An Inca Village
On our way to Cusco, Peru, in the high Andes our tour group first visited some of the Inca ruins which abound in the surrounding area. As we passed by the stone archways into the village of Ollantaytambo I felt as if I had just stepped back in time. This is oldest town built by the Incas that is still inhabited and to my eyes not much has changed in the last 500 years. The stones in the buildings are cut to fit tightly together and the walls lean at an angle to prevent damage from earthquakes. A small stream of water runs in a canal down each street, no longer potable; the water speaks of an age when the Incas were master architects.
We were followed down the narrow streets of the town by children hawking woven articles. They and their mothers were dressed in gaily colored costumes from another century and they posed for pictures with their hands outstretched for the expected tip. As they sat or walked many of the women were spinning yarn on hand spinners or making belts on hand looms.
Our tour group of 20 invaded one of the many courtyards which branched off the cobbled streets. In one corner a man sat at a loom weaving a tapestry. Like most mountain people he was short with strong looking legs and a large chest capable of getting the most oxygen out of the thin air. He is evolution's solution to living on steep mountains above 9000 feet. He doesn't bother to look up at us.
The fifty foot square yard was surrounded by living quarters, large rooms really, in which extended families live. We accepted an invitation to come into one and found ourselves in a large, semi-dark room with a 16 foot ceiling made of rushes and branches with the sun peeping through. Our guide explained that even in the rainy season the water never reaches the floor.
It was difficult to avoid stepping on the multi colored guinea pigs massed on the floor. There is no refrigeration of food so they were awaiting their turn to be served as dinner some day in the near future. A niche in the wall held the family worship center with flowers, a candle, a small doll and most strikingly, grampa's skull. He is staring blank eyed at what is happening to his posterity.
Back on the street we saw that it was a poor day for business; there were more Incas selling things than there were buyers. There were many persistent children. I asked how big the families were. Our guide said that in this area they are moderately sized since the women have good control over their fertility. He explains that Inca women have a plant they use which works as birth control. They start taking it when they have as many children as they want and if they take it long enough they become permanently infertile.
For over 3,000 years Peruvians have been making pottery, weaving cloth, building large edifices and conquering territory. There has been an interesting ebb and flow of states, small nations being combined into big ones which fall apart into small nations which again combine under strong leadership into a large nation. This civilization reached a peak under the Incas who conquered territory that included over a third of South America and rivaled in size the largest kingdoms that have ever existed in any part of the world.
Unlike the Spanish who conquered them in 1532 the Inca respected the religion of the conquered people and conquered by many means. Sword and shield was the last step. Much of the building we saw was done as a form of taxation in which conquered people were required to perform two months work constructing roads, public buildings and storehouses for food.
Problems at 10,000 feet
We were at 9000 feet headed for 11,500 in Cusco. At this altitude a number of us were showing signs of altitude sickness; headache, tiredness, insomnia and loss of appetite. Having a head cold didn't help. The Incas when tired and hungry chew coca leaves, from which cocaine is made. It was recommended that we drink coca tea to help adjust to the altitude and most people found it helped them. I found I had to take a Diamox.
Even at 11,000 feet the crops growing on the Inca built terraces looked green and hearty. The Incas experimented with a wide varieties of different crops to find the ones that were best for each altitude. For example, they had two hundred different kinds of potatoes.
In the Cusco region there are two seasons, rainy and dry. September to April is rainy the other season has frost so there is only one harvest a year. Because of the altitude the farmers must depend totally on rain and because they can not use irrigation as they can do in much of the country. Slopes are difficult to work. They have few animals, machines can work the steep mountain sides so labor is mostly human as they are using techniques developed by the Incas. For them soil and water was more important than gold and silver.
They can predict the amount of rain they will get in season by watching such signs as the nesting patterns of local birds. They then set up their terraces accordingly to control for erosion and the amount of water they direct to an area. To avoid drought and frost problems they used only resident plants and plant different varieties of some plants. No chemicals or pesticides are used on their crops and they begin plantings at different times. They learned to dry potatoes by leaving them in the ground while it alternately froze and thawed.