Today was our first tour day with our guide Leo. He met us promptly at the hotel at 8:30 AM. We were the only two on the tour as it is low season here. Less crowds, more for us to enjoy and individualized service. Perfect!
We drove for about 1.5 hours out of Cusco climbing us hills and then descending them. I believe we got up to 3700m in the automobile which was good for our acclimatization. On the way we passed through Chinchero, which comprises of mainly mud brick (adobe) houses, and, where locals go about their business in traditional dress. The town’s main square has some unique features such as a characteristic Inca wall with its massive trapezoidal niches. The nearby colonial church has a very interesting, intricate interior, with Cusco School-style paintings covering a large part of its walls. We then proceeded in our journey towards the Sacred Valley which is like an Andean Eden. Every bend of the road is a true revelation, a surprise. The deep blue skies act like a framework for the amazingly beautiful landscapes below. Snowy peaks look down, here and there, onto the lower slopes fashioned into agricultural terraces by long gone civilizations, but still used by the contemporary Quechua speaking farmers. The bottom of the valley is lush and green, in contrast to the drier, more barren higher altitudes where cacti dominate. Small, historical towns and villages with traditional colonial architecture and Inca ruins dot the banks of the River Urubamba. The sound of the river cutting through the stony ground is deeply relaxing.
Our initial stop was at the town of Ollantaytambo, which boasts an impressive archaeological site and well preserved Inca town structure. This was the estate of Emperor Pachacutec who conquered the region, built the town and the ceremonial center. Ollantaytambo dates from the late 15th century and has some of the oldest continuously occupied dwellings in South America. Overlooking the town is the archaeological complex, a ceremonial center built by the Incas on a steep hill. After all of our sitting we certainly felt the initial steps up the steep incline. The awe-inspiring views helped to compensate our laboured breathing. The intricacies of the stone structures was truly amazing. It is still not truly known how such massive stones were moved from across the valley where the quarry was located.
We then proceeded towards our lunch spot. However- prior to this along the road- we had noted red plastic bags hanging from elongated wooden poles along the side of the street. Our guide told us that these represented locations where a local corn liquor Chicha was made and was available for sale. We stopped at one of these locations in a small village that translates as “black underwear” (don’t ask) and where we were given an education about Chicha by Leo. He called it a “social drink” because it only contained between 2 to 3% alcohol. This apparently allowed the locals to have rational conversations during social gatherings. The variety of corns that were available locally was truly amazing.
Our lunch spot was located in an idyllic location on absolutely beautiful grounds. Apparently a French woman had moved to the area over 20 years ago and decided to build a relaxing spa and hotel called Sol & Luna Lodge and Spa. As always, we were fortunate it was low season as we were the only guests for lunch. The grounds were filled with absolutely beautiful flowers and individual small cabins were available to rent. The facilities were first rate. We could certainly see coming back here if we wanted to achieve utter and complete relaxation. The lunch was actually locally sourced cuisine which we consumed greedily. Much fancier than we expected.
Back into the van we went. We then continued to drive for approximately 1.5 hours in order to get to our next destination. This was an active archaeological dig site located just outside the town of Pisac. We climbed in the van back up to an elevation of approximately 3500m. We walked the rest of the way to a ceremonial digging that had absolutely stunning views of the surrounding mountains. It boggles the mind as to how the Incas were able to construct such complex stone structures on such steep slopes. On the way back down from the structures we passed several schoolchildren who were walking home from the local public school located in a small village before the park gates. They lived in a small village that was located above the highest point of the archaeological dig site. This means they have to climb approximately 600-800 m to get back home. Amazing!
We then proceeded back into the town of Pisac, by the banks of the Urubamba River. and were dropped off at a local market to browse. Anna was not feeling the love and didn’t end up purchasing anything. During our tour of the market we were approached by a very cute local boy who asked us where we were from and then proceeded to tell us 5 factual pieces of information about our country. Of course, there was a catch. He then proceeded to offer us the sale of some small circular structures that you could blow into to produce a whistling sound. We had a good chuckle. We didn’t end up purchasing anything from him. However he continued to stalk us for the remainder of our tour of the market. We were sure he would grow up to be a very enterprising businessman in the future.
The road back to Cusco was much shorter as we took an alternative route back. Along the way, we passed another archaeological dig site that we would be visiting Friday. There was a beautiful statue which was quite large of a white coloured Jesus that is apparently lit in the evenings and is viewable from the town of Cusco. It stands as a sentinel over the city. Catholicism is the major religion of the local people.
We definitely had time to speak to our guide about our shopping needs on the way back. He informed us that it was best to purchase any of the local items through one of five factories in Cusco. A very helpful saleswoman named Elizabeth [who is now Anna’s best friend] instructed us in how to determine if an alpaca product was real or synthetic acrylic. You definitely can tell the difference. We will be returning and I am sure major damage will be done.
After refreshing ourselves back at the hotel we went back into Cusco for our dinner meal. The restaurant was recommended by our friends Anita and Greg and was called Cicciolina’s. One of the main reasons to come to this restaurant was to have guinea pig. It is served as a confit instead of roasted whole on a skewer which didn’t seem as appetizing. It was interesting. Our waiter was a very suave gentleman who kept saying yes in that Spanish way that adds the consonant d in front of yes that makes that word sound so sexy [at least, according to Anna]. We had a lovely walk in the cool night air and retired back to our hotel for a nightcap and succumbed to the deepening night.
Our next day’s tour is going to be more active and is going to take us to the salt mines of Moray. I promise, forced labor is not required…. I think!