By the time we finished Machu Picchu it felt like a full vacation. Sitting on the train to the Sacred Valley, to be honest I felt a bit deflated. We all felt badly leaving Edgard behind. It just didn’t feel right being on that train without him! How would any other guide fill his shoes? And what would we do without him? Those things ran through my head and popped out in discussions well into the next few days. The train ride was beautiful and so relaxing, but it was hard to imagine enjoying the next 10+ days. That said, we had a great few days in the Sacred Valley and then back in Cuzco. We quickly learned that each guide would bring his own personality, and his own quirks with them, and that Peru has so much to offer that 10 days would only scratch the surface of things to do! Manuel, our guide for the Sacred Valley and Cuzco area was fond of adding the word “no,” as a question, to the end of almost all sentences (“this is an original Inca structure, no?”), a tendency that we all found funny at first, confusing at times (“This is a puma, no?” Wait, is it? You don’t know?) and infinitely annoying after a few days (“You want a local restaurant, no?” Yes! We’ve said it over and over!). He also liked to use word enigma, something that did not always work. According to Manuel, there were a lot of enigmas in what the Inca did! Stones were an enigma, some Inca architecture was enigma, river sources were enigmas… Hmm, puzzling, no? None the less, Manuel saved our butts upon arrival in Sacred Valley, and worked hard to show us every amazing thing to see.
After a glitch, wherein our driver and guide were not at the train when we arrived, we ended up hiring a cabdriver who totally ripped us off. When other cab drivers are yelling “Ladron!” (Thief!) at your driver, you’ve clearly been taken. Smart Guy is smart about a lot of things but bargaining and negotiating should remain in my hands, lesson learned. To add salt to the wound, this same taxi driver dropped us off at the wrong remote hotel, out in the middle of the valley, which was also the most expensive hotel imaginable. When we all walked in dusty, dirty and sweaty, wearing our trekking clothes, I could practically hear all of the other guests mutter pee you! I did say, upon pulling up in front of the place that it didn’t look like the reasonably priced place we’d booked, but again, Smart Guy is smart in some things… So, this
jerk taxi driver left us there, and we would have had to pay for another taxi to go back out and find the right place (because at $700 PLUS a night, we were not staying), but magically our Cuzco/Sacred Valley guide, Manuel materialized in the lobby, as he dropped off much wealthier Japanese clients who were in fact staying there… and who were not sweaty and dirty.
Phew. Before we knew it, Manuel had our things loaded back in our van and our driver (who had the wrong train times and was leaving to get us right then!) deposited us, even more sweaty, tired and hungry, at the hotel we’d actually booked… which proved to be just perfect! We swore that for 3 days we were the only guests at that hotel, but they insisted there were others. We never saw them, an had the incredible dining room to ourselves, and one silly kitten, for every dinner and breakfast. A true oasis, with a small stream through the courtyard, canopied lounge chairs (that we never used) and rooms that were just fantastic, made it a real sanctuary.
We spent our time in the Sacred Valley seeing all of the sites that people come to see. We walked up and down a lot of very old stairs, all made of stone and all challenging. We loved the scenery, were lucky to meet some of the people, and eventually got to eat true, authentic Peruvian cuisine, versus the tourist version that is so often offered up to… well tourists. I was especially struck by the other worldly feel to every site we visited. The sense that very ancient people once walked where we walked, or lived in the ruins we explored, built cities and civilizations that have come and gone… the history and mystery of it all permeates everything. It is humbling to stand in the “ruins” of such greatness and wonder who will stand there another 400 years from now.
While Smart Guy and Middle Man did a high country mountain biking trip, Little Man, Principessa and I took the easy way out and went by van, to the same places. What we all agreed on at the end of the day was that the countryside in the Sacred Valley was spectacularly beautiful. Mountains all around, golden fields of wheat, Quechuan farmers herding their livestock along the roads, and countless ruins to explore. We drove up from the valley to high country, where the air became a bit thinner again and the landscape moved and breathed with the wind. Quechua farmers herded their livestock along the dusty roads and through the towns, while our van inched past them. (Views from the car)
As we passed through a small village, two upset looking women, with a young child, flagged us down. Our guide Manuel rolled down his window, exchanged a few words and then shook his head, said a little more and we drove away. What did that woman say to you, I asked, uncomfortable with the disappointment on the woman’s face. “She wanted to know if we could drive them to her daughter’s school.” Aren’t they going our way? “Yes Senora, but I told them this is a private van, no?” What! Stop the van! Tell him (driver) to stop the van! We need to go back and give them a ride. I was stunned that we had driven away, leaving them like that. Manuel turned around, “Are you sure you don’t mind?” Of course not! We have 5 empty seats in this van, let’s give them a ride! We stopped and our driver put the car in reverse. Manuel yelled to the women, “Senoras, vamos!” When they ran up to our van, out of breath and looking desperate, Manuel spoke quickly and pointed at me. I could understand enough Spanish to know that he’d told the women that I wanted to give them a ride. They were taking one of the women’s little girl (6) to school, while both women were trying to get to their jobs. “Gracias, muchos gracias,” they both said gratefully. De nada senoras. La escuela is mucho importante por todos los ninos. (Your welcome, school is very important for all children!) My spanish was terrible, but I managed to communicate wherever we went.
The women turned around in their seats and smiled. They explained that the girl was late for school and each would lose their jobs, if they were too late; however, getting transportation is very challenging. I imagined we’d drive a little ways up the road and they’d get out. No. We drove about 10 or more miles before we arrived at the long drive to the school and job. These women, had gotten out of one public transit and would have then walked this same 10+ miles!! I was astounded. The little girl was quiet and shy, clearly intimidated by foreigners. She had long braids, as is common in Quechuan women and girls and smiled and said “gracias” when her mother told her too. Su hermana es muy bonita, senora (your daughter is very pretty Mam), I told the women. She took my hand and smiled. “Ah! Me gusto los ojos de su hermana!” (Ah, but I like your daughter’s eyes) She told me. Principessa, who speaks Spanish pretty well carried on a conversation about our travels and they told her simple things about themselves. I told them that I would be tutoring reading with Spanish speaking children at home in the US, when we returned home. They found this very exciting and clearly surprising. The mother told me about what her daughter was learning in school. When we arrived at the spot where they got out, they told us again how incredibly grateful they were but we were the ones who felt grateful. I felt touched to have gotten to share a few moments with another mother, that was not staged or part of tour, and to help her get her child to school. It stayed with me all day. We also stopped for a young boy (9) on his way to his job at a farm. It was these moments that were the true highlights of the day.
That said, the Inca ruins along the way were pretty amazing as well. Our first stop, the Moray, is an incredible series of spiraled terraces that the Inca brilliantly used as a scientific study of agriculture. Each terrace, as they spiral down, has its own climate and growing conditions, growing warmer the further down one goes. The Incas used the Moray to study how to grow various crops, and what conditions were needed. That knowledge enabled them to plant their crops accordingly at the various sites where they built fortes and complexes, including Machu Picchu. The terraces served to both stabilize land that longs to slide, as well as provides micro-climates where certain produce would grow
more optimally. The walk down was long and hot, and we were all struck by how much the temperatures did in fact vary as we walked into the spirals. My knee still hurting, I stayed on the top levels. The steps, that had been built into the walls, with a single large stone suspended from the walls, were unnerving in their simplistic precariousness. Yet, they have remained anchored to the same spots for hundreds of years, thousands in some cases. We watched as some groups joined hands and paused to experience the “energy” that many believe exists in the center of the Moray, tempted to join them but not wanting to intrude.
From the Moray we traveled to the ancient salt mines, the Maras. These snow white terraces are simply stunning, as they come into view on the road down to them. They have been continually mined for a thousand years, and were worked by the Inca. Saline water rises up from springs in the hillside and is directed to the many separate “ponds,” where workers rake the salt water and allow it to dry in the sun. Water is constantly repositioned by controlled channels and raked until it is ready for harvest. The work is hard, hot, and filled with drudgery. As we watched an older women rake the minerals and dig, I felt a terrible sense of conflict: bringing our tourist dollars to the people, on a tour that someone else planned, but watching these people do arduous work that they undoubtedly don’t enjoy. This Maras is a cooperative and is farmed and shared by anyone who wants to do the work. Many vendors then sell their products on the way in and out of the “mines.” We sampled the many forms of dried corn and fava beans (my favorite!) and all the various salts they produce, and I purchased seasoned salt, simple white salt and snacks, but I was glad to leave the site. (Scenes from the Maras, salt mines: hard work and stark beauty)
We all met up a popular restaurant on the way to Pisac ruins, Manuel refusing to accept that we didn’t want to eat at tourist spots. “This is very popular, no?” (Our point exactly.) The food was in fact great. After lunch I did puzzles with some Peruvian children and Middle Man played soccer with some young boys. Then we headed out to yet another Inca ruin, Pisac. More steps, many more steps! The ruins are set high above the Pisac market, perched on the hillside. Views to an amazing fortress built into the cliff face on the other side of the valley, the bull ring in Pisac, and the simpler but still amazing ruins of Pisac. Seeing the ingenuity of the construction of the complex, Middle Man and I argued as to why a people who could build such a place could then be wiped out by barely 300 Spaniards. Pisac is in fact one of the only places where the Inca defeated the Spanish, initially. They dropped rocks on them (hmm, why didn’t they do that a lot more?), actually redirected a river to drown the horses and men as they gathered at the bottom of the hill (astounding!), and used superior military strategy. Huge slabs of stone amazed us. As we walked the steps and complexes, we were all as amazed as we had been at Machu Picchu. (Pisca ruins)
The next day, our final day in the Sacred Valley, we visited the challenging trails of Ollantaytambo (Oyan-tye-tambo). Perched high above the small town of the same name, it is a restored and some original ruin of an extensive Inca settlement. Narrow pathways link sections of the complex, along cliffs and terraced areas. An ancient bath still holds water, a sun temple remains intact and stunning, a tunnel through the mountain where one part of the path links to another, were all incredible. It went on and on! When we were done, admittedly getting tired of Inca ruins (no matter how impressive), we went to the market place and we had an opportunity to buy some local items that the Quechua make and sell. (More rustic Inca dwellings, constantly going up or down, and Smart Guy would have been a very tall Inca-passing through a tunnel section of trial)
I bargained for a hand woven alpaca wall hanging, and we bought traditional Peruvian caps as gifts. Small Quechua children dressed in costumes and carrying baby lambs or goats vie for a few sole to pose for photos, as we walked among the stalls. The colors and smells of the market were my favorite part of the day. We visited a local baker, whose huge outdoor oven is wood fired, and were able to sample fresh, hot empanadas and see the cuy (guinea pigs), who would later end up on other tourist’s plates. We skipped that one. And finally, finally, we ate at a small local restaurant where there were no other tourists. No one spoke English, and I ordered the daily special… which turned out to be cow stomach. Ok, authentic experience that I would not necessarily repeat, but glad we insisted that Manuel take us there, no? (Scenes from the market: One happy kitty, baker and dried grains)
At the end of the day, we headed back to Cuzco for our final day of site seeing and Edgard’s wedding. In the next post, an authentic Peruvian wedding and a sensory filled day at the local market.
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