Sacred Valley, Peru

Sacred Valley, Peru

6:30 AM wake up to meet our guides and head through the Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu! We hopped into our van with our guide, took a treacherous ride with crazy traffic through winding hills and, somehow, didn’t topple off one of the hairpin turns to our death. We were all very relieved when we made it to the various stops along the way!

Our first stop was at the Awana Kancha alpaca & llama farm to see the various types of indigenous animals. Apparently, there is a certain type of llama that gets so frightened when people approach, it is likely to have a heart attack and die! Talk about a poor fear reflex!

There were also native women weaving alpaca wool blankets and clothing in beautifully Peruvian patterns and, of course, all of their items were on sale in the gift shop at the end of our tour.

We then headed to a terraced, ancient city, atop mountains overlooking the Sacred Valley. The views from the city were astonishing and, though the air was thin, we were able to hike up to the top of the city.

Thankfully, we arrived early in the morning and there were only a few other people hiking the city while we were there. As we were leaving, we passed masses of tourist buses and huge groups that were about to climb up. Our driver had quite a time getting back down the narrow road past the big  buses – literally only an inch or two between us on either side! For almost all tours, it is worth getting up early to beat the crowds.

My dad and I looking over the Sacred Valley on the way to Machu Picchu, Peru

Along the drive to the next spot, we saw tons of stray dogs, cows, pigs, and kids running in and out of the streets. There were huge fields of quinoa and tarps lining the side of the road with huge corn kernels laying out to dry.

We were getting hungry on our road trip, so we stopped at a market. There was a silver factory there with a huge fire pit at the back for making empanadas. The store had guinea pig empanadas which I was going to try, but there was a cage with baby and adult guinea pigs right next to the fire pit and we couldn’t bring ourselves to eat one. Instead, we had a delicious chicken empanadas and bought some jewelry in the store.

Our empanadas were not enough to hold us over, so we headed to the Tunupa Sacred Valley  restaurant. There was a beautiful garden entrance with parakeets and other exotic birds. Inside, it was so packed with people through the buffet lines. After we ate, my sister, Ryan, and I went into the back garden to explore and make friends with some testy lamas. They give us the stink eye but I think we got through to them eventually!

Once we were shopped out and our stomaches were fully, we took off to Ollantaytambo, the town home to the train station. The town was surrounded by amazing fortress ruins and a temple for Sun God worship. We walked up 210 large stone steps to the top of ruins where there were 40+ ton rocks used to make the buildings. The crazy thing is, the huge rocks up at the top of the ruins were actually mined from the mountain across the valley. The Inca would mine the boulders from the top of the other mountain, push the boulders so they toppled down the mountain, and then, somehow, lug them back up to the top of other mountains to build their buildings. All of that at an average male height of 5’2!

After admiring the view for about 30 minutes, we had to catch the train. Our guide dropped us off and we almost took off in the wrong direction. Thankfully, she ran after us and pointed us the right way.

The views from the train were amazing, especially because there were windows from our seats to the ceiling and the over the ceiling, and it didn’t take long (1.5 hours) before we arrived at the Machupicchu Pueblo, the town below Machu Picchu!

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Cusco Day 2, Peru

Cusco Day 2, Peru

At 8:30 AM sharp, we were dressed and ready to meet our guide, Lizbeth, for our Cusco city tour! We walked down the street from our hotel to the chapel which used to be the main Inca residence in Cusco. You can see where the Spanish ruins stop and in Incan stones remain. The Incas figured out how to build huge structures out of massive lego-like boulders that are so earthquake-proof they still stand today, despite huge tremors. You can see the amazing architecture throughout Peru thanks to one great emperor who, with the help of his offspring, conquered most of the western coast of South America in just 100 years by using a trail system to create easier transit of resources and communication. A majority of these trails still stand and are used today and the technology was so confounding to the Spaniards that the Spanish conquistadors thought the ruins had to have been built by Gods!

We then walked to the Cathedral of Santo Domingo and I was quite surprised at how massive it was inside. It definitely does not look as large as it is from the outside. There were tons of murals inside but, unfortunately, many of them were deteriorating with time. We got to talking to our guide about the locals and apparently most natives in Cusco only may $3K per year!

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After the church tour, we hopped in the tour van and took off to the Inca ruins in the highlands at Sacsayhuaman (or Sexaay woman). We walked up to this beautifully green expanse of land with llamas and alpacas roaming through giant ruins of rocks that weigh up to 40 tons! I could have spent all day there, but we had to move onto the Maze ruins consisting of giant boulders that formed a cave where Incans used to perform burial rituals and mummification. Again, a super cool view and awesome history.

After our tour, we were dropped off in the main square where we found an Italian-ish restaurant for lunch. I had some lasagna to carbo-load for our shopping trip after. We went through the arts district and walked and shopped for two hours or so before some thunder told us to head to our next destination – an under-ground Museo de sitio del Qoricancha! The walk was long and the storm caught up with us about 200 yards from the entrance to the museum and we got soaked as we didn’t have umbrellas! It started to hail right as we closed the door. The museum was a little small but they had some beautiful jewelry and pottery and scary looking mummies which were cool.

By the time we finished at the museum, we were incredibly tired, so we ran through the rain back to our hotel for nap time. With some new energy, we took off to another museum in a small square up the street, but it was closed by the time we got there. We explored the cobbled streets, walked past the local kids playing soccer, back through the main square, up to a little restaurant called Cicciolina in the arts district. We had some amazing drinks, appetizers, a sweet potato gnocchi that would make anyones mouth water to try. The food in Peru can’t be beat and, if you are looking for a place in Cusco, you must try Cicciolina!

After dinner, we walked home to rest up for the next day’s journey to Machu Picchu!

Cusco tips:

  • Pack an umbrella as the weather shifts quickly.
  • While the days are nice and sunny, the temperature at night drops into the 30s, so pack warm.
  • Do all of your market shopping from Cusco and into Machu Picchu. The goods change as you make your way and there are great deals to be haggled!
  • Have dinner at Cicciolina!
  • Drink the tea in your hotels often as it really helps with the acclimatization.
  • Wear a hat, sun glasses, and lots of sunscreen since the higher altitude lets the sun effect your skin much more than usual.

Cusco, Peru

Cusco, Peru

Day three marked our second flight during the trip from Lima to Cusco. Cusco is in the mountain region of in-land Peru and it takes about an hour by tiny plane to get there. We had a quick breakfast and met our driver around 8 AM to head to the airport. Driving in Peru is an experience in itself as basically all traffic signals, aka stop signs, lights, yield signs, are merely suggestions. We were in 4 near death situations just on the drive to the airport. Eeek! Thankfully, we arrived in one piece, made our flight, and arrived in Cusco around 12:30 PM.

Our next tour guide, Julio, met us at their airport for our bus transport to the hotel in the upper section of Cusco. The ride was really interesting as Julio explained the local housing structure. Since Cusco has become a more popular tour destination, the cost of living has grown substantially. The locals make very little money and cannot afford to buy fully completed houses, thus, most of the houses in Peru are works-in-progress. There is a bottom floor, and sometimes a second or third floor, in each concrete structure, with metal framing wires sticking out of the roofs that were the hight of another floor. The families typically share the buildings with their siblings and add floors when they can afford it. It really made me feel blessed and thankful to have what I have.

Anyways… we were dropped off at the Hotel San Agustin – a beautiful hotel with a huge atrium and very comfortable rooms. The staff gave us some tea to help with the 11K altitude acclamation before we took off to explore the large square up the street known as the Plaza de Armas. The cobble stone square has an amazing fountain in the middle, is surrounded by shops and cathedrals, and has these adorable little old Incan ladies in traditional garb with baby lambs and alpacas. I couldn’t help by take a photo with one of them.

Plaza de Armas, Cusco Peru

We found a great modern burger place with a Peruvian twist called Papacho’s on the border of the square. It not only had a fantastic view, but the best onion rings we have ever had! In addition to the memorable onion rings, I enjoyed a veal sandwich and took a bite of my father’s alpaca burger – yum! Within a non-bug, reasonable scope, I always try to local food as you never know what deliciousness will surprise you.

With so much food in our stomaches, we took off walking to an alleyway off from the square where most of the local markets were. It was actually quite cold in Cusco, more in the 50’s rather than the 70 degree weather in Lima, so, in addition to gifts for friends and family, we stocked up on scarves, jackets, and gloves. You will probably notice my warm, new, knitted, and somewhat alpaca fashion moving forward in my future Peru posts. I say “somewhat alpaca” because the market sellers claimed their products were 100% alpaca wool but, considering the price and the fact the some of the labels read “30% alpaca”, I was skeptical. All of the items we bought were very haggle-able and we bought most things for $5-$10 USD – some great deals!

After an hour or two of shopping, we walked back to the hotel for a quick nap before our evening plans. The altitude and 7 AM wake-ups really take it out of you! We had reservations at Tunupa, a buffet restaurant in the main square with a traditional Cusco dance show. The buffet was full of ceviche and other traditional Peruvian dishes that were all quite tasty. On top of that, we had some Pisco Sours to lighten the mood and get us ready for the craziness to come.

The band was made up of a singer and two instrumentalists and there were two female and two male dancers. The dancers would dance a traditional piece for a song, run back and change, and then dance in a different style. They did this 6 or 7 times and got the crowd up and about to dance as well. It was a roaringly fun time, especially since they played a catchy song called “Pacha Mama” or “Mother Earth”, which we thought said “Punch your mama”, that we kept singing all night long. My mama loved it so much she bought the CD…

With warnings of the sun’s face-scorching capabilities in the thin Cusco air, we stopped to get some colorful hats for the next day’s ruin tours. My sister and boyfriend came to the conclusion that I look funny in hats, a fact I’ve come to accept over many years of trying, so naturally I bought the brightest hat I could find just for fun! With hats in tow, we walked around the square and admired the city lights before heading to the hotel for much-needed sleep.

Plaza de Armas, Cusco Peru