Ahoy from the Sacred Valley of Peru!
When you last heard from us we were at Lake Titicaca where both of us had come down with food poisoning. In reality we don't know if it was food poisoning or altitude sickness, but based upon the symptoms, we're guessing the former. Sue was on the mend and after sleeping for 15 hours, I was able to get myself up and moving the next day. Luckily the next day we were scheduled for a 10+ hour train ride, giving us time to recover.
Bright and early we boarded the Andian Explorer for a 242 mile (390 km) journey from Puno to Cusco. The Andian Explorer was unlike any train that I had ever been on and recently won the title of "South America's best luxury train" and we can see why. The seating was wonderful and was like something that you'd see in an old movie and the food was even good too, which made the long train ride quite enjoyable.
The train ride itself was great as we travelled though miles and miles of valleys which were surrounded by beautiful mountain ranges. We also passed through the occasional town, getting glimpses of markets and daily life through the back yards of people's homes. The observation car at the back of the train provide panoramic views of the area and you could even lean out of the back to get shots like the one to the right. We stopped at one market to give people yet another chance to buy textiles and local crafts and onboard we were provided entertainment in the form of musical groups, fashion shows and we even had a demonstration on how to make the national drink, the Pisco Sour. I must admit that I was quite tired and spent a lot of time just relaxing and trying to recover.
At around 6:30 PM we pulled into the station in Cusco, which is at 11,400' (3,400m) and is lower than Puno's altitude, but you're still way up there. Our guide met us and took us to our hotel where we both had 1/2 a bowl of chicken soup and went to bed. The next day we were feeling somewhat better and set off to explore the Sacred Valley.
Cusco was the capital of the Inca empire and the Sacred Valley was considered to be the heartland of the empire, containing many very important sites and temples. We spent over a week in Cusco and the surrounding area and I won't begin to try to show you all of the things that we saw/did, but I'll try to hit on some of the key sites that we visited.
First off, Cusco is a large city with a population of over half a million people. Many of the buildings and streets were are from the Inca empire (13th century-1532), which is wonderful from a historical perspective, but it's a traffic nightmare with lots of narrow, steep one-way streets. I was very glad that we had a driver who knew how to get around, as I would have been completely lost had I tried to drive on my own. I was very happy that we were staying right downtown by the Plaza de Armas and were able to explore the area by foot.
One of my favorite days was when we visited a small village on the shores of lake Piuray where the ladies of the village demonstrated how they made their textiles. They showed us how they sheer the wool from Alpaca sheep and then wash it using a detergent which they ground from a root plant. They then showed us how they died it using natural products and then spun it, by hand, into thread which they would weave into beautiful products. For example, the green leaves that the woman on the left is holding was used to create the green thread shown in the fabric that she's holding. The red comes from substance in the bowl on the ground and by adding lemon juice to that, they get an orange color.
We ended up buying a runner for a table for about $80 which had to have taken days and days of labor to produce. Before seeing this I had never guessed that they produced everything to make their textiles. Just look a the vibrancy and the range of colors that they produce. This was absolutely amazing!
That same day we visited the Salt Pans of Maras, which were unlike anything that I have ever seen before. There's a hot spring which emerges high up on a hill which contains highly salty water. This stream is directed, through a series of tiny channels, into hundreds of terraced pools where the water evaporates and then salt is extracted. Each of these pools is owned and harvested by individual owners. Depending upon the skill of the owner, different shades and quality of salt can be produced. This system has been in place since Inca times and it's really quite the visual feast! Check out the photo album for more images.
The Incas were amazing engineers as shown by their agricultural area at Moray. This was a test bed where they raised various crops at different altitudes within 3 massive circular bowls which were carved into natural depressions. According to what I've read, these bowls are about 100' (30m) deep and the temperature can vary up 15-20°C (27-36°F) between the warmest area at the bottom of the bowl and the colder high levels which reproduces more than 20 ecological climates. It is truly astonishing to contemplate the incredible amount of material which had to be moved by hand to create these structures. And remember, they didn't have horses!
You can see the use of their
terraced agricultural systems everywhere. The photo to the left is at
Pisac and the scale of this site is very hard to convey. However, if you
look just right of center at the top of the photo, you'll see a fairly
large village with about 30 buildings perched atop of the hill, which
may give you some sense of scale. If you view the photo album on my web site, this will be much more
The image to the right is at Ollantaytambo, which is about 60 km (36 miles) NW of Cusco. Once again you can see the terraces which were use to turn unusable land into productive agricultural areas. Ollantaytambo was actually the personal estate of of one of the Inca rulers. The magnitude of the construction is amazing, considering that the stone to build these structures was quarried about 5 km (3 miles) away from the main site and had to be hauled up these steep mountains.
Other than touring Inca ruins, we also took some time to do some unique things. For example, we had a cooking class at Marcelo Batata, which is one of the better restaurants in Cusco. There we learned about Peruvian ingredients, local products, Peruvian cuisine, how the Peruvians eat, what Peruvians eat, etc. We got to try all kinds of native fruits that we probably never would have tasted on our own and then we learned how to make a ‘causa’, which is a typical Peruvian dish made from a base of mashed potato mixed with yellow aji (Peruvian yellow chilli pepper) topped with avocado, egg and chicken. After a Pisco tasting, we made a very typical dish known as ‘lomo saltado’, which is basically a stir-fry using alpaca meat. Finally we got to taste our creations which were followed by an amazing spread of chocolates prepared just for us by our instructor. Wonderful!
Another of the other more unique things that we did was to go horseback riding on Peruvian Fine-Step horses which are known for their smooth gait and friendly disposition. That was good for me, as I'm not a horse person, but Sue was in her element as she used to own a horse. Being on horseback provided a very unique view of the countryside and the small villages that we rode through. It was nice to see how welcoming the people were, even as we wandered past their backyards. I think that everyone understands how important tourism is to Peru.
In all we spent over a week in the Cusco/Sacred Valley area and it was probably our favorite area of the entire trip. One can very much understand why this was such an important area to the Incas. If we returned, we would spend more time in this area.
My photos of this area are broken up into 5 albums: Puno to Cusco via Andian Explorer, Cusco, Sacred Valley, Sacred Valley on Horseback, Weaving at the small village plus Moray and Salt Pans of Maras.
-- Geoff & Sue
Notes for the traveller:
We spent our first night in Cusco at the Maytaq Wasin Boutique Hotel, which we didn't like at all. The rooms were sterile and had no external windows (some rooms have no windows) and had very hard beds. We moved to the Casa San Blas which was only a few blocks off the main square and really enjoyed the room and the area.
Speaking of rooms, one of our favorite rooms was at the Sonesta Posadas Del Inca Yucay (shown on the left) which is in the middle of the Sacred Valley between Pisaq and Ollytaytambo in the town of Urubamba. The grounds were beautiful and the room was extremely comfortable.
A special thanks to our guide Romero, who did an amazing job of conveying the Inca culture and imparting his extensive knowledge. Our driver, Momerto, did a great job of getting us to our locations and avoiding traffic jams.
Before we left we had obtained prescriptions for drugs to help combat altitude sickness, as it can be very disabling. Sue had received Acetazolamide, which is a very standard prescription for this, and I had received Nifedipine, which also can be used for this purpose. Unfortunately the Nifedipine was giving me slight vertigo, so I had stopped taking it when we were in Arequipa. Being uncertain as to what was causing our symptoms, I switched over to the Acetazolamide. I didn't like the Acetazolamide as it gave me tingling in my fingers and feet and it made my nose feel numb. I suffered much worse altitude issues than Sue did. I would wake up during the night feeling like I couldn't breath. As soon as I would start to fall back asleep I would wake up again with the same feeling. Believe me, you don't sleep well when you're experiencing this, and I couldn't wait to get down to a lower altitude.
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