valley of the Incas famed for its Sunday market. We had seen the town a week earlier from a very different vantage point, looking down across the river while trekking on the way to Huchuy Cusquo. The plan was simple: bus the hour or so from Cuzco to Pisac, drop our bags at a hotel, and take a taxi to the top of the ruins for a leisurely walk down.

It didn't quite work out that way. Even though we'd been in the highlands for weeks, the rickety-swerving bus managed to make us motion sick, and by the time we'd rested, eaten and managed to find Hospidaje Kinsa Ccocha, it was getting towards late afternoon. Negotiations with a taxi took a bit more time, as did buying our ticket, and we reached the summit with only a few hours of light left.

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A few hours later, we were making our way down in the dark.

We haven't blogged much about our various visits to Incan ruins. Built primarily with corvée labour, these enormous constructions of stone are all that remain of the great Incan cities after centuries of Spanish conquest, extensive robbery of antiquities and the unrelenting passage of time. While neither as spectacular in architecture as Huchuy Cusquo, nor as famous as Macchu Pichu, the ruins of the Incan citadel are well worth the hike downhill.

Pisac: a walk through dark places

We didn't bother with a formal guide, instead relying on our trusty Lonely Planet. This sufficed to provide the historical background of the major sites, including the intihuantana, or hitching post of the sun. It was no help whatsoever in getting down the mountain, which quickly became problematic as darkness set in. The path markings point to things you might want to see, but few say "This way down." Nor is there a single track: little pathways scurry up to scenic vistas or down into stone forts, and dead ends abound.

Fortunately we ran into Alphonso, a nine-year old boy selling woven hats of dyed alpaca wool. He took pity on the last two gringos stumbling down the mountain, and accompanied us until he could finally say, "Just go straight" before putting our dilatory stroll to shame by running down the mountain ahead of us. Ah, to be young, brave, and utterly unworried about falling into a gorge and breaking your leg. (Many of the drops, guarded by either a rickety rail of sticks or no rail at all, struck me with unexpected vertigo.) We didn't buy one of his hats, but did give him a good tip before he left.

By the time we made it to the bottom, the sun had truly set and we were navigating by the last vestiges of twilight. Finally we reached the stone steps leading down into Pisac itself, and rewarded ourselves with a dinner at the Blue Llama. (If you enjoy dessert, this is the place to go.)

After a reasonable night's rest, I arose Sunday with a mission: finish my Christmas shopping in the market. As in Otavalo, the market focuses on traditional handicraft. Local families come down from the mountains to sell their wares, although several antique merchants also display manufactured crafts from more recent decades past. Out of curiousity, I priced an old "shake it like a" Poloroid camera from the 1960s. The merchant wanted $35 for it, but the same item sells on eBay for about $6 plus shipping.

The handicrafts are much better deals. Anything that can be created from alpaca can be bought, including a traditional woolen devil mask, perhaps useful for skiing, that I picked up for a young cousin. Countless vendors sell silver jewelry and polished semi-precious stones. For those with adventurous stomachs, all sorts of street food can be had for a song. Unfortunately, the traditional long, striped trousers worn by many of the locals were out of the question for me: they don't make them for legs my size. But in the end the afternoon was a success, inasmuch as I've never knocked out all of my Christmas shopping so quickly.

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The market, from a restaurant balcony

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Beautiful rendering on that first screenshot! Is that the Crysis engine? ;-)

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