Once away from the city eastern and central Peru are a series of mountains and valleys. One thing to learn quickly is that the elevation drives everything. The higher you are the less oxygen and the more difficult it is to move about. Many people (visitors, tourists) feel the difference at five or six thousand feet. In Lima you could be anywhere from sea level to 5000′ feet (1525 meters). In Cusco you are at an elevation of 10,800 feet (3300m). You may wander the historic site of Ollantaytambo at 9,150 feet (2790m) or take the train to Machu Picchu at 8040′ (2450m). Of course these locations are in the mountains and elevation will change with every footstep. Many resources list Cusco as 11,152 for instance. In any case you will likely be above 8,000′ on any visit to Peru and 8,000′ is usually considered to be the threshold for altitude sickness. There are a couple things that can happen; you can pant and be short of breath and most everyone is for a while or you can get real altitude sickness and suffer a lot of achy and gut-wrenching symptoms which most people don’t. Thankfully.
There are many Inca ruins around the countryside; some reclaimed and restored others left as they are buried under the vegetation of the last few centuries. Many of these sites are open for visitation and certainly almost all are rather vertical in nature. Ollantaytambo is a site in southern Peru about forty miles from Cusco. It was a ceremonial center of some sort and has a rather well known history. It was taken by an Inca named Pachacuti in the mid-1400’s from another local group and then terraced and rebuilt as a place for both farmers and Inca nobility. When the Spanish arrived a man named Manco Inca fortified the city and resisted the Spanish for a while. He left (abandoned) the area for a better spot (so he thought) in the the late 1530’s. But by 1540 the people had been “assigned” to Hernando Pizzaro. The ruins here are climbable and serve as an introduction site for many visitors. There is a nice mix of stone work at Ollantaytambo. There is precise work done with expertise over a period of peace and the more hasty work done when situations demanded the task be moved along quickly. Money or the lack of, the availability of food stuffs, the weather and especially war limited the time that could be spent on any aspect of a project.
In the image above, on the right side middle and just above the center and a touch to the left, there are what appears to be an apartment houses or condominiums. In Inca times these facilities were used to store grains. Food was the most worrisome aspect of living in the mountains and storing food was essential. The facility carved into the rock in the above photo is a grain storage building. There are many of these facilities throughout the mountains.,
The rivers that fall from the glaciated mountains are colored a milky-gray with glacial flour. This is the very fine sediment carried downstream that was formed as the glaciers (weighing billions of tons) skidded and ground over the rocky mountainsides grinding the stone to dust. The rivers flow way too fast for these sediments to settle out. Some of the sediments are carried down the west side to the Pacific Ocean but a great deal falls, via the Urubamba River, to the east (and north initially) eventually into the Ucayali and Maranon and eventually into the greatest river of them all, the Amazon. Peru has thousands of square miles in the low Amazon Basin. Look at a map for the city of Iquitos. This is a Peruvian city of the Amazon. Airplane and boat are the only ways into Iquitos. This humid city of the river has over 450,000 inhabitants and is a mere 350′ above sea level. The Amazon flows from Iquitos across Brazil, eventually, to the Atlantic.
As one leaves Cusco heading toward the Sacred Valley it becomes apparent that in today’s climatic period there is little snow and ice here. The valleys are glacial in origin but there is no snow here below 16,000′. Glaciers and snow fields are common in the higher Andes but snow is very uncommon below three miles in elevation. Of course the equator traverses the warmest part of the planet and the elevation needed to thin out and cool equatorial air is significant. Thus the great expanses of glacier-formed valleys are and were farmable for today’s people and the Inca as well.
Humans are an adaptable animal. We humans have a range of genetic variations that allow us to persist in a variety of habitats. The people of the Peruvian mountains are hardy and easily able to pull oxygen from the thin air of the mountains; they are a successful agrarian people. However, as seen below, the adaptability has been useful in gathering cash and other commodities in ways other than farming . The tourism trade has opened the door for a wide range of local enterprises. Selling trinkets, posing for photos, opening the houses to visitors, shaman presentations, and various farm trade demonstrations all provide a look at the modern (and perhaps ancient) mountain people.
The shaman shown below performed a ceremony for good environmental conditions. He sent a variety of organic items into the atmosphere in a manner that might provide health and stability to the lands and people of the area.
The woman above is a spinner and weaver. She showed a variety of dyes and fibers that are used to create the population-specific clothing and colors of the people. She showed the color from the cochineal beetle (below) as well as the plant dyes garnered from the local hillsides and meadows.
The bird below is the size of a robin. It is the largest hummingbird in the world and appropriately named Giant Hummingbird. Peru has about 120 species of hummingbird (hermits, mangos, hillstars, plumeteers, jewelfronts, violet ears, emeralds, sapphires, coquettes, brilliants, sunbeams, starfrontlets, sun angels, train bearers, metaltails, and so on and on). They are mostly tiny, fast, green, and very hard to get a good look at. Most are birds of high elevation and put up with rather cool nights. Hummingbirds can go into a nocturnal torpor and drop their body temperature from about 103 degrees to somewhere in the sixties. This allows a small bird in a cold place to make it through the night without having to reload the furnaces that keep it warm.