Peru: Part I

Posted on 28/04/2013


It’s been almost a month since we took are Holy Week (semana santa) trip to the Sacred Valley & Cusco in Perú. It was a trip packed with exciting sites, new experiences, and amazing food and drinks! Because there is so much to tell, I am going to break the trip in two posts. The first post will focus on our time in the Sacred Valley towns and the second post will focus on our time in Cusco. I hope these posts will both infect those of you who have left Perú off your travel destination list a hankering for traveling to Perú as well as give those of you planning to travel to Perú some ideas on what you might like to do there based on our experiences. So, let’s talk about the Sacred Valley.

photo-2(arriving at the Cusco airport, waiting for our taxi)

It’s not wonder this area is called the Sacred Valley–the landscapes themselves look like something hand painted by the Incan gods. Made up of several small towns, the Sacred Valley is a wonderful area to spend some time in. We already knew we wanted to spend time in the Sacred Valley, but our decision to start our time journey in the Sacred Valley was based on many recommendations concerning altitude and altitude sickness. While Cusco is at a very high altitude (3,400 metres/11,200 ft above sea level), most of the Sacred Valley is more bearable for those of us living in and traveling from sea level–Barranquilla, Colombia has an altitude of 31 metres/102 ft above sea level. The town we spent most of our time in within the Sacred Valley was the Incan town of Ollantaytambo, with an altitude of 2,792 metres/9,160 ft above sea level. Having lived in Bogotá, Colombia, a city with an altitude of 2,625 metres/8,612 ft, we figured we would start some where of similar altitude to help avoid altitude sickness and give us time to better acclimate.

photo 1-3(first view of Sacred Valley from the taxi)

So, Day 1 consisted of a 7:15am arrival to Cusco after an overnight flight Barranquilla-Bogotá-Lima-Cusco. Although exhausted, the excitement of having finally arrived in combination with the coca sweets we began eating helped us stay awake long enough to make it to our hostel in Ollantaytambo. To get to Ollantaytambo, we’d organized a taxi pick up through our hostel, Hostal Iskay. Ollantaytambo lies an hour and 45 min. away from Cusco. However, the landscape was so beautiful it was hard to remember how tired we were during the drive.

However, when we arrived to our hostel, the full effect of an overnight flight settled in and sent us straight in for a monumental 3.5 hour nap. Having already decided to take it easy on our first day, we woke up and went in search of something to eat. Our hunger limited our ability to really scope out a good place to eat, and we ended up paying more than we should have for a bowl of quinoa soup. After eating we headed to a small museum I’d read about online called the BioMuseo. We didn’t really know what to expect, other than to learn about some of the plants and nature-life in the Sacred Valley. Well worth the visit, the BioMuseo is a very small museum that, through different plants (flowers, vegetables, etc…) explains the connection between nature and the Incan beliefs about after-life and offerings to the gods. If you’re interested in seeing both the variety of foods grown in Peru and learning about their connection to the Incan beliefs such as pachamama, you should definitely visit the BioMuseo.

photo 3-4(streets of Ollantaytambo)

When we finished  we headed to the main plaza in Ollantaytambo to ask about transportation to the market town of Pisac/Pisaq the next day, Sunday. While you can take local buses, the police offer we asked recommended we hire a taxi as the local buses can take quite a long time. He told us to come back in the morning and there would be taxi drivers in the plaza waiting to be hired. With our transport figured out, we headed to small sandwich shop called La Esquina before turning in for the evening. Although sandwiches are not necessarily a traditional Peruvian food, the gourmet touch La Esquina gives to their sandwiches and the incredible hospitality makes this little corner sandwich shop a wonderful place to eat. And, if you need a packed lunch for a day trip, such as Machu Picchu, these guys can really hook you up!

photo 3-3(main plaza in Ollantaytambo)

On Day 2 in the Sacred Valley consisted of a day trip to two other towns in the Sacred Valley–Maras and Pisac/Pisaq. As recommended, we hired a taxi in the main plaza around 8:30am and got a bargain of a price: 120 soles for the entire day, including wait time while we explored. Our taxi drivers name was Rodolfo and he is highly recommended. His cell phone number is 993094332 should you want to hire him in advance.

With Rodolfo, we first set off to explore the incredible salt flats in Maras. This place was amazing. From what we understood, these salt flats located in the crevice between two “mountains” formed because of an underground water source that happens to reach the surface in this area. The water is EXTREMELY salty (I should know, I dipped my finger in and had a taste), and because it travel through a unique clay/dirt composition, the salt it leaves behind once evaporated has a slight pink tint to it. You can basically walk around as much as you want in the salt flats, but be careful as some parts are narrow. And, if you go when the flats are filled with water, you can’t walk as far as you can in June and July when the water has evaporated. Regardless, it’s worth the 7 soles entrance fee.

photo 4-3(view of the salt flats in Maras from above)

photo 5-2(me and Ele exploring the salt flats)

After our walk around the salt flats, we headed to the market town of Pisaq. On our way, we complained a bit to Rodolfo about how hard it was in Ollantaytambo to find traditional Peruvian food. He was quick to tell us that the road side stands we were passing normally had very traditional food, especially on Sundays. As he was telling us this, we asked him to pick out a good one for us to have a bite to eat. Boy, did he pick a good one! We had some delicious Peruvian corn, which, by the way, has the biggest kernals I’ve ever seen before, and we got to try roasted hen and two different types of homemade chicha (fermented drinks made from either maize/corn or other regional fruits), strawberry and maize. We also saw our first cuys (guinea pigs) roasting, but decided against trying it as it was exceptionally expensive (45 soles).

photo 2-2(having our roadside lunch)photo 3-2(the giant corn)

Once in Pisaq, we headed around town to check out the market. Little did we know, the market basically sprawled the entire town. There was no where we walked that wasn’t inundated with market stalls. If you are looking for gifts or souvenirs to take back with you, this is the place to do your shopping. You’ll have to do some bargaining, though, and never except the first price the vendors give you. Typically, they’ll give you the highest price, but through bargaining you’ll be able to get a more reasonable price.

photo 4-2(market in Pisac)

photo 5-1(Palm Sunday procession in Pisac)

While we found the market neat, after a few hours we decided to find a place to have a nice “snack.” Luckily, we found an incredible restaurant in the main plaza with balcony seating called Cuchara de Palo. While we enjoyed some limonadas de muña (limeades made with a native herb similar to mint), we looked out over the plaza and the local ruins in the distance. It was as this restaurant that we were able to try the famous papa a la huacaína–potatoes covered in a yellow peanut and ají based sauce. They were delicious!!! We also tried a local flavor of ice cream, lukuma, over a brownie. Everything was delicious–You won’t regret a visit to this restaurant.

photo 2-3(souvenirs in Pisac)

photo 1-5(papa a la huacaína at Cuchara de Palo, Pisac)

With fully bellies and our market purchases in stow, we headed out to find Rodolfo and start our journey back to Ollantaytambo. Tired from the days adventures, we found a quick dinner in the plaza in Ollantaytambo and headed to bed.

Day 3 we dedicated to Ollantaytambo, said to be the only “living Incan” city left. We started our day with the impressive Incan ruins of Ollantaytambo. In hind site, it would have been good to pay a guide to accompany us up the mountain side and throughout the ruins, as they are no signs or plaques explaining anything. Instead, we hiked the ruins alone, sometimes sticking close to a few tour groups and eavesdropping to hear the explanations and histories being told by their guides 😉 Regardless, the ruins were worth the hike. You not only get to see the ruins up close, but you also get to take in the majestic view of Ollantaytambo from above. I think the most incredible part of these ruins is the amazing water/canal system the Incas created. The canal system begins in the ruins, but continues all throughout Ollantaytambo as well. I’ve never seen anything like it. I think it was in admiring their handiwork with the canal system that I truly began to realize just how impressive the Incan civilization was.

photo 1-6(a small canal/fountain in the ruins in Ollantaytambo)

After an exhausting climb up and down the ruins, we had a quick lunch in the plaza and took an afternoon stroll around the town. Because the town was originally constructed by the Incas, the majority of the structures are either Inca-constructed or constructed on top of Incan stone bases. Wherever you look as you are walking, you are almost always looking at Inca handiwork–whether it be the cobblestone paths, the underground water system, or the enormous stone foundations of the houses and buildings around the town. All of these aspects give Ollantaytambo an aire that makes you feel as if you really have been transported to a different time… You’ll frequently hear Quechua being spoken, sometimes more than Spanish, you’ll see people in traditional clothing, and you’ll likely observe people taking part in traditions passed down from many centuries ago.

photo-1(entrance to the ruins in Ollantaytambo)

Once we were content with our stroll, we went to La Esquina to pick up a packed lunch for our trip to Machu Picchu the next day. With our lunches made and packed, we went back to our hostel to ready our backpacks for the next day’s adventure: Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu. Knowing we had to be at the train station at 4:15am, we turned in early around 9pm.

photo 5-3(at the ruins in Ollantaytambo)

Day 4 started extremely early for me. I woke up around 1am with an intense stomach ache that quickly turned into constant vomiting and diarrhea accompanied by a headache so strong I thought my head would explode. At first, I thought it was food poisoning. Then, I quickly realized it was much worse–it was altitude sickness. By the time 3:30am rolled around, I was unable to move from the bed. I began to sadly realize that my dream of going of Machu Picchu was not going to happen on this trip. I urged my partner Ele to go without me as we’d already paid for the trip and entrance tickets, and it wasn’t really fair to ask her to stay with me and miss out on this adventure. As she headed to the train station, I crawled back in bed, where I remained for the entirety of Day 4 in the Sacred Valley.

photo 4-4(Ele at Machu Picchu)

Day 5 marked the end of our time in the Sacred Valley and the beginning of our time in Cusco. Upon waking up, I made the very conscious decision that missing Machu Picchu would NOT ruin the rest of my time in Perú. Was I sad? Yes. Did I maybe regret not taking altitude sickness pills earlier? Yes. Was I going to mop about it the rest of the trip? NO! So, around 10:30am, still feeling the effects of altitude sickness, we called Rodolfo who’d agreed to take us to Cusco for 60 soles. He picked us up at hostel and we officially said goodbye to the Sacred Valley…

Until next time,