Pisac is just 32 kilometres from Cusco, so is easily and cheaply accessible by public bus (from Calle Tullumayo) or 12-seater people carrier (from Calle Puputi). The 45-minute drive is, in itself, stunning, providing panoramic views over Cusco city as you leave, and equally dramatic views as you near Pisac and descend the 600 metres into the Sacred Valley of the Incas.
The village sits alongside the Urubamba River, dwarfed by the spectacular Peruvian Andes that rise up on either side of the valley and nestled beneath the narrow rows of terraces that spill down the steep-sided mountains from the ancient Inca citadel above. It has been suggested that these terraces symbolise the wing of a partridge – p’isaqa in the native Quechua language – hence the name of the village. Apparently, partridges can often be sighted in the local area in the evenings, and the Inca had a tradition of designing their settlements in the shapes of sacred birds and animals.
The Inca settlement at Pisac was destroyed by the Spanish explorer Francisco Pizarro and his conquistadores in the early 1530s. It was Spanish colonial policy to force the native people to live in villages, the better to control them, so the modern town of Pisac was founded in the valley below the ruins by Viceroy Toledo in the 1570s.
Like all Peruvian villages, the town radiates out from a central plaza, this one dominated by a huge spreading pisonay (erythrina falcate) tree. The pisonay is a variety of legume – in fact, one of the largest legumes in the Peruvian Andes, it has bright red tubular flowers that are pollinated by humming birds, and it was considered sacred by the Incas. Pisac’s giant pisonay may be as much as 500 years old.
As well as its Inca ruins, Pisac is world famous for its traditional market, and it’s often difficult to see that huge tree for all the plastic-shrouded stalls that fill the plaza. The largest market is on Sundays, when the local women fill the plaza to sell their home-grown fruit and vegetables, meat and herbs, groceries and clothing.
But, during the peak tourist months from May to September, large tourist markets are also held on Tuesdays and Thursdays and smaller ones are held every day, flowing out along the streets that surround the plaza. The selection of goods available for sale is almost overwhelming. The list of arts and crafts and souvenirs includes but is certainly not limited to: local semi-precious stones (“Serpentine is the stone of Machu Picchu”, the salesperson will tell you); silver jewellery and trinkets (many of them inset with those same semi-precious stones); super soft and very warm alpaca knitwear and wool, if you want to make your own sweater; hats of all shapes, sizes, fabrics and designs, from intricately patterned chullos (the hat with the flaps) to leather sombreros; llama-wool rugs patterned with traditional Inca symbols; handmade fabrics coloured with natural dyes; elaborately carved gourds; as well as the usual range of tourist t-shirts and caps.
But you can’t just go to Pisac for the retail therapy, excellent though that is. The town is also an epicurean’s delight. There is a traditional bakery, with a huge adobe oven, in a street off the main square. It provides a communal cooking facility for those locals who don’t have an oven – they deliver their uncooked food and pay a few soles to have it baked. Take the chance to sample a delicious empanada, hot from the oven but the squeamish among you be warned – this is also the place to see whole cooked guinea pig fresh from the oven. Bizarrely, in one corner of the bakery courtyard, there is a multi-storeyed house for live guinea pigs – so you can see them dead and alive with a simple turn of the head.
As well as those fresh empanadas, Pisac boasts a multitude of great eateries, from traditional local restaurants to those run by some of the foreigners who have made Pisac their home. You can easily sample indigenous dishes or satisfy your cravings for a homemade brownie or apple pie and ice cream.
And you really must go for a wander around the town. Your explorations will be rewarded with photographs of the fascinating sculptural reliefs on the fronts of the buildings; ornately carved wooden doors and windows; a small botanical garden; an interesting cemetery; and intriguing bulls on rooftops.
Despite the daily influx of hundreds of tourists, disgorged from their air-conditioned coaches during their whirlwind tours of the Sacred Valley, the town retains a traditional feel. Women dress in their vibrant native costumes, and not just for the few soles tourists pay to photograph them.
At one end of the town, there’s a small colonial church, where Sunday morning Mass is presented in Quechua, and traditionally dressed men process in and out of the church before and after the service. You may even be lucky enough to visit Pisac during its annual celebration of the Virgen del Carmen from 15 to 18 July. It’s a noisy and colourful time, with processions of saints’ statues, musicians and dancers performing in the streets, loud firecracker explosions and much feasting and drinking.
A walk outside the town will give you a glimpse of local farming methods – depending on the time of year that you visit, you might see bulls being used to plough the fields, or men hoeing their small plots; the gorgeous yellows, oranges and reds of quinoa – the new super food – ripening in the paddocks; irrigation channels dating back to Inca times, as well as fabulous views among the Sacred Valley in the direction of Machu Picchu.
Have I enticed you to pay a visit to this enchanting Andean township? Make sure you include a trip to Pisac on your Tour to Peru