Destination: Sacred Valley of the Incas
Where we stayed: We stayed one night in Urumbamba at Hostal Los Geranios for $25/night and two nights in Ollyantantambo at Hostal Las Orquídeas for $35/night with breakfasts. I would definitely recommend both establishments!
Best restaurant: The chocolate cake at the Pisac market ($.50/slice) was phenomenal, it was even better than the chocolate cake at Nona's in Denver ($5/slice); Pizza Zuni had excellent pizza in Urumbamba
Best of: Entertaining bus rides and the well preserved ruins of Ollyantantambo
Worst of: Broken down buses, having aguardiente dumped on us
After spending the week relaxing and getting acclimatized to the higher altitude in Cusco, it was time for a little adventure. We backed a couple of day bags for a 4 day journey through the Sacred Valley/Machu Picchu.
The Sacred Valley lies down the hill from Cusco in a fertile valley that not only provides stunning backdrops but most of the corn and other crops of the region as well. The valley is dotted with several ancient Inca ruins serving as a good buildup to Machu Picchu. We started with Pisac for the first day; moved on to Moray, Maras and Chinchero the next; followed by Ollantaytambo on the third day.
We woke up bright and early and caught the local bus up to Pisac for the Sunday market. Hoping for something similar to Sapa in Vietnam, we were expecting hillside village people bringing all sorts of goods to market, enjoying all sorts of local foods and loads of character. While the market was nice, Sapa it was not. Lots more of the same stuff you find in the markets in Cusco, but with a few vegetables on the side. It did come to life after the tourists left as the locals celebrated their day of sales with loads of local foods a la chocolate cake, popcorn & donuts along with a bit of aguardiente!
After having our fill of souvenir stands we poked our head into one of the stands serving up Cuy, or the infamous Guinea Pig. Having already decided that a trip to Peru would not be complete without trying this local delicacy, we ordered our lunch compete with potatoes and...yep...corn. I can't say I would order it again, but it wasn't as bad as you might think. If you have had dove or a small gamey tasting bird, then that get's you in the ballpark. If that is also not on your taste radar, think dark meat turkey with a smokier flavor.
After our "filling" lunch, we hopped in a cab and went to the top of the hill for the Incan Citadel high above the village. The height provided some nice views of the valley and the well preserved ruins at the top were pretty nice also. We ended up taking the 2-3 hour walk down from the top which was a pleasant experience in itself passing by nice terraced farms and a waterfall.
After our walk down, we hopped on the local bus to Urubamba for the night. On our way we encountered an interesting character sitting across from us. Shortly after sitting down, he took a swig from what was left of a nearly finished bottle. After yelling at the driver for 10-15 minutes to get moving, he turned his attention to us and began to talk to us as if we could understand a word. Knowing a fair amount of Spanish at this point in our trip, we were surprised at how little we could understand...until we realized he was talking to us in Quechua, the local language. Jason was brave (or dumb, take your pick) enough to try his elixir, while Tracy ended up wearing a little of it when he decided to turn it upside down. After yelling several times what must have been curse words, the conductor had to come back to tell him to chill out. About halfway there, the bus broke down and we were refunded half the fare (1 soles; 25 cents). We all got out, some started to walk to the next town, while a few of us sat on the side of the road waiting for a ride. The drunk man refused to get off the defunct bus, kicking at anyone who tried to pry him out of the door. Eventually, a van came by and picked up the handful of us left on the side of the road (another 2 soles)...minus the drunk man who was still laying siege to the stranded bus. Once we got to the small town, we picked up the rest of the bus passengers. What was a standing room only bus, became a packed van. Normally, the van holds about 12 and our best count (we could not see everybody) was around 24 people, a sack of corn flour and one big bug buzzing around a small dim light.
After peeling off the van walls and checking into our hotel for the night, we headed into the town of Urubamba for a bite to eat. The local pizza joint, which looks as if it's seen a fair share of tourists, was surprisingly good.
The next morning we were met at the hotel by our taxi driver for the day. We had decided that it was too many logistical challenges to get around Moray, Maras, and Chinchero on our own and it worked out fairly well. We began the day in Chinchero, the "birthplace of the rainbow". With cobblestone streets and a beautiful church at the top of a pedestrian only hill, the small town had tons of charm. The views from the Inca ruins were breathtaking and the frescos painted on the walls of the church were impressive, nearly equaling those painted around the same time of the Renaissance happening across the pond.
We moved on to the crop circles of Moray next. No, aliens did not make these crop circles. The Incas were believed to have used these as some sort of experimental agricultural lab. They fed the circles water by a series of aqueducts which have since been closed off.
After climbing out of the circles of Moray, we headed over to Maras Salineras. Maras, also known as the salt mines, has been working since Inca times. Spread out over the side of the hill, thousands of these "pans" collect the salt that flows from a stream. The workers divert the salty stream, fill the pans and wait for the sun to evaporate the water. The whole process takes a long time and the results are about a ton of salt per month. We had the taxi drop us off at the top and then we walked down past the salt pans all the way to the river, a 1-2 hour walk.
The taxi driver picked us up at the bottom as promised and we were on our way to Ollyantantambo. On our way there, he took us by his home town to try some Chicha. Ok, so it was a little bit of a tourist trap, but it was fun anyways and we got a little education on how to make corn "beer". It cost us a whopping 10 soles (about $3.30...but a full glass of chicha is normally .70 centavos or $.20). We also had a chance to try Fruitilla Chicha, fermented corn drink with strawberries mixed in giving the mead like drink a sweet flavor. It was excellent!
After paying for our drink pitstop, we arrived in Ollyantambo the jumping off point for Machu Picchu. We had a late, late lunch at the Heart's Cafe with a couple of Germans who helped us get in touch with our artistic side by helping us color our own postcards!
The next day we spent touring the ruins above the town. These ruins were a military outpost and were the site of a rare loss during the Spanish conquest of the Incas. This was the sight of the last major battles between the Incas and the invading Spanish forces. After their eventual defeat here, the remaining Incas retreated into the jungles, but did so in a way that by passed Machu Picchu thus preserving it for the tourists to come 500 years later. I was amazed to learn that the Spanish had defeated the Incas with only 100 soldiers prior to being turned back here...momentarily at least. Their real strength lied in the ability to convert the local population to Christianity. The battles were mainly between converted "Peruvians" and the Incas.
After our morning on the ruins it was time for some lunch. The food at the local joint was so bad we ended up feeding this kid most of it, which he apparently liked. The real joy came in the free show that was going on in the square. I will let the picture do the talking, but, yes that is a monkey on dog on dog moment. Can't say you see that everyday!
With an early morning train ride, we decided to call it an early night in anticipation of the next day in Machu Picchu!