Pisac (sometimes spelled P'isaq) is the name of both a modern market town and a ruin in Peru, just outside Cuzco. Although it is not as impressive as Machu Picchu, it is the remains of a great Inca city, and is more easily accessible and less visited.
Pisac is located on the long crest of a 3000-metre mountain overlooking the southern end of the Urubamba Valley, known in tourist literature as the Sacred Valley or the Sacred Valley of the Incas. The visitor should be aware that the 'Sacred Valley Tours' run from Cuzco by numerous travel agencies visit only the tourist market in the modern town of Pisac several hundred metres lower, and do not include the ruins.
Pisac is best visited before seeing Machu Picchu, as this enables it to be appreciated in its own right and not compared to the more splendid and famous city. It is easily accessible from Cuzco, either by bus (on market-days only - Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday) or by taxi. Naturally, the taxi ride is more expensive, but gives the reward of seeing the ruins in comparative peace.
If arriving in the modern town of Pisac, the visitor faces a stiff but rewarding climb to reach the ruins. Taxis or private vehicles can reach the site car-park by the more circuitous road route.
Water is intermittently available from local children who clamber up the mountainside. Visitors who are offended by the high prices asked for this public service may be politely reminded that the going rate includes transportation by foot. Those who wish to save themselves a few soles1 can make the hour-long climb to the nearest shop.
Seasoned travellers will not be surprised to find that plenty of local men are prepared to hire themselves out as guides. Although any form of guidance is likely to enhance a visit, particularly since coverage of this site in guidebooks is virtually non-existent, there is a huge amount of variation in the quality of guides both in terms of spoken English and knowledge of the archaeology.
Visitors should be aware that visiting any Inca site can be a physical activity. Even if you opt not to make the climb to the ruins by foot, you face some tough walking along the mountain within the ruins, with uneven footing, steep ascents and descents and vertiginous drops next to narrow paths. At one point, the path traverses a tunnel that is a squeeze and will require backpacks to be removed, though this route can be avoided.
The name derives from pisaca, meaning partridge, and the city appears to have been laid out to resemble a bird, with the terraced fields forming the wings. There is a clear comparison with Cuzco, which took the form of a jaguar.
The city is largely linear, following the crest of the mountain, and is divided into zones. Several of these zones are agricultural, with the distinctive Inca terraces, and others are residential. Most notable are the military zones and the temple zone. Zones can be distinguished by the different styles of stonework used, with rough stonework being used for most purposes. Military and upper-class areas use the famous interlocked stones, with large and small blocks fitted perfectly together. The best quality stonework is reserved for the temples, and consists of uniform blocks.
As with many Inca sites, the layout of the terrain seems to be both a practical and a spiritual part of the city. In one place, a natural cleft in the rock has been utilised as a tunnel on a path through the city. The temple zone is built both into and around some natural rock formations that seem to have been of spiritual significance to the Inca. The Sun-temple can be easily recognised by its curved outer wall. There is also an intihuatana or 'hitching-post of the Sun'. This protrusion of rock was ceremonially used on midwinter's day to 'bind' the Sun and prevent it from sinking any lower in the sky.
There is a slightly separated cemetery located in a cliff opposite the car-park. The Inca burial custom was to hollow out a hole in the mountain-side for use as a grave. There are many thousands of holes in this region, not all visible from the ruins and none easily or safely accessible.
From the temple area, there are fantastic views over the flat-bottomed Urubamba Valley and the modern town.
The history of Pisac is not known in great detail. Its date of foundation is not clear, but it does not appear to have been inhabited by any pre-Inca civilisation, which would put its date of foundation at no earlier than 1440. Like the Inca Empire as a whole, it was dismantled by Pizarro and the Conquistadores in the early 1530s. Unlike at Ollantaytambo at the other end of the valley, no major battles were fought here. The modern town was built on the valley floor by Viceroy Toledo during the 1570s.
Other Sites in the Urubamba Valley
The Urubamba Valley was a site of major importance to the Inca, being close to their capital at Cusco. The Inca believed that many rocks and locations were sacred to gods or earth spirits. Although there are several such locations close to the Urubamba River, there is no sign that the Urubamba Valley was regarded as sacred in itself by the Inca; nevertheless, the name 'Sacred Valley' has stuck, and tour agencies in Cusco almost universally describe it as such.
Several important or notable Inca sites survive in the valley. As previously indicated, many tour agencies in Cusco run one-day tours of these sites. Virtually all these tours have very similar itineraries. Public transport in the valley is good by Peruvian standards, and it is possible to visit all these sites independently. However, it would be difficult to do so in a single day by public transport, and the cost saving compared to a tour would be minimal.
At the far end of the valley from Pisac is Ollantayambo. This huge set of terraces is topped by a structure featuring some of the largest stone blocks in any Inca architecture. The Spanish described Ollantaytambo as a fortress, and they were probably not entirely wrong - but it was characteristic of the Inca to use a structure for several purposes, so this site may have been built as a temple as well as a fortress to defend against attacks from the jungle.
At the foot of the imposing hillside walls lies the modern town, still laid out in part following the plan of the Inca town, with tightly-packed houses, narrow streets and defensive walls. A hillside opposite appears to show a bearded face, identified with the Inca god Viracocha and topped with a crown-like turret.
Ollantaytambo is best remembered by the Peruvians as the only place where the Inca defeated the conquistadores2 in battle. The Inca leader, Manco Inca, is said to have flooded the valley below the fortress, causing much trouble to the mounted Spaniards. Although the Spanish were driven back to Cusco, the Inca retreated to Vilcabamba, his hidden jungle fortress.
Chincherro is a picturesque modern village, which like Pisac is known for its tourist markets. Unlike Pisac, it is built on the remains of an Inca temple, whose huge walls now line the market square.
Many sites feature the Inca system of terraces, which allowed steep hillsides to be transformed into flat, arable land, while simultaneously offering good defensive protection. Moray features a unique variation, with three circular terraces (one of which has been restored), sunk into the ground like amphitheatres. It is believed that the Inca used these terraces for experimentation, crop breeding and acclimatisation, as each has its own microclimate. This site does not feature on the standard tours. It is most easily accessible by taxi, and is rarely busy.
A series of square pans, formed from low stone walls, were used to collect salt, and are still visible. These probably pre-date the Inca, and, like Moray, are accessible from the modern town of Maras.
Although perhaps not as impressive as the ruins at Machu Picchu or Cusco, and not granted World Heritage Site status, the Inca ruins of the Urubamba Valley are each unique monuments to a distinctive stone-age culture. Visiting some or all of them can give a depth of insight into Inca culture that the better-known sites do not.